The Truth About Winter Part I

When I think of winter interest in the garden, I don't think about plants like these wet, soggy asters in my garden. If I don't get out there and cut these back soon, I'll be up to my as, I'll have a lot of aster seedlings to weed out in the spring.

I’ve been feeling a twinge of guilt about how I portrayed winter last week when we had our first snowfall. Just a twinge. I’d like to come clean about what winter is really like in Zone 5, and I hope it isn’t too depressing to read.

Winter is not exactly all warm fires in the fireplace and long evenings spent pouring over seed catalogs with a hot beverage of choice close at hand.

Nor is it always like the pictures that Robin of Robin’s Nesting Place took last week when we had fresh snow on the ground and frozen fog in central Indiana.

More often than not winter looks something like this.

But not quite like this. Later on the grass won’t be quite so green.

Some other truths about winter in a Zone 5 garden…

We have day after day when the skies are cloudy and gray. We wonder when was the last time we saw the sun. When was the last time I saw the sun? It had to have been several days ago. Maybe last Thursday?

There’s a lot of mud in the wintertime. The ground is not covered with snow all winter long here in Zone 5. Far from it. When there is no snow or the snow has melted, we have a lot of mud. Then even if temperatures warm up to the low fifties, which would be comfortable to be outside and work in the garden, it is too muddy to do anything.

Here in Zone 5, some days are warmer, some days are colder. This leads to the freezing and thawing of the ground which really can cause the heaving of plants. Heaved plants aren’t a pretty sight and aren’t as likely to survive the winter.

Did I mention ice, snow and rain? It’s always good to get any kind of precipitation, and obviously rain is best, but we don't always get what we want. Ice is downright dangerous for walking and driving especially, and on trees and shrubs, the weight of it can cause branches to break off. Snow does provide some insulating effect, but too much of it can also cause branches to bend to nearly the breaking point, or to the breaking point. And did you all know that snow has to be shoveled off your driveway, especially if your driveway is a bit steep, like mine? Otherwise, I can't get the car up the drive to the garage.

What else about winter? Oh, yes, it can be quite cold outside! You need a coat nearly every day.

Thank you. Now I feel better having provided a more accurate description of winter in Zone 5.

I hope that wasn’t too depressing to read. If it was, you can go back to thinking that winter around here is all about warm fires in the fireplace, steaming cups of hot tea (chocolate or whatever) and long evenings spent dreaming over seed catalogs and gardening books. Outside the snow gently falls making the landscape look like a Currier & Ives print.

You can envision all of us Zone 5 gardeners visting local conservatories to see flowers like these.
Tomorrow I’ll provide more truths about winter and what affect it has on us gardeners. You’ll be enlightened and amazed at what those of us who like to dig, hoe, rake, prune, plant, and otherwise tend gardens actually go through to survive a winter in Zone 5 and colder zones, intact, and ready to garden again in the spring.


What’s winter like where you garden? If you garden in a place where you still have flowers blooming outside, like in Pam in Austin, I hope you'll post about your blooms on Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day on the 15th. I'll be posting about my blooms, what little I have, because I always try to have something blooming here at May Dreams Gardens, especially in the wintertime.


  1. Winter here close to the lake usually involves LOTS of snow during the winter (Lake Effect), nights can be in the -0* range and colder....brrrrrrrr.....bone chilling.

  2. Carol, what a timely post for today. If it weren't for the occasional beauty of freshly fallen snow or hoarfrost, I'd not be able to stand winter here. I don't mind the cold, but these gray days are terrible and get old really fast.

    I thought it would be warm enough today to plant bulbs, but it was so muddy and rainy. I am thankful not to have the drought like so many places and I am also thankful we don't have ice. It could certainly be worse.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of the misery that goes along with winter, but I still like the other choc, fireside with the catalog...sorry...

  4. An extremely accurate description! The other one sounds nicer, though. Unfortunately, I don't even have a fireplace to enjoy. I guess I'll just have to drink more hot cocoa...

  5. Darn Carol, sounds like you needed a good shot of sunshine when you wrote this one. It is all true however. Even tho I am a half zone warmer here the same thing holds true about the freeze/thaw and the lack of sun. We usually don't get as cold for as long as your area.

  6. That was certainly truth in posting. The vision of the fireplace, cuppa, and catalogs was dreamy though. In southeast Tennessee, zone 7a, we have some warm days, this week has crazily been in the seventies, setting new records every day. The cold is acomin', sos we best get ready for it. We have the mud problem also and most plants go dormant like they do in your neck of the woods. The evergreen plantings help the view out the window along with structures and hardscape. It is good to look for plants with some kind of winter interest. This year new viburnums that will have berries were added. They are too small now for any show but the plan is for lots of berries for the birds and the gardener.

  7. We usually don't have mud until, uh, mud season--late winter/early spring. The ground is frozen solid. Last night we were supposed to get freezing rain, but got regular rain instead, which means my sloping 100 ft. driveway is no longer ice, but mud. A gravel driveway isn't as easy to shovel as an asphalt driveway. You have to leave a little bit of snow or take all the gravel. (Which is why my driveway is mud--not too much gravel left.)

    One thing you didn't mention is snow tires. Do you do snow tires? We actually switch to studded snow tires for the winter.

  8. I actually lived in Indiana for five years, and I do remember the winter, snow and mud. I've been back here in my homestate for 11 years, and the winters aren't nearly as yucky. In Jan. and Feb. I might be lucky enough for the ground to thaw so that I can till all those decomposing leaves into the garden. But for now I can still play in the flower beds, if it will kindly get to over 50 degrees for a day.

