Gardening in Winter: A Conversation with Fred Spicer

When it comes to home and garden maintenance, it’s easy to get behind during the holidays. What with all the shopping, baking, party planning and general joy-making, it’s comes as no surprise that remembering to prune that shrub, plant those bulbs, or fertilize your beds are not at the top of your to-do list. That’s why we sat down with Fred Spicer, executive director of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, to get some advice about what we should be doing right now. He offered some winter best practices, suggested some vegetables, and even provided some brilliant botanical gift suggestions.

Did we leave out the question you were dying to ask? Leave a comment and we’ll try to get those queries answered for you.

Liberty Park: What should homeowners do to prepare their gardens for the coming deep winter months if they haven’t already?
Fred Spicer:  Keep planting. This is still a great time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials. Soil temperatures are warm and plants installed now are better prepared for summer heat. Collect and grind leaves for your compost pile. You can do this with a lawnmower or a vacuum/shredder. Oak and hickory leaves are the best, along with pine needles. They can be re-spread as mulch or put in the compost pile. This stuff is like gold! This is a good time to use a slow-release fertilizer for permanent planting of trees, shrubs and perennials. (Not liquid!) By the time the fertilizer breaks down and becomes available to plants it will be the start of the growing season. It’s okay to prune deciduous plants now since all leaves have fallen and plants are solidly dormant. However, for plants that will flower in late winter/early spring, they have already produced flower buds – pruning now will remove them. Prune those “old wood” bloomers right after they flower. Wait until late February or early March to prune broadleaf evergreens. Their leaves will photosynthesize (make food) all winter, so you want to remove them right before they are replaced with new leaves. Control winter weeds by hand removal, spot herbicide treatment with glyphosate or similar herbicide, or pre-emergent. Always follow label directions on the herbicide.

LP: When is too late to plant tulips and other bulbs for spring color?
FS: If the tulips are pre-chilled, as late as late December. By the way, you probably ought to be planting only pre-chilled tulips here in Central Alabama. As for other bulbs, well, it’s a dice roll because they might not have enough chilling to flower properly in spring. However, if you have them, get them in the ground anyway. They will likely “re-set” next year. [Editor’s note: This Q&A from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) has some great information about this subject.]

LP: Are there things that we can do to make our yards, gardens and patios more attractive through spring?
FS:  Plant winter containers, winter vegetables and herbs, and winter annuals like pansies. At this late planting date, it’s possible that they might not do much until things start to warm back up. Fertilize with liquid fertilizer when temps are above 50°F.

LP: What winter vegetables do you recommend for Liberty Park homeowners?
FS: Lettuce, cabbage, kale, Brussels’ sprouts, broccoli and “greens.” It would have been nice to plant these in late October, though.

LP: Are there any plants you would recommend for last-minute gifts?
FS: Florist’s cyclamen are very nice this time of year and not too difficult to grow, either. I think herbs are good, too, for the cooks on your list. Many will do okay placed on a sunny windowsill for a good part of the winter. Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) are popular outdoor plants because they look like a perfect Christmas tree in miniature. But plant these in containers. Do not think of them as permanent. They typically do not last through our hot summers. The word “Alberta” is to be a clue—that’s Canada!

For those interested in moving beyond basic advice column pointers, Birmingham Botanical Gardens offers a number of classes throughout the year that will answer even more of these questions. They even have a certificate program for the study of native plants. Check out The Gardens online to see if one of those classes is right for you: Website | Facebook | Twitter.