Gardening 101

5 Steps to Improve Your Garden in Winter


Winter is when we typically take leave of garden work and contemplate dreams of next year’s garden. “The color of springtime is in the flowers, the color of winter is in the imagination”- Terri Guillemets, There is immense value in reflection, but for those of us who love to be outdoors, winter is also a perfect time to ruthlessly examine our sleeping gardens without distraction. Without the riotous green growth, flowers, and insects, we can evaluate the bones that might not exist, or that need repair, and take action!

Step 1
Stone patio

Stone patio / Jeana Myers

Does your garden function well in terms of how you use it? This is the overarching question and one we often consider throughout the year, usually when it’s not functioning well. Even with the best landscape design, we will find areas that need tweaking in our landscapes. This might be considering a better grass for your active children, how to get in and out of your car without banging car doors, or how you might more comfortably entertain in the garden with a patio, shady arbor, or firepit. Now is the time to make the plan – lawns are planted in certain seasons of the year, and the soil is easy to dig at others – so you are ready when the time is right.

Step 2
Garden shrub viburnum

Try new plants like this viburnum / Jeana Myers

Every gardener likes to add plants to their landscape. But instead of impulse buying random gorgeous plants, think about what your garden is missing – color at certain times of the year, stronger evergreen bones, a specimen plant for that shady section, or maybe more cutting flowers. Even if you prefer a simple to maintain the garden, you can choose colorful or flowering shrubs and small trees that require minimal upkeep and still enliven your landscape. Then, if a disease or insect pest causes the decline of one species, you are not left with a missing hedge or a huge hole in your landscape. For example, hedges of just Leyland cypress will not fare as well (nor be as beautiful or resilient) as those composed of a mix such as Nellie Stevens Holly, Osmanthus fragrans, weigela, viburnums, camellias, or compositions of many others. A final word – remove any plants you don’t like and select a replacement you enjoy. Consider hiring an experienced rubbish removalist to help make this process convenient.

Step 3
Compost bins

A variety of compost bins / Jeana Myers

Please set up a composting system for your food waste, landscape waste, and even pet waste. These organic materials should not go to landfills as they produce methane gas while decomposing in the absence of oxygen. Methane is at least 28 times more potent than CO2 at holding warmth in our atmosphere. There is a composting method for everyone’s taste and budget, from simple rings made from wire fencing (great for leaves), to enclosed Earth Machines, tumblers, worm bins, and even a Green Cone product where you can safely dispose of pet waste, meat, and dairy products. If you can’t avoid sending landscape materials to the yard waste center, at least find an alternative to food in the trash. Bonus, you have black gold for your garden.

Step 4
Hillside rain garden

Rain garden / Jeana Myers

Water is something we often evaluate in a crisis mode – we are either dealing with hurricane-like deluges or watering in a drought. Next time we have substantial rain, put on your raincoat and do a tour of your landscape and see where the water flows and gathers. A primary goal is to slow down the rain so it will infiltrate rather than hit the storm drains or overload the local streams. Plant cover is the best tactic for slowing the overland flow of water, so the more slope you have the more plants you need. Creating raised beds will help slow water flow, and, will allow roots to avoid waterlogging. When drought hits, it can be a lifesaver to have an irrigation system in place. Area-specific irrigation will be most efficient in terms of water use and can be a fun do-it-yourself project involving zones, timers, and different drip or spray options – it’s not that complicated. Finally, find where those dang-blasted mosquitoes were breeding last summer and get rid of it, fix it, or move it to a dry space. This will beat spraying for mosquitos any day.

Step 5
Garden pond

Garden pond / Jeana Myers

Build arbors, cold frames, lay pathways, and dig rain gardens. The weather is cool, there are no biting insects, and most importantly, the soil is as diggable as it ever will be. There is no better time to take on these structural, functional, or planning projects that will bring huge satisfaction come next summer when nature springs forth in all her glory. Take stock of your garden in winter and while nature sleeps, enjoy making thoughtful and intentional improvements for the coming year.

More information can be found on these websites.

Plant database for choosing plants:

Backyard composting and worm composting:

Ideas for home irrigation plans:

How to build a rain garden:
Rain Gardening in the South: Ecologically Designed Gardens for Drought, Deluge, and Everything in Between” by Anne Spafford and Helen T. Kraus, NCSU.

How to stop mosquitos from breeding around your home

Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email

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