Carolyn Singer: Winter’s chill — Dormancy unveils gardening opportunities |

Carolyn Singer: Winter’s chill — Dormancy unveils gardening opportunities

Carolyn Singer advises that Peony roots may be dug when the foliage completely dies back.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

At last, daytime temperatures that make working outside a pleasure. While there is no sense of urgency as there is in the spring and summer when weeds seem to be the priority, for many of us gardening activity increases in this special season.

Moving plants while they are dormant ensures success. Even larger established shrubs and trees accept a transition.

Perennials stimulated by being introduced to newly prepared soil may even show some growth soon after transplanting. This new growth will not be damaged by frost or snow.

With perennials, distinguish between those that are dormant in winter and those that are evergreen. In the perennial garden, those plants that are herbaceous may now be cut back. Do not leave stems. These are spent, and will only detract from the beauty of fresh spring growth.

Moving and cutting back

Once dormant and cut back, an entire plant may be lifted and relocated. Use a good garden fork (not a pitchfork) to minimize damage to roots. Ornamental grasses are easy to lift, then cut back before moving or dividing.

Many perennials that are spreading in habit (yarrow, beebalm, asters, Shasta daisies, oregano) may be divided in the winter weeks ahead. Portions may be quite small or generously large.

This is a wonderful opportunity to increase an area with a favorite plant. Remember that pollinating insects are attracted to larger stands of flowers rather than a single specimen.

Foliage of evergreen perennials (hellebore, foxglove) should not be removed unless it appears spent. Occasionally hellebores will need trimming when an entire stalk has obviously died back.

Usually you will notice strong new growth replacing the older. With perennial and biennial foxglove, a leaf at the base may yellow and can then be removed.

Peonies have very strong roots and are one of the best perennials for the flower garden. Dramatic in bloom, they continue to be a valuable addition with attractive foliage all summer.

This week one of mine is still dynamic with its gold fall color. The color is so vivid that I can enjoy it from my living room window seat though it is many yards in the distance.

Another peony in my garden is ready to be cut back to the ground. This peony has been in the same spot for more than 25 years.

Using the digging fork, I could break off a section of the fleshy tuberous root to share or start in another area. The root section must have “eyes,” buds that will become above-ground growth.

This root portion should be planted with the eyes close to the soil surface, with no more than one and a half inches of soil, compost, or mulch covering it.

Fall-blooming perennials, for example the native California fuchsia (Zauschneria or Epilobium) may still be in bloom with the mild fall we have enjoyed.

Be patient, and wait for signs of diminishing vigor before cutting back flowering stems or lifting plants to transplant them. Hummingbirds may still be enjoying your garden!

Know your roots

As leaves drop from deciduous shrubs and trees, these plants too, are becoming dormant. If you find that the root system of one of these is too massive to loosen with a fork, a shovel or even a pry bar may be necessary tools.

The larger the plant, the more challenging it is to move a plant without some damage to the root system. Take your time and work around the plant.

Root cuttings of hops vines may be made as soon as the vine is clearly dormant.

A single long root may provide multiple cuttings, so there is no need to attempt to dig up more. A two-inch root cutting will become a substantial hops plant within one growing season.

I use two-gallon containers for the small root portions, knowing they will quickly outgrow a one-gallon nursery pot.

One of the most coveted of California natives, the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) will also be dormant in January and February.

Mark where the young plants have appeared this past growing season, and dig up the long underground stem between the parent plant and the offspring. It will have fine roots that will help it establish in its new location.

Dormant season is a gift. Plants may be moved intact or divided into multiple plants with no concern about transplant shock, frost, or any winter cold.

Do irrigate plants unless rain is already chasing you inside. And always check for root exposure after rains or irrigation. You may need to add more mulch.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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