Winter Gardening

Winter Gardening

By Kim Cantrell of Little Bird Gardens

Rain or shine, Vashon is an island of garden enthusiasts passionate about our plants!
I love gazing out on my winter garden, especially when little birds flit around in search of seeds and insects, available in abundance, as so much of what I do in my garden accommodates these precious pollinators. My perennials are cut back in varying lengths to provide cavity-dwelling bees and beneficial insects a safe home to overwinter. My garden beds are covered with leaf mulch providing nutrients from my bare trees. And as the bulbs I planted last Fall start peeking out of the soil, I am filled with joy and a sense of satisfaction for the time and effort I put into my garden spaces before the first frost. These moments motivate me to keep going into my Winter Garden. Working in our Winter gardens supports the emergence of a healthy and lush Spring. There is still time to mulch, plant, and prune your garden to enhance its beauty, synergize it with our natural world, and prepare for the next season.

Mulching and Frost Protection
One task that is never too late to perform is mulching. Mulching increases soil fertility and helps to keep tender plants safe from freezing temperatures. If you have a lot of leaves, rake them up and cover your garden beds or use them to keep vulnerable plants warm. If you don’t have an abundance of leaves, you can cover tender plants with straw, fir boughs, frost cloth, or even an old sheet. Using frost protection increases the warmth of the air underneath and prevents more delicate plants from freezing. Frost often comes later in the season or right as our plant is going to bloom in early Spring. Even winter-hardy Camellias can benefit from the use of frost cloth protection. In addition, raking your leaves into small mounds or shredding for mulch layers throughout your garden creates natural habitats for small reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. The pupae of butterflies and moths will also use leaves for overwintering, as will swallowtail and other moth larvae. And birds will pilfer through the leaves in search of insects.

Yes, you can plant in the winter
We have all heard that Fall is the best time to plant. However, there is time for winter planting in Vashon (zone 8b). If it is mild enough, planting can happen. Winter is a great time to see where our gardens lack substance. If the ground isn’t frozen, get that plant into the dirt and add mulch for warmth. The plant will be much happier there than in a pot. Roots of trees need 4-6 weeks to get established. Since most plants are dormant during the Winter, they will have time to settle into their new growing space and are less likely to suffer from transplant shock due to the lack of water and high temperatures that happens with summer planting. When planting this time of year, you’ll want to consider plants that will withstand our winter temps (zone 8 or lower). Winter bloomers like Camillia, Hellebore, and Witch Hazel add interest to your winter garden, and will support our pollinators as Spring approaches. 
Winter Pruning

Winter is a great time to understand your deciduous trees or shrubs. With the leaves gone, you can see the plant’s structure and any problems that might need attending. I prune roses and fruit trees in early Winter, then move on to ornamentals when I know the danger of frost has passed. Pruning can be done any time of year, but I suggest avoiding extremes like freezing weather or intense heat. I do very little Fall pruning as most plants have been under stress from lack of water, and you don’t want to stimulate late-season growth. I am a colossal advocate for proper pruning. It requires finesse and accurate cuts that will keep your trees and shrubs looking their best natural selves and, more importantly, helps with keeping disease and pests at bay. In an ideal ‘plant world,’ your tree or shrub is planted in a suitable space needed to grow to its natural size, and no pruning is needed other than removing dead or broken limbs for the plant’s health. With correct pruning techniques, your trees and shrubs will require minimal cuts. And in some cases, the proper pruning early in a plant’s life makes less work overtime, every gardener’s dream. So before you go out with your brand-new cutting shears and start hacking away, ask an expert for advice!

Winter can be tough, but it is worth the effort to pull on your boots and rain gear and get outside. It’s good for the earth, our pollinators, and to me it’s good for the soul.

Kim Cantrell has been tending gardens on Vashon for 20 years and owns Little Bird Gardens located at The Country Store. Learn more at

December 16, 2022

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