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Dos and Don'ts of Winter

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

Reprinted from January 2021


girl at computer

My youngest daughter, a relatively novice gardener, called the other day wanting to know whether she should cut back her ornamental grasses or leave them standing all winter long. She was afraid they might die if she left them standing. She had googled her question and had come up with dozens of totally contradictory answers, leaving her answerless  --  and frustrated!  Listening to her, I realized that winter is an enigma for new gardeners; what needs to be done and what needs to be left until spring?

temperature map

One of the problems with winter garden maintenance is that many best practices are often dependent on location, weather conditions and plant species. While this makes it difficult to provide hard and fast rules for everyone, there are a few wintertime maintenance dos and don’ts that hold true regardless of where you live.  To help the newer gardeners this winter, we’ve put together a short list of some important winter do's and don'ts.


Do’s and Don'ts.


DO continue to water when conditions are dry. Newly planted trees and shrubs as well as evergreens are especially susceptible to winter damage when they don't have sufficient moisture, so keep watering until the ground freezes. 

dead fir branch


DO water container plantings occasionally throughout the winter months. Pay particular attention to any containers that sit underneath precipitation blocking overhangs.

container planting


DO periodically examine perennial beds. Alternating periods of freezing and thawing temperatures can cause the ground to heave, exposing delicate roots to harsh winter conditions. 

perennial bed in winter


DO add a two-to-three-inch layer of mulch to perennial beds after the first hard frost or when the ground freezes. This helps to keep ground temperatures stable. Pine and fir branches from discarded Christmas trees make great mulch too.


DON’T try to remove ice or heavy, packed snow from tree branches. Instead, let the snow and ice naturally melt. Trying to remove ice by sweeping it off or chipping away at it often results in greater, unintentional damage to tree limbs. (If you absolutely MUST sweep snow off of branches, sweeping upward instead of downward is less likely to cause damage.)

evergreens with heavy snow

DON’T walk across frosted or frozen grass. The weight of footsteps on frosted or frozen grass will cause the individual blades to break and will leave large brown patches. Lawns damaged from winter foot traffic are slow to recover in the spring.

footprint in snow


DON’T use rock salt as ice melt in areas near lawns or planting beds. Salt is toxic to plants, causing damage in several ways. Salt that seeps into the ground prevents plants from absorbing necessary nutrients like calcium and potassium. Even more destructive, salt robs a plant of any moisture in its leaves, stems, branches, or roots. Further, even if the ground is well-watered, the plant will be unable to draw up water, eventually turning brown, shriveling and dying.

dead bush


Whether you are a novice gardener like my daughter or an old hand with years of trial and error behind you, knowing where to go for accurate, reliable answers to your specific questions is important. Luckily there are some great options available today. Some of the best sources available to consumers across the country are their local extension services. Extension offices, which are connected to major universities, offer online and in-person research based, up-to-date area specific information. Best of all, many of their services are typically low cost or free of charge.

Many of the nation's foremost arboretums and botanical gardens also provide expert help to gardeners. Here in the Midwest, Chicago’s Botanical Garden and the Morton Arboretum, St. Louis’s Missouri Botanical Garden and Kansas City’s Powell Gardens are just a few of the gardens I personally rely on for guidance. Finally, professionals like those working at Embassy Landscape Group can offer you the best advice for your particular situation. With their extensive training and years of experience in the field, they have the answers you need.

With so much information just a click away, it’s a good feeling to know who you can really rely on to help you find the answers you need when you need them.