NTV's South City Properties and Gardens Manager, Justin Buckley, gives his top tips for caring for your garden during winter.
Pruning is a traditional winter task. Although pruning can be done at any time of the year, many plants are suited to an annual haircut in the cooler months for good reasons. Whether it be pruning fruit trees for structure, taking the roses back to fat buds, or cutting dormant herbaceous plants down to the ground, winter is the time to set plants up for success once the growing season comes on in spring. Just be mindful of ‘blossom’ plants – those that do their annual flowering before or with the first flush of new leaves. These have already formed their flower buds and if you prune these too hard in winter, you will take all the flowers off too. If in doubt, just wait until flowering is finished before getting out the secateurs.
Feeding and fertilising plants that are sitting dormant achieves little. The nutrients will be unavailable to the plants and can leach through the soil with the rain and be wasted. Some slow-release fertilisers are actually temperature dependent and don’t release their goodies below a certain temperature. However, compost and manure can be added at any time to improve the soil in the long term, and while beds are dormant or fallow is a good opportunity. If your compost is a little fresh, applying it in winter gives the soil microbes a chance to do their thing and have it nicely mellowed for plants that are ready to burst back to life in spring
While your lawn might take a rest in winter, the weeds do not. A selection of cool-season weeds take their chance to germinate and get their moment in the (winter) sun. Bare soil favours germination and mulching is the answer to this. If resting productive beds, try mulching with something like pea straw that can be dug in as compost when planting out. Or sow a green manure crop and treat it the same way in spring.
Now is the time to be looking around gardens in your area and taking note of the winter ‘hero plants’ that we tend to forget the rest of the year. It could be an early blossom tree like flowering almond (Prunus dulcis cv.), a deciduous magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), fragrant shrubs like wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) or just a handful of daffodil bulbs. These beauties will lift the spirits of yourself and passers-by with the promise of warm and sunnier days around the corner.
In a climate like ours, we tend to focus on plants suffering from too little water. Many plants though, intensely dislike what we call ‘wet feet’ where the soil becomes saturated. It is not the wetness of waterlogged soil that is the problem, rather the lack of oxygen present. This prevents plants from being able to access enough oxygen to respire and feed themselves effectively. A garden bed might be hard and dry for the rest of the year only to turn into a bog in winter. It might only become a problem in a particularly wet year, like the last couple we have had, and the heavier the soil the more susceptible. Check there are no leaks or any poorly directed drainage contributing to the problem. Improving the soil with the addition of compost helps, as does raising the bed so water drains away, and the roots have a chance to sit above the problem. Or embrace the challenge and try some of those very stoic members of the plant world that can tolerate dry and wet soils, such as canna lilies or some irises.
This article was originally featured in the Winter 2023 edition of the NTV Member Magazine. Copies of the magazine are available to purchase at Como House, Rippon Lea, Old Melbourne Gaol, Pentridge Prison and VAULT, or become a member and receive our magazine three times a year.