  9. Heh... I looked at your picture and thought, "Man. If wintertime looks like that in Indiana, I'm jealous--that grass is so green!" And then I kept reading. lol.

    I think about it as the "grey season" because of all of the grey/brown color around. But I try to take more walks and generally make myself go outside in the wintertime, and that helps immensely.

  10. After reading this post I have to think twice before complaining about winter ever again! Here we have very mild winters (it never snows and we rarely have frost), It doesn't even rain a lot (I wish we had a bit more rain, specialy this year), and we have flowers in our garden almost year round. Nevertheless I'm always complaining about how cold it is (45 during the night and 64 during the day), I will have to rethink it next time I feel "it's too cold"

  11. Your winter is the type I'm accustomed to - dark, wet, and muddy. A few snow storms each year. Perhaps I should be grateful for the sunny skies here and quit complaining.

  12. Winter is a tantalizing, frustrating time for me. I think that's mostly because I'm still something of a novice gardener, and anxious to see "results". I fully intend to be more relaxed in another five years.

    Leaf and flower buds form, seeds sprout in the ground and send up a few leaves, but then everything just sits there for several weeks, waiting for prolonged warm temperatures and longer days. (The difference between average winter/summer temperatures in San Francisco is about 30-40 degrees, and the difference in daylight is about 5.5 hrs.)

    Mid-November through March feels like I'm hanging on the end of an emotional rope.

    Winter and spring weather intergrades. We'll have a couple weeks of sunny, warm weather in January, and then Mother Nature takes it all back and gives us cold, driving rains in February and March.

    This kind of uncertainty requires you to live in the moment and appreciate the gifts of warmth and sunlight when they come. But you cannot make firm plans. And you really don't know it's all over until one day when it just feels like summer.

    Summertime, usually August, is when coastal fog comes pouring in and obscures the sun. That's the time of year when I sometimes forget when I last saw the sun.

    I read seed catalogs all year long. Whenever I look at the garden and feel like something is missing, I browse seed catalogs. I start nearly all seeds indoors because I can control the light and temperature necessary for germination. So I can do that anytime of year. I'll plant my tomato starts out in March, but Annie in Austin will harvest fruit months before I do.

  13. Nickie... You do indeed get a lot more snow up in your corner of Indiana than we get here in central Indiana.

    Robin's Nesting Place... Absolutely it could be a lot worse. I didn't realize that yesterday (the day I wrote this post) had gotten so warm (62) because I was inside from dark to dark. And today the sun was shining!

    Julie... I like the happy version of winter better, too. In fact, I might just skip part II of the truth about winter. It's bringing everybody down!

    Sarah... Yes, drink lots of hot chocolate and just dream of sitting by a fire.

    Lisa at Greenbow... Did this post sound depressing? I hope not! But we did get that shot of sunshine today. Woohoo!

    Frances... You are right on about the need to think about winter interest when planning a garden.

    Kathy... Most people do NOT do snow tires around here. We have a few snowy days when driving is difficult but with most cars having front wheel drive, it isn't too bad. Plus, studded snow tires are illegal to use on the streets around here, I think.

    Christine... I'll have to check out your blog to see where you moved back to. Thanks for the comment!

    Blackswamp_Girl... I agree that making yourself go outside does help, even on a cloudy day.

    Gintoino... Welcome! Flowers in your garden year around? I hope you'll post pictures of them for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day on the 15th.

    Mary... You do have that drought to complain about, and I don't blame you!

    Thanks all for the nice comments. I am going to hold off on Part II on the truth about winter. I don't want to bring anyone down right before all the holidays!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  14. Chuck B... Our comments crossed paths. San Francisco sounds like a challenging environment to garden in year around, or it would certainly take some adjustment on my part. I love the "four seasons" such as we get, though they tend to overlap quite a bit at times.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  15. It's sort of similar usually here in our zone 5 (Nova Scotia on the water) climate. However, currently, we have over a foot of snow, all fallen in the last ten days. And the weather is nuts.
    Last night it snowed. Then it turned to rain, and got sort of mild today, for a few hours. Then the temperature dove like a mole into its hole (!) and the wind picked up with great zeal and enthusiasm. There are wind chill warnings and threats of snow squalls. And of course, about 7 dozen bulbs are still unplanted but are going to go into planters in the barn, at least for the time being. We WILL get a thaw, and I'll be out there slogging through the muck slamming bulbs into the ground. But indoors, my office has lots of flowers, including wallflowers--photos from our garden--to help get us through to spring.

  16. I should count the number of times I've written in my garden journal "I can't remember when I last saw the sun," or similar remarks. Usually, though, that's in November. Midwinter in Northern Illinois, while also Zone 5, is more sunny & cold, with (hopefully) or without snow. The ice we've been getting is unusual.

  17. Uggh, I remember winters in Chicago and calling home to Texas hearing my mother brag about the azaleas in bloom and we still had a layer of snow and ice to melt through. So different ow for me, but sometimes, I miss those snowfalls...

  18. Ah yes, I remember it well! My mom's place in Northern IN gets the same winter you do...freeze and thaw, back and forth. And the sun? I remember the weather people there used to keep a tally of days in a row without sunshine, and I think I recall it got to 22 one time. People up here freak out at 13 days! Ah well, at least you don't have tons of accumulated snow to melt when the temps do finally come up...then it's a lake!


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