Winter Gardening: How Low Will you Go?

Lots to do in this winter garden.

Last week I heard a local horticulturist tell an audience that the only gardening task that could be accomplished in January is planning.  No actual gardening.  Which surprised me because I’ve been gardening daily all fall and winter except for just two weeks when the ground was frozen, and temps have otherwise been pretty mild.  Through December and January I’ve accomplished a HUGE amounts of work in the garden – moving every damn plant imaginable, planting 5-foot-tall conifers, creating borders, leveling pavers – really, I could go on.  The mild-manners winters of Maryland are great for gardening.  It’s Zone 7 even in the burbs.

So I was pleased to read Adrian Higgins in today’s WashingtonPost relating how busy he’s been in the garden this year and explaining his winter activity levels this way:

This is my own temperature-activity table for winter gardening. In the teens: Don’t get out of bed. Twenties: Fuss with seeds indoors. Thirties: Bundle up and do what you must in the garden. Forties: Bundle up and go get ’em. Fifties: You’re in clover; make a day of it.

The watershed is at 40 degrees. Below that and it’s for die-hards, but above that, especially if you are generating heat through work, it’s agreeable. Rain and a stiff wind will drive you indoors, but a light drizzle (I find) merely adds to the ambiance.

Rooftop garden in downtown Baltimore, late January.

So if you garden where there’s a winter, does this sound like your own activity level?  We want details here:  How low can the temperature be before you just stay in bed, or fiddle with the grow-lights?

For me, the Higgins activity table works perfectly – with some tweaking, of course, for sun and wind.   Where shade in my garden is from deciduous trees, not the house itself, the winter sun is fabulous.

Winter gardening clothes

It’s all about the layers, lots of them, great for shedding as you warm up.  In this photo, taken in the 30s,  I was a happy gardener, though I might add a scarf today.

Warm-weather gardening is so great?

Higgins is surely correct that “the idea of gardening regularly in the winter is alien to many people” and that’s a shame.  Here in the Humidity Belt of the Mid-Atlantic the ideal time to do heavy garden tasks is now, when it’s in the 40s and 50s.  The 60s are fine but 70 degrees and up, you’re talking about sweating.  By summer I’m taking a break from heavy gardening, just keeping up with the watering and weeding and accomplishing even those chores in the early morning.

The pay-off from winter gardening

To quote Higgins again, “The more you do in the winter, the more the early spring can be relieved of its mad scramble. ” He recommends especially repairing the “infrastructure” – raised beds, patios, and paths, and so on – and ripping out those winter weeds before they go nuts in the spring.  After getting these things done you can “greet the spring on gardener’s terms.”

Then there’s the pay-0ff of spending time in the garden and enjoying the spiritual practice that weeding can be for devout gardeners:

This induces a reverie that is sometimes broken by the hearty call of a Carolina wren, perched on the fence above me.  Here is a winter migrant whose vitality is amplified way beyond its little mass. In the most improbable of seasons, it is calling us into the garden.


  1. Well since it is currently 2 (above) with a windchill of about 20 (below) degrees F, I can’t say there’s much gardening going on outside. A fresh coat of snow on everything, I did go refresh the bird feeders and knock some of the heavy stuff off of the Arbor Vitae. All else inside.

    I find gardening anywhere above freezing is fine, if there is sun and little wind, but 45 F is better if you don’t want your fingers to get sore and stiff.

  2. I love gardening in the fall and early winter here in southern Michigan. I totally prefer being outside when it is cool enough that I am not drenched in sweat (which is the usual summer state). Fall and early winter are the best time to cut and put herbicide on invasive woody plants, like Buckthorn and Autumn Olive. So I am with you. When the ground is frozen and it is below 30, then I just do my daily walking outside, but not much gardening. I do prune my apple trees and raspberries in February when they are dormant. And I am going to dig up my climbing rose this winter and send it to my sister in mild Oregon: the Japanese beetles simply eat it to death.

  3. Well… here in the Phila suburbs I garden until the first snow and I’ll get going again any day there is a bit of sunshine, just for a reason to go outside. If nothing else I can always rake those Norway maple leaves… (I seem to be the only one around not using a leaf blower), else I will do weeding, muck with my compost, mulch, prep the veggie garden, or just general clean-up and I can’t wait until it’s late enough to start pruning my fruit trees.

