Of course, with the weather getting cooler, green-thumb ambitions can be harder to satisfy. But that's no reason to put your happiness-boosting ambitions to bed until warmer weather times. Experts say gardening doesn’t have to stop during the winter and have tips to make it possible. “During the winter, you can extend your gardening season outside or grow things indoors,” says William James Lamont Jr., PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Science at The Pennsylvania State University. “In colonial times, people harvested root crops and survived on them in the wintertime,” he points out. “You can grow these ‘survivor vegetables’ outside and garden inside.”
That said, gardening in the winter can be trickier to pull off successfully than in during warmer months—especially if you’re still a horticulture newbie. Thankfully, gardening experts have tips to help you be successful in your winter gardening goals.
Horticulture experts share 6 winter gardening tips to keep things growing and happy all year long.
1. Choose the right plants
You can technically plant anything you want in the winter but, if you don’t live in a place with the right conditions, it’s not likely to survive long. If you’re interested in keeping an outdoor garden during the winter, the right plants for you to focus on “depend on where you live,” says Pamela J. Bennett, associate professor and state master gardener program director at The Ohio State University. If you live in a warmer southern state, you can probably grow plants like winter pansies and kale with no issue, she says. You can even grow those plants in the middle of the country, as long as temperatures don’t get too low, she says. “But, the farther north you go, the harder it can be to grow certain crops.” Dr. Lamont suggests planting hardy crops like kale, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and onions with the right tools (more on that in a moment).
Indoor gardens are bit more flexible to the elements, as long as you—again—have the right conditions, says S. Cory Tanner, horticulture program team director with Clemson Extension. “There are a couple of plants that are tried and true winners,” he says. Those include snake plants and ZZ plants which, he says, are “tough as nails" and are “really well-suited to indoor gardening.”
Still, Bennett says, “you can grow all sorts of plants inside with the right setup.” She says succulents, orchids, begonias, terrarium plants, and bromeliads are great options. “You can also start vegetable seeds, grow herbs and greens sprouts, and even extend the life of some bedding annuals like geraniums,” she says.
2. Try to shelter outdoor plants
This isn’t a requirement, but it can definitely help. Dr. Lamont suggests creating plastic tunnels or row covers to put over your crops. (You can find them online or at many gardening supply stores.) These tunnels “protect your crops and allow you to harvest them all winter long,” he adds, even when the weather is less than optimal outside.
3. Make sure you have plenty of light
Tanner says lack of light is “one of the biggest mistakes I see with indoor gardening.” Houseplants, like other plants, need plenty of light, he points out, noting that some homes have better lighting situations than others. A pro tip, per Tanner: “South facing windows provide more light than north-facing ones.” If natural light is in short supply at your place, you can invest in a plant-specific light to shine on your plants, Bennett says.
4. Don’t forget to water your plants
It’s easy to assume that water would be too much for plants to take when it’s cold out, but Bennett says it’s still crucial. “If the soil stays dry, the roots aren’t established,” she says. Her advice if you’re concerned about freezing: Mulch your plants when it starts to get cool. This will help push the roots out of the soil and keep them from freezing.
5. But be wary of overwatering
So… how often should you water your plants? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule here. “Much to the dismay of novice gardeners, there is no set schedule,” says Mira Talabac, a horticulture consultant at the University of Maryland Extension. “The answer is just, ‘when it's dry enough to need watering.’” That can depend on a slew of factors, like the type of potting mix you use, how warm and humid it is, how much light there is, the type of pot you’re using, and the airflow around your plant, she says.
One hack many gardeners use is just to feel the soil at least an inch beneath the surface of the pot, Talabac says. “If dry, the plant may need water; if damp, it probably won't,” she advises. It’s best to “drench the soil” so excess water flows out of the pot’s bottom holes, Talabac says. But, if you use a saucer underneath, she recommends emptying it right away so the plant doesn’t sit in water. Otherwise, she says, “this will be re-absorbed to the point where it drowns the roots.”
6. Keep tabs on humidity
Homes tend to have low humidity levels in the winter when people run indoor heat, Tanner says. “For certain houseplants, that can be stressful,” he adds. You can increase humidity levels around your plant by misting it daily or putting your plant over a saucer with stones and filling the saucer with water to provide humidity immediately around the plant. Still, though, Talabac says, “the most effective way to raise humidity is to use a room humidifier.” You can position it near your plant to maximize humidity around it.
If you’re ready to garden during the winter, but still feel unsure about being able to pull it off, don’t hesitate to ask questions at your local gardening store. They’re usually staffed by experts who can help offer up personal guidance.
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