Gardeners often bemoan the arrival of winter. Gardens can often look far more bare and bleak, and gardening is nowhere near as much fun. But it is important to remember that cold weather can be a good thing for gardeners. It is essential for many of the plants that we grow. Without the calm of the winter period in which to reflect on the previous year, it would be harder to learn and grow.
It is important to remember that winter is also an essential gardening season. When the winds and rains of autumn give way to the frosts and freezes of winter, many gardeners spend far less time in their gardens. We tend to feel much less connected to the natural world. But though winter may seem like a quieter time of year – there is still plenty going on.
Polytunnel gardeners already know that gardening and growing can be a year-round activity. With a polytunnel, you can continue to grow a range of edible crops in your garden all year long. But even outside your polytunnel, the cold weather still brings a range of benefits. There is far more going on in your winter garden than you may imagine.
Forget all that nonsense about ‘putting your garden to bed’. Revel in all that winter has to bring. Marvel at the magical mechanics of the plant world over the coldest season. Though the winter garden can often seem quite dead and lifeless, but the garden never really sleeps. Plants keep changing throughout the cold weather so they can perform well in the warmer seasons to come.
Cold Weather is Essential for Certain Fruit Trees
Certain fruit trees are amongst the plant types that require a period of cold weather in winter. Fruit trees like apples, plums and pears all need a period of cold in order to come into growth in the spring, bloom and then fruit. In a process called vernalisation, the reducing daylight hours induce the trees to go into their dormant phase.
The trees shed their leaves, since it would require too much energy to maintain them over the winter, when photosynthesis is reduced. It is then essential that the trees have a certain number of days with a low temperature – generally no higher than 7 degrees C. Only when this cold weather period has happened will trees burst into growth and bloom once temperatures rise once more. This makes sure that trees do not accidentally grow and bloom in autumn rather than in spring.
Of course, as gardeners, we take advantage of the dormant period of a tree’s life in order to transplant and plant out new trees in our gardens, and also to prune certain tree species when it will do them the least amount of harm. Without a period of cold weather in winter, it would be much more challenging to undertake these jobs without stressing the trees.
Cold Weather Gives Herbaceous Plants A Chance to Convert Starch to Sugars
Another benefit of cold weather for both plants and gardeners is that it gives herbaceous plants a chance to convert starch to sugars. In winter, herbaceous plants stop growing and die back. They no longer gain energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they store the carbohydrates they make from water and carbon dioxide in their roots, as starch. The onset of cold weather is a trigger, however, which causes enzymes in the root to convert the starch back into soluble sugar.
This process provides the plants with the soluble sugars that can be sent to the growing tips of the plants ready for the first flush of growth in spring. Plants like peonies and dahlias therefore, are able to push their roots up quickly. This allows them to outcompete the annual seedlings germinating around them in spring.
For the gardener, this process, sparked by cold weather, is also the reason why a range of vegetables taste better after they are exposed to frost. Without this cold weather, our Christmas dinners would not taste nearly as good!
Some Biennials Need Cold Weather in Order to Flower
Many gardeners will simply grow plants like carrots, parsnips, beetroots and onions as annual crops. But if we want to collect the seeds from these plants, to sow in our gardens the following seasons, we need to leave them in the ground over winter in order to give them the period of cold weather they need to flower.
(Occasionally, you may have seen these plants ‘bolt’ and go to seed if there was a cold snap after you planted them in early spring. This just happens because the plants were ‘tricked’ into thinking that winter had come and gone.)
Other biennial plants such as Wallflowers, Sweet Williams and Aquilegias also need a period of cold weather in order to produce flowers. The plants, when grown from seed, will produce only foliage in their first year, then wait for cold weather of winter before blooming in late spring and releasing their seeds in summer.
We Need Cold Weather for Flowering Bulbs
As gardeners, we also need cold weather in order to grow a number of flowering bulbs. Hardy bulbs need to have different weather conditions throughout the year in order to grow and bloom. Flower bulbs form in summer in a process known as ‘baking’, which requires warmth. Root growth is triggered by the cooler and wetter weather of autumn. The cold weather of winter is then required in order to stimulate stem growth. Temperatures of less than 10 degrees cause the elongation of the flowering stem. Many bulbs must spend at least ten weeks in these cold weather conditions in order to grow successfully.
Some Seeds Need a Period of Cold To Germinate
Some plants need their seeds to be vernalised before they will germinate at all. Sometimes, seeds’ hard coats are softened by frost and weathering action. This is true in the case of sweet peas. In other instances, a cold, moist period will trigger the seed’s embryo to expand and grow to break through the softened seed coat and germinate.
The reason why these seeds only germinate after a period of cold weather is obvious. If the seeds germinated in autumn, before the cold weather arrived, they would have a far lower chance of survival. Not only might they be killed off by frost, they may also be more likely to be eaten by wildlife when there is far less food around. Delaying germination until after cold weather, in the spring, gives them a far better chance of surviving to maturity.
The Cold Weather of Winter Gives Us More Time to Reflect and Plan
As you can see from the above, there is still a lot going on in our gardens in winter. But though the plants are all still working hard and preparing for the spring, we will likely have less to do. After the sowing of spring, the frenetic pace of summer, and the autumn harvests, winter can be a much quieter time in the gardening year. It can be a time of reflection and planning, as we, like the plants, prepare for the coming spring.
Of course, there are still plenty of garden jobs to get on with in winter – especially if you are growing your own food in a polytunnel or other undercover space. It is the time to plant certain bare-root trees and shrubs, and to prune many others. Cold weather could also give you time indoors to preserve and store the produce you grew earlier in the year.
Reflect & Learn
But when you are sat indoors looking out at your garden, and longing for spring, you should also be thinking back on the year that has been, and looking forward to next year. Cold weather that sends you indoors could be an opportunity to think back on the successes and failures of the past months, and to reflect on what lessons you could learn.
Plan For Next Year
It can also be your chance to think about what you might do differently (or the same) next year. You can peruse some seed catalogues, and order seeds and plants. You could also consider buying a polytunnel (if you don’t already have one), or think about additions to your polytunnel that might be beneficial for next year.
Do You Love Cold Weather?
Do you see the beauty and the benefit of cold weather? Share your suggestions for winter, and your love of the coldest part of the year in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.