    I agree with Susan, summer heat is when I consider the off-season for gardening. However, I’m not sure the Philly winters qualify for actual winter in my book, having grown up in Sweden…

  4. I’d certainly rather garden at 40 degrees in the winter than in August when it’s humid, over 90 degrees and the ground is as hard as cement. That’s when things get out of control in my yard (in SE Pennsylvania).

  5. “Here in the Humidity Belt of the Mid-Atlantic the ideal time to do heavy garden tasks is now, when it’s in the 40s and 50s. The 60s are fine but 70 degrees and up, you’re talking about sweating. By summer I’m taking a break from heavy gardening, just keeping up with the watering and weeding and accomplishing even those chores in the early morning.” EXACTLY! Here in Austin too this is a great time to garden, especially to prepare new beds, lay paths/patios, and even plant shrubs and hardy perennials. Spring will begin by late February, and oppressive heat will be here by May, sometimes even in April. Now’s the time to get out there and enjoy great gardening weather.

  6. 40 sounds about right, especially if the sun is shining. Muddy soil can be a problem during our winter thaws, but if the ground is hard and the sun is out, it’s time to prune. It might not sound like as much fun as preparing new beds, but there’s nothing more immediately gratifying than shaping up woody plants when they’re showing off their limbs.

  7. Right now we can’t see across the road. So yes, anything above freezing is an invitation into the garden. We also get the awful humidity in the summer. Early spring and fall once the temps drop I can actually get something done. Summer (which can start mid May) is just watering and staying in the shade.

  8. The biggest problem I have with winter garden chores is the shortened day length. I always seem to be halfway through a task when the sun starts to set. I prefer cool weather to hot and enjoy not having to swat the bugs away. Unfortunately, all it takes is the temps to get above 40 and the fire ants are active, they can ruin a winter day the same as a summer day.

  9. I built a raised bed at the beginning of January! And it’s nearly time to plant out beets and peas here. (Theoretically our last frost date is in April–in practice, I’ve never gone wrong planting the cold-hardy stuff in February.)

    I generally find that as long as it’s above thirty, I’ll go out–dirt gets annoying to move when it’s frozen–although I don’t buy new plants unless it’s warm or I stumble over a rarity. But I’m definitely moving dirt and mulching and lord knows, the chickweed isn’t slowing down so I tear out a good bit of that. And the occasional 70+ day doesn’t hurt.

  10. More than temperature, my gardening chores are influenced in the late winter and spring my the moisture in the soil. After heavy snow cover (I live in NE PA, not that far from Buffalo) my clay soil is saturated. Digging in it is out of the question, weeding is questionable, even walking on it is not a good idea, it can compact horribly when still wet. There are many days that would be workable as far as temperature, when I walk around my garden, just picking up leaf litter, wishing I could do more but knowing I would do more harm than good in the long run.

  11. I am in complete agreement! The ground is frozen, so I can’t do any moving, but I do LOTS of pruning and can get a good start on cutting back perennials for spring.

  12. You all are making me feel lazy! I don’t usually dig or plant anything in the winter (in eastern MA, I don’t know it would be adviseable to plant anything in the freezing temps we’ve had, and with the ground so frozen?), but I do prune and I plan plan plan.

  13. Glad to see this post–thanks!

    Yes in the thirtys and forties some CoolMax or woolen long johns and layers will let you get a lot of work done without breaking a sweat (if you manage your layers).

    and then you feel like you’ve earned your hot chocolate 🙂

  14. I garden in the forties. Yesterday, I limbed up a rhodie I was tired of ducking under to walk down the driveway. I pulled weeds out said (gravel) driveway. There are always weeds to pull in mild winter areas. I gently removed fallen leaves from the early primroses. Today, I’m going to check the plants in the mini greenhouse. They may need water. I might take the rose seeds out of the refrigerator, pot them up, and put them in the greenhouse, too. I’d better get a wiggle on.

