In the Garden: Pruning, Planning and Planting

January 13, 2015 7:07am

Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Arboretum,

Most people think of the period from November – March as their well-earned garden vacation –  time to curl up by the fireplace with slippers and smores, right?  Well, ask someone to save your seat; there are a few tasks that need doing in late winter to ensure a beautiful, bountiful garden later.

First, a little housekeeping:

  • Keep the bird feeders fresh and full.
  • This is the time to prune out the oldest or weakest canes on roses and berry plants
  • Heaths and heathers will benefit from a shearing after bloom to keep them lush.
  • Red- or yellow-twigged dogwoods (like the ones in the above photo), purple smoke bush (Cotinus) and shrubby willows (Salix) can be pruned hard to keep to a smaller size if desired. You will sacrifice the cloudlike plumes on the smokebush, however. If you prefer the blooms, cut 1/3 of the oldest branches at the base, and let it grow as it wishes, which is Sasquatch-sized.
  • Most grasses and perennials can be trimmed to the base (some people do this in the fall, but I keep mine intact as long as possible for the winter interest). Important exceptions are plants that are borderline hardy,  like most hyssop (Agastache) cultivars and some salvias,  or woody herbs like lavender and Russian sage (Perovskia)  are better left standing until new growth appears to help them get through the winter.
  • Potted bulbs like tulips or daffodils can be planted in the garden if the ground allows – add some bone meal or bulb food and cross your fingers for an encore next year.
  • Sky Nursery recommends finding a clear day in January to prune fruit trees and pre-treat for disease, and to hoe any unmulched garden beds to kill overwintering weeds like shot grass.

Now the fun stuff! (These you can do by the fire.)

Dreaming a better garden – Now is the time to plot out structural changes in the garden. If your winter view leaves you flat, that means you are lacking what garden geeks call “bones”. Bones are things that act like a skeleton keeping the garden framed year-round (especially when the veggies and flowers are gone). They can be hedges, evergreens, or garden structures like paths, ponds, and arbors.  Build or order planters, pond/fountain equipment, window-boxes, and raised beds.  You can find an app for that, or you can just doodle! For inspiration, visit the Witt Garden at the Arboretum, the Seattle Japanese Garden or hit the Northwest Flower and Garden Show coming up in February.



Order your seeds – Seed catalogs are flying into mailboxes faster than fish at the market, and it behooves you to order early for the best selection. When shopping for edibles, look for the “days to maturity” number – in Seattle 60-70 days is best; over 80 days you’re flirting with disappointment. “Short-season” is a good term to look for, especially for tomatoes.  Also, be aware that local seed companies/nurseries will be focused on varieties proven to grow well despite our wet winter-dry summer conundrum. Here’s a list of Washington and Oregon seed companies to check out. A new company, Seattle Seed Co., says it sources non-GMO seed from organic farms and coops. Best local selections for seeds include nurseries, like Sky, Swansons’s and City People’s Garden Store, but hardware stores and supermarkets also carry some local seeds like Ed Hume.

Not sure which seeds to start when? Check out this seed planting guide from the A Way to Garden blog – using these calculations I get April 10 as a keep-to-the-safe-side last frost date for Seattle. However, Seattle Seed Co. uses March 15, so take your pick, based on your best bets for the weather.  I know, LOL.



Bring the beauty inside – this one is more for the humans than the plants. You can “force” many spring flowering shrubs into early bloom inside in a vase just by cutting when you see the buds begin to swell. Place in warm water, keeping fresh and wait for the dramatic reveal. You can do this with cherries, apples, dogwood, crabapple, redbud, witch hazel, quince and magnolia. Cut branches diagonally and them smash the stem base. I know forcing, smashing, all sounds so violent, but it’s not. Here’s a Forcing Branches Into Bloom Indoors article that tells you how and when.