By Mark Wolfe

For gardeners and homeowners in the cold north, winter comes with frigid cold and snow for months on end. Frozen soil and icy winds signal the end of planting time until spring. But for millions of others who live in milder climates further south or nearer the coasts, winter planting is not just possible, it could be ideal. If you’re thinking about adding a few garden specimens during the traditional “off” season, read on. We will take a look at what to plant in winter and how to plan for success this time of year.

Rules of winter planting

This is a great time to install lots of plants as part of a big landscape plan, or to move existing plants within your yard or garden. Although trees, shrubs, and perennials are mostly dormant this time of year, their roots continue to grow until the soil freezes. They need little care after planting, and will be in great shape to start growing next spring.


But, before heading over to the garden center and loading up, a few precautions are in order. For winter planting, avoid plants that have been kept inside an enclosed greenhouse, as well as those that were recently shipped from a warmer climate, as they are more likely to suffer transplant shock. For the best results, follow these winter planting tips.

  • Choose locally grown plants that have experienced the same weather as your yard.
  • Only plant in winter if the ground has not frozen.
  • Water well at planting time.
  • Mulch right away.

How to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in winter

Planting in winter is not much different from planting at other times of the year. However, it is critical to complete the planting process, including watering and mulching, without delay. Otherwise an unexpected overnight freeze could damage vulnerable plants.

  1. Dig the planting hole two to three times the width of the plant’s root ball, and deep enough so that the root crown (the part where the stem meets the roots) will be one or two inches higher than the surrounding ground.
  2. Carefully remove the plant from its container, loosen or trim any tightly bound roots, and place the plant in the hole. Burlap-wrapped plants should be placed in the hole with the wrap intact, before cutting away any plastic twine or metal cage supporting it. Carefully pull the wrapping away from the trunk at the top of the root ball and push it down into the planting hole where it will quickly biodegrade.
  3. Double check that the root crown is above the surrounding grade before backfilling halfway with original soil. Firm the backfill soil in the half-filled hole.
  4. Fill the hole with water and let it soak in before backfilling the hole the rest of the way. The soil surface should slope away from the trunk to the edge of the planting hole. Use leftover soil to build a low berm, or moat, around the perimeter of the planting hole.
  5. Apply a 3-inch deep layer of mulch, from 6-inches away from the trunk to the edge of the planting hole, covering the berm.
  6. Water deeply.

Plant cool season flowers and veggies before winter

If you want annual flowers in the landscape to brighten your winter days, or a salad of flavorful garden fresh greens for your holiday brunch, don’t wait until winter to plant them. You’ll have to plan ahead for these seasonal treats.

Plant cold hardy annuals in fall for winter landscape color

In many areas of the country winter flowering annuals add a welcome touch of vibrant color that livens up the drab brown landscape. Don’t wait too late to plant yours. These are best planted in fall while temperatures are still warm. Given four to six weeks to become established prior to the first hard freeze, they will fill out the space nicely and bloom abundantly during cool, mild days throughout winter. Even if blooming slows or stops during an extended cold streak, these flowers come back to bloom again when the weather breaks.

  • Dianthus
  • Pansies and violas
  • Snapdragons
  • Ornamental cabbage and kale
  • Colorful varieties of Swiss chard

Plant cool season veggies in fall for winter harvest

Like the cool season ornamentals, these veggies are best planted when the weather is still somewhat warm. Successive plantings can be timed for harvest through winter, or for an early jump on spring garden production. Follow instructions on seed packets or plant labels for the best time to plant in fall or early winter.

  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Mustard
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

Plant cool season vegetable seeds indoors this winter for an early harvest

Cool season crops also make for an early spring garden harvest. Gardeners who want the earliest production of veggies or herbs can plant seeds in trays indoors in mid to late winter. The seedlings will be ready to plant in the outdoor garden by the time spring arrives. Follow the guidance on the seed packet, as well as your local average last frost date, to time these winter plantings.

Although gardening slows down in winter, it doesn’t have to stop altogether. Whether you have a few landscape improvements in mind, or if you just love “playing in the dirt,” planting in winter is worth the effort. With the right planning and care, your trees, shrubs, and perennials will benefit from a restful season as they establish a deep root system in preparation for spring.