January and February are relatively quiet months in the garden. But after the hustle and bustle of the holidays, perhaps this is a gift—a moment to exhale, look around, take stock of what is going on around us and maybe even allow ourselves to dream a little. I recently sat down with Clara Curtis, the Arboretum’s senior director for mission delivery, to talk about all things winter gardening.

An assortment of winter-interest plants. From left to right: Greater Snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii), White Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus), Witchhazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’), Heath (Erica x darleyensis ‘Mediterranean Pink’), Pink Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus) and Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum).
Red Twig Dogwood – Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’

What is there for the restless gardener to do this time of year?

This time of year is an excellent opportunity to look at landscapes with a critical eye and identify the things you see that really stand out, and then make some notes. Maybe it’s a bright bark color that catches

your eye; some of the Japanese maples have really brightly colored bark on their twiggy, bare stems, as do some of the dogwoods. Or, it might be a beautiful conifer, or a plant that is in bloom this time of year, like witch hazel, winter jasmine, hellebores or snowdrops, all of which begin blooming as early as January.

Then, you can observe your own garden and find places where you can say to yourself, “You know, I really need to jazz this up a bit. And I saw this plant that was doing this beautiful thing here in January that would fit perfectly in that spot.” I would especially encourage people to look at the garden through their windows, because that’s often how we enjoy our gardens in the wintertime. Ask yourself: “Do I have enough evergreen plantings so that this isn’t just brown sticks in the winter?”

I think that a huge part of the fun of gardening is trying new things. This is a great time of year to sit with a nice cup of hot tea and look at all your beautiful seed and plant catalogues and do some dreaming that way. And if you’re like me, you have a few kinds of plants that you’re particularly interested in and looking to try out new varieties of—for me, it’s boxwoods and epimediums (the  barrenworts) both of which have some level of winter interest.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

When it comes to pruning, do you do anything this time of year? Does it matter if we’re talking about perennials, shrubs or trees?

I don’t cut off most perennials until they put their new growth up in the spring. The reason that I’m conservative about cutting them back is that once you’ve done so, you’ve cut off a layer of protection to their crown—and in the case of semi-evergreens like epimediums or hellebores, it restricts any remaining ability to photosynthesize. Ornamental grasses are generally fine to prune, but at the Arboretum, you will notice that wherever our staff have pruned grasses, they haven’t cut them all the way to the ground. The little mounds that are left behind may be brown, but they are protecting the crown of those plants in the wintertime.

For trees and shrubs, I definitely would not prune in or around January. It’s best to wait until the end of February or even later, when you can see new growth beginning. The reason I would say to wait is that when we prune, we are hoping to signal to the plant that it’s time to grow, and you don’t want to do that too early.

That said, you can go ahead and remove dead branches, which are more easily spotted in winter.

What should we do with the fallen leaves from the trees that have been blown around?

The best thing you can do with those leaves is, if you have a shredder, you can shred them and make a nice, thick, fluffy leaf mulch for your herbaceous beds, which can put nutrients back into the soil. In my yard, we also rake and carry maple leaves down to the vegetable garden and pile them up, and then we turn them into the soil when we are ready to plant in the spring.

For areas where you have bulbs planted for the spring, you want to make sure that your mulch layer doesn’t get too compacted or matted down. For my tulips, I save white pine needles from the needle drop in the fall and put down a one-inch layer over the areas where I planted the bulbs. They will be able to easily grow through them when they’re ready, and the needles not only look natural—they are free!

That’s a great tip! I’m definitely looking forward to those bulbs coming up in the next few months, but I think some of the ideas you’ve shared will help tide me over until then. Do you have any final thoughts to share?

I’ve just been thinking about how much I appreciate these winter months that start off a fresh new year. January is a contemplative time, named for the Roman god Janus, who was looking back to the previous year and looking forward to the new year. And then February is a month of anticipation—of watching for the first spring bulbs to come into flower. In my garden, Narcissus ‘February Gold’ marks my daughter’s birthday every year without fail. Crocus open and close with the sunshine, and buttercup yellow Eranthis hymenalis (winter aconite) flower even in the snow!

In these winter months, I’m also thankful for a moment to rest—that’s why we have more darkness in the winter—so we will rest and prepare ourselves for all of the good gardening that’s coming up.

A grouping of Florida Sunshine Anise (Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’) demonstrating chartreuse evergreen foliage. (Credit: Gregg Solms)

About the Author:

Will Coleburn is The North Carolina Arboretum’s marketing content specialist. In his free time, he is an avid home gardener with a particular affection for irises, daffodils and magnolias.