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.