Every winter I reach the point when I just have to go out and inspect the garden. Usually, it’s a day when the wind dies down, and the temperature jumps from the single digits to the upper 20s.

Part of my garden stroll is pleasure, breathing fresh outdoor air instead of stale, dry indoor air and viewing the plants in their off-season beauty.

But I’m also checking on the health of the plants, looking at what we can expect for blossoms in the coming year and the work we will have to do, perhaps as early as March.

I especially enjoy looking at the blossoms-to-be on winter trees and shrubs, the newly installed plants in particular. Will the magnolia that we put in a couple of years ago to replace one that died have many flowers this coming spring or just a few, like it did last year? Will the dogwoods we purchased in bloom from a nursery last year flower during their first year in our yard, or will we have to wait? Will the rhododendrons rescued five years ago and planted in dense shade and poor soil finally be recovered enough to put on a June show?

The rhododendrons and magnolia already have plump buds that give me hope – maybe not as many buds as I would like, but good for a few spring flowers, at least.

The dogwoods, because they bloom later in the summer, show no signs of buds, neither flowers nor leaves, but they do have supple, healthy-looking branches.

One of the things I love about rhododendrons is that they show you how cold it is. In temperatures down to the high 20s, the leaves are stiff, shiny and fleshy. When the temperature drops to the teens or below, especially when the wind whips through the shrubs, the leaves curl up into themselves to preserve what little warmth there is and to prevent their precious moisture from evaporating. With these in my yard, I don’t need a thermometer.

A walk after a meltdown, when bare soil shows in gardens, offers more to look at. At several locations in our gardens (not this week), some bulbs plants – mostly tete-a-tete daffodils and grape hyacinths – have poked their shoots above the frozen soil – and that could mean trouble for them.

Tete-a-tetes are tough Zone 4 miniature bulb plants, which means they are hardy in all but far-northern Maine. But when temperatures go below zero and the garden lacks snow cover, bulbs and other perennials are more likely to die.

You will have more trouble when you have tried to cheat a zone or two, figuring that the warmer temperatures from global warming will let you keep a slightly exotic plant alive for a few years.

Without snow cover, the roots get a lot colder and could be subject to freezing and thawing as the sun warms the soil every day and temperatures drop again at night. What we call a “blanket of snow” actually does act as a cover for plants, keeping them warm and stable.

Winter also is a great time to determine which trees and shrubs need pruning, especially the deciduous plants that drop their leaves each fall. Without the leaves to block your view, you can tell which branches are dead, which are crossing with or rubbing against other branches, which are just going in the wrong direction and where branches that are too tall or too wide connect with the rest of the plant.

What you see in winter is the structure of the plant, without its decorative clothing.

Another advantage of pruning in winter is that the plants are dormant, without the sap that feeds the leaves coming up from the roots. In southern Maine, sap usually starts running in maples in late February or early March, so it is good to get the pruning done before then – on a sunny day, with temperatures in the 30s, and preferably with little wind. You might cut off some blossoms on spring-blooming shrubs, but if you’re careful you won’t do the plant any harm.

Also, check the shrubs you grow for stem color. Young branches usually have more vibrant colors, so you want to cut out some of the older, darker-colored branches, especially on shrubs that you are growing for their colorful stems – such as red-twig dogwood.

Walking in our garden a couple of weeks ago, I noticed crossing branches on viburnums, quince and lilacs. The James McFarlane lilac had way too many shoots coming from the ground, while the red-twig dogwood had too many gray branches.

I’m looking forward to a sunny afternoon so I can take care of those problems. It will be good to get back to gardening.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.