  15. No gardening for me unless it’s 55 or over and I would prefer 60. And, really, this advice is meaningless unless you live in the area in which it is given.. Adrian Higgins does not live in Buffalo, Wisconsin, or Minnesota–

    All that being said, I did meet with my designer/landscape dude to plan the easeway transformation today. Inside, over coffee.

  16. In my own yard, my cutoff temp is 50 as I am STILL resentful about leaving Phoenix for a climate that gets winter. However, if it’s a bright sunny day with no wind and I’m getting that late winter stir-craziness, I’ll go as low as 35.

    My cutoff is much lower for client properties, though. Monday morning will be around 30 degrees as the sun is coming up, and I’ll be crouched in a wet hole installing plumbing for a water feature – what I like to refer to as “living the dream” 🙂

  17. Two problems for me: 1) I have fibromyalgia and arthritis, so the more layers, the stiffer my joints and I am not at all mobile. 2) I’m hypothyroid, and as such, cold-intolerant. Western NY, particularly my open, exposed, windy acre, does not lend itself to mid-winter gardening unless we come up with a day that reaches the low 60’s! Therefore, the only winter gardening activity I indulge in is ordering plants and seeds – my writing/typing arm gets a serious workout!

  18. Susan, I share some of the same issues, though I have worked in the garden when it was in the 40s. I have a decent tolerance for heat, working comfortably at temps in the mid to upper 80’s…….as long as I have the hose hooked to the mister nearby (a slightly more dignified version of running through the sprinkler). ;-}

    We’ve had greens, lettuce, spinach growing under cover and were harvesting right up til two weeks ago when we had our first really bitter cold. Then had a few days in the 60s and got as muddy as possible weeding the covered beds and shoring up the cold-battered plants. Had to replace one cover with old window panes when the wind stole it. Someone in W.VA. will probably find it this weekend.

    Most gardening for the next few weeks will be seed inventorying, editing pictures from last year, planning the spring beds and deciding what deserves an early start under the grow lights and in the windows. Early seeds will be sown starting in late February. All days above 50 (will consider 40 if sunny) will be devoted to early pruning, fertilizing beds with bunny poo (worth its weight in gold) and just general tidying up.

    I live for those warm Spring nights when I take my camping lantern back to my potting area and work late into the night potting plants, puttering about and seeing a side of my garden that can be more challenging to enjoy once the skeeters join the party. But it’s all good. My garden is in my thoughts year-round in some form or other.

  19. In Australia it does not get quite as cold as it does in other parts of the world, but I love winter gardening, no snow where I live though. I love winter because I can see the bones of my garden, it is a great time for planning and redesigning. I particularly like the challenge of trying to see if I can have an attractive garden in all seasons. There is nothing better than going into the garden with hat, scarf, gloves and rubber boots and working up a sweat. Love your blog, thank you.

  20. Adrian’s scale works for me here as well. A warm spell in early January got me to clean off my front beds two months early. Now I’ve just been waiting for that next run of sunny 40’s or 50’s to do the rest. My ornamental grasses are tired of standing up!

    On a related note, Susan, was that picture taken in the 1930’s or when the temperature was in the 30’s ? 😉

  21. I am mostly in accord with the Higgins scale, though around here, temps in the ‘teens and 20’s means heading for the ski trails just outside town rather than sleeping in. At least for me. Because of our unpredictable and wildly variable winter weather conditions here in the Oregon high desert, I keep this inner scale in the back of my mind, integrated with the daylength & season, at all times between November and say, March, and take action when all factors synchronistically align with my days off. Last winter we had no snow or rain until late January, but two of our three semi-annual cold snaps (5 above to below 0 F) occurred during those snow-free months. This winter we had nearly two solid months of snow storms starting in early November, and continued cold that kept snow & ice on the ground until just the last couple of weeks. No precip since then, and temps currently in the 40’s to low 50’s.

    I agree that layering is key. And since two acupuncturists in a row have lectured me about the need to cover up my ‘wind gates’ (back of the neck below the occiput) to protect & enhance my immune system, I have made it a policy to wear a scarf or neck gaiter even in these higher temps.

    As others have mentioned, high summer isn’t the ideal time for much gardening here, at least in terms of planting vegs and long season annuals. Not because of high humidity — we are deliciously dry all year — but because our frost-free growing season is super short. If I miss the planting window in late spring/early summer, I might as well move on to fall planting.

    I love the concept of ‘relieving the early spring of its made scramble’ — divine image!

  22. I’m in California so for us the best time of the year to do any planting is the fall and winter during the rainy season. It is so much easier to get most plants established now.

  23. Growing lettuce in my hydroponic grow room, chile peppers as well. To think that gardening is only an outdoor activity is sad.

    But this sounds like something Yolonda would say


  24. This post reminds me of those articles on the joys of winter gardens that show lots of blooming shrubs and garden scapes, and no frozen ground or snow. Not very applicable here in upstate NY. It’s hard to cut back or move plants when everything is frozen in place and under snow cover. I do agree with the basic premise, who wants to be out doing things when it’s 10 or 20 degrees with a brisk wind in your face? That pretty much rules out a lot of December, January and February here, most of the time, and some of March as well in some years. I do get out to prune the young orchard toward the end of February, if we get a nice weekend day that’s not too windy, but otherwise that can wait till early March too. Gardening here in winter refers to winter sowing of seeds, and brushing snow off a few conifers and shrubs when it’s heavy. And that’s about it.

  25. I live in a mild Winter climate, and thus can grow food year-round. No tomatoes in January, of course. But root crops, cole crops, salad greens, & peas are flourishing in my garden right now. Artichokes will be budding soon. And since our ground doesn’t freeze, I planted blueberries shortly after Christmas.

    I have the usual winter maintenance chores, too. Cleaning up the last of the leaves, raking the mulch, adding more mulch, composting (that’s a biggie in the winter), and general repair work. The “orchard” – my collection of dwarf & semi-dwarf fruit trees – requires pruning & dormant sprays. Maybe some grafting if Spring will hold until late February.

    I find that Summer is more the dormant season for me than Winter. I plant in Spring, the drip system waters, & I check on the progress of things now & then. But until the harvest starts rolling in, there really isn’t anything to do. It’s too hot (at least I escaped the humidity) to bother with anything short of an emergency. So that’s when I plan what I’ll do once the weather cools down.

  26. Yes, yes! So many people miss out on the full season of spring. Here in Virginia the snowdrops have started, the winter aconites are in bloom. Some of the witch hazels have started and bulbs are poking through. In a cold frame I have lettuce and spinach, all ready to harvest. A few layers of vests and jackets and you’re in, and it’s so refreshing! Yeah for February.

  27. Absolutely! Here in piedmont NC our winters are generally quite mild, and winter is an ideal time to get out in front of the bugs. I’ve been transplanting shrubs every chance I get, and making plans to thin the canopy of my large oak trees before they leaf out. I agree with Laura Bell; summer is my dormant season.

  28. I do all my major projects in the fall and winter, and my garden has still got winter produce keeping in the ground even as I start to plants peas and radishes. I work hard in the spring to get the warm season gardening moving int he right direction, because once a muggy Southern summer hits, it’s too hot to do more than wander out in the garden first thing in the morning, harvest what needs picking and pull a few weeds. The rest of my gardening “work” is done from a hammock in the shade where I plan the projects for next fall!

  29. I am just hoping that my newly plated last summer perennial bed plants survived with basically no snow on the ground temps below zero for several days and wind chills 25 below zero. We have good snow cover now though. But will start vegetable seeds next month.

  30. Higgins is right and so are you, Susan! If I didn’t garden during the winter in our zone 7 Vancouver, WA acre garden, I would never keep up with pruning, weeding, plant relocating and new additions. And because it will Bo above 40 today, I will be out there cutting back more ferns, maybe even tackling our Young’s weeping birch annual coppicing.

  31. I fertilized the roses and planted some rosemary. I’m admiring all my cymbidiums bursting forth in yellow, pink, and peach. Oh, did I mention I’m in Southern California? I guess it’s not really “winter gardening” here.

  32. I fertilized the roses and planted some rosemary. I’m admiring the cymbidiums bursting forth in yellow, pink and peach. Oh, did I mention I’m in Southern California? Guess it’s a different kind of winter in the garden.

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