Cool plants for cool months - Smart planning helps gardens grow in winter

by Rebecca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs

11/16/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Once the leaves fall and the cold weather hits, gardeners usually hang up their gloves and save their green thumbs for the spring, but it doesn't have to be that way, says Maxwell's horticulturist, Jane McCarthy.

Part of her job is getting the base beautiful for the colder months, while also providing functional, affordable and decorative landscaping tips for residents to use in their own gardens year-round.

"My job is to keep the base looking beautiful. We have changed dramatically over the years where we don't put out thousands of bedding plants," said McCarthy. "We now put out a lot of sustainable plants; perennials, plants that are going to, year-after-year, provide us with a display."

Around Maxwell, McCarthy uses knockout roses and ornamental grasses. The roses give a bright display of color that will last all year except for the coldest months of December and January, require very little maintenance and will bloom again in February.
This saves money, water and labor, which is the whole point of smart landscaping, says McCarthy.

"We could look like Disney World, but to look good we don't have to look like Disney World," she said. "We can provide good looking beds around the base at different locations, if you use your brain and use money smartly."

There are dozens of flowers, vegetables and herbs that may appear frail, but are sturdy enough to survive freezing temperatures and provide food for the table and some color for the yard.

"In the winter time you can grow pansies, dianthus, snap dragon, calendulas. Those are your general flowers," said McCarthy, noting that they will not tolerate the summer heat. "They will bloom most, if not all, of the wintertime. You put pansies in today, and they will bloom for you all the way till June."

Other plants that will survive the winter are vegetables such as chard, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, collards, kale, turnip greens, kohlrabi, beets, carrots, radishes, English peas and snow peas. Parsley is a great winter herb to plant along with mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram and chives.

November also is a good month to plant young trees in order for their roots to become established and ready to bloom in the spring.

Creating a container display

To begin a winter garden, McCarthy strongly encourages planting vegetables in containers above the ground when unsure of the soil's history.

Selecting a container is the first step in creating a functional, yet decorative, display for the yard. McCarthy repurposes rain barrels, buckets, trash cans and tubs to create inexpensive containers for her garden arrangements near the base greenhouses.

Gardeners should create aeration and drainage in pots to provide room for the plants' roots to grow and for water to collect and provide nutrients. McCarthy suggests layering the bottom of the container with a few inches of Styrofoam packing peanuts, golf balls, rocks, broken clay pots or used wine corks.

The next layer should be a good soil mix and a compost of plants and organic material to improve the soil. McCarthy suggests using a soil mix that contains peat moss, pine bark and pearl light, baked white pebbles.

Fertilizer is then added to the soil and can either be a time-release or water-soluble chemical product purchased from the gardening store, or natural fertilizers such as manure and fish emulsion or ground fish.

When arranging plants in the container, form a hole and break up the plant's packed soil and roots before placing it in the container so it can easily establish its roots.

Selection of plants and arrangements are based on personal preference and creativity.

"There's nothing that says you can't plant a lettuce plant next to a pansy. That's what I like to do," said McCarthy. "I like to take my edibles and my flowers and mix them up. One, to maximize space, and two, you're not looking at a pot that's just lettuce. Take these gorgeous lime green lettuces and then put a blue pansy in there. Or the red lettuces that are burgundy wine red and then put a gorgeous yellow pansy in there. You can do just about anything."

The best way to finish the job is to mulch. Use pine straw or wood chips around each plant to prevent weeds from germinating. It also keeps moisture in the soil and acts as insulation for the plants.

Lastly, though winter plants require less water, one must still remember to keep the soil moist to prevent plants from drying out.