Gardening with Native Plants: Garden Winter

hoar frost on milkweed pods

Hoar frost on milkweed pods

February’s cold and snows limit garden work but allow for interesting winter observations and garden planning. Animal activity is legible in the snow, rewritten after each new accumulation. A pair of linear trackways show where coyotes passed through. Trails radiating from a tree trunk like wheel spokes trace squirrels’ paths. Speed of a hopping rabbit or bounding deer is read in the distance between paw or hoof prints. Predation by birds of prey could show as a wing imprint in the snow, or fur fluff or feathers at the base of a tree. Early skunk activity will be noticed by tracks and/or an easily identified scent. Try identifying animal tracks and activities in your garden.

Turkey tracks in the snow
Pattern of tracks left in the snow by circling turkeys

Late in the month, rodents or rabbits may girdle woody stems (use fencing to prevent this). If damage is not too extensive, the stems may survive and bark growth may heal the damage.

During winter, observe branching structure and bark features on deciduous trees and shrubs. Winter tree identification involves learning a few terms to describe twigs, buds, and leaf and branch placement. Photography, sketching, or bringing twigs indoors to study might help you notice features and small details.

February is an ideal month to finalize plans for spring planting and to compile plant orders. This year, Friends of the Arboretum is offering a virtual format for their annual plant sale and will not hold the tent sale. All plants are available to order now, for curbside pickup in the spring (at Winterland Nursery for trees and shrubs and at the Arboretum on May 8 for herbaceous plants, flats, and plant mixes). All orders are due March 15 and can be placed through the convenient online store or submitted by mail. See for all of the details.

If you are starting a new native plant area in your garden, consider using a plant mix. The savanna mix is suited to yards with a mix of shade and sun. The rain garden mix will grow well in a sunny spot where water drains and collects or where you can create a shallow basin. Those species need ample moisture but can withstand short dry periods as well. The garden mix for birds, bees, and butterflies will thrive in full sun. This mix is designed to bloom throughout the season, which is key to attracting and supporting pollinators and seed-eating birds. Each mix contains 32 plants, which will cover about 45 square feet of area when the plants are planted one foot apart. If you have only deep shade or a north-facing slope, consider woodland plants from the individual species offered.

Native plants for hummingbirds or monarchs are available in two new citizen science kits this year. The kits each include six native plants and information on monitoring these migrating species at home through the Journey North program, which is based at the Arboretum. The kit also includes a yard sign that identifies your garden as part of this international project. Your local observations contribute to a larger effort to understand patterns in the migrating populations of these popular species. Planting these kits will help support other pollinators and insect visitors as well.

If you have questions about plant selection as you start or add to your native plant garden, please join the FOA Native Plant Sale Facebook group, email questions to, or contact me.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener