Ask the Master Gardener: Plenty to do for gardeners to keep busy in winter

Research, indoor projects and preparation for spring are good options for gardeners in winter.

Books on gardening are one way to occupy your time during the long winter months. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: What do Master Gardeners in Minnesota do during the winter?

Answer: Hunker down next to a cozy fire with a stack of tantalizing gardening books and magazines and a mug of cocoa. After all, now that gardening season and chores are on hold for a few months (or five), we have time to read up on the latest horticulture research. And in this frozen tundra we call home, we are still doing volunteer work, such as this column, for the University of Minnesota Extension. Please keep your horticultural questions coming to so I don’t have to start making them up!

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: How the Christmas tradition of mistletoe came to be Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives off the tree it attaches itself to. Dwarf mistletoe (which is not the type used for decoration) is found in Minnesota.

Jackie (who edits all the columns, occasionally answers questions and takes photos, and enjoys debating comma and semicolon rules with me) and I are both busy working on upcoming PowerPoint presentations we are safely giving for the Brainerd Library and various garden clubs.

In my personal gardening world, I have been experiencing a thrilling houseplant surprise with my aloe vera over the past few weeks. Yes, I wrote the question in the Nov. 22 column because I didn’t know aloe plants bloomed indoors (or, as a friend put it, “in captivity”) and was curious to research it. I figured if I was surprised by this rare indoor plant phenomenon, others might be, too. Like all other questions posed in the column, I scoured various university extension websites for the answer, finding it at the University of Florida. Since that column, the aloe plant flower stalk has grown about one-half inch per day and currently rises above the plant over 13 inches. I still don’t know if the flower will be yellow or red, but I am betting on yellow. I’ll let you know once it blooms!


Related: Ask the Master Gardener: What to consider when picking out your Christmas tree A real tree requires more work and attention than does an artificial one.

This week I set up a hydroponic garden in my kitchen. I have a small Aero-Garden I received for Christmas a few years ago. Last year I grew lettuce in it over the winter, but this year I am returning to herbs. It is wonderful having access to fresh herbs throughout the winter, as it adds so much more flavor to cooking than dried herbs. This year I am growing Genovese basil, Thai basil, curly parsley, Italian parsley, thyme, and chives. My daughter is going to grow salad greens in hers and would like to try growing a jalapeño pepper. I told her the jalapeño pepper may not be a good idea, so now she will do it for sure. I guess we’ll find out! A hydroponic garden is a great holiday gift idea. It could also be a fun winter gardening project to do with children. Hydroponics means growing plants in water without any soil. You just need a container, water, plants, a way to anchor the plants, nutrients, and light. Growing plants in water means no weeds. With artificial lighting you can grow hydroponically all year long – even in Minnesota! Short season crops or crops that do not produce fruit, such as herbs and leafy greens, are the best choices for indoor production in winter.

Aside from normal weekly houseplant chores and checking on the condition of my calla lily tubers, my terrarium required some attention. The glass needed cleaning because cloudy glass reduces light transmittance and interferes with plant growth. During Minnesota winters, houseplants struggle to get enough light, so if you have a terrarium it is important to keep the glass clean. There was a bare spot crying for a plant, so I took a cutting from a kalanchoe and placed it in that spot. Mine is an open terrarium, so succulents do fine. I have another miniature kalanchoe in there that looks like it is going to bloom soon. To keep plants in a terrarium as healthy as possible, it is important to remove any leaves that are wilting and/or have fallen, so that was another task. I pinched the tips of a few plants to keep them smaller and promote better growth. A terrarium filled with miniature plants and accessories is another fun gardening project to do with children.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: It’s rare but exciting for aloe vera plants to bloom indoors Aloe vera plants are great to keep as a houseplant because the gel that comes from its leaves can be used to treat minor burns, sunburn, or skin irritations.

This past week I received a lovely, cream-colored poinsettia as a gift. I took it out of the foil, watered it well, allowing the water to completely drain out, and placed it in a pretty, ceramic planter. You can really dress up a poinsettia plant by placing it in a beautiful bowl, vase, decorative container, or basket. It needs bright light, so it is in my sunroom, but out of direct sunlight.

Dear Master Gardener: Jackie – what’s happening in your gardening world?

Answer: This should be the time of year when all we need to worry about is keeping the Christmas tree and poinsettia watered, but I always seem to have plenty of gardening tasks to do.

I have to confess that, contrary to every bone in my body and everything I’ve ever said about fake Christmas trees, this year I didn’t feel like shopping around to find the perfect real tree. Without my tall sons (who insist the tree be taller than them) coming for Christmas, I decided to try a short, pre-lit tree. It’s cute, but it’s not right! No piney smell (we’re considering getting one of those smelly car dangly things), no shedding needles, no space for all the ornaments, and it’s pretty weird looking the angel topper in the eye. Worse yet, I constantly tell myself I’ve got to water the tree -- until I remember I don’t.


Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Dishing on making the perfect dish garden Dish gardens with succulents are low-maintenance, requiring little water.

I’ve picked most of the faded flowers off my big Thanksgiving cactus, which was spectacular last month. My white one bloomed for the first time, too. All the houseplants need to be watered and tidied up every week or so. At least there’s no fertilizing for a couple more months. Soon it will be time to get serious about clipping off pieces to root in Forsythe pots so they’ll be ready to pot up by April. Wiping off houseplant leaves with a damp microfiber cloth and keeping the windows clean helps maximize the light they get during these short days. If we don’t get some snow to melt for watering my plants, I’m going to make a trip to the non-fluoridated water tap at the water treatment plant so I don’t get brown tips or salt buildup from softened water.

Last week I checked the geraniums I pulled up and threw into paper bags last fall. They all looked good, so I stuck the roots in water for a few minutes and then back into the bags they went. Last year was the first time I’d tried this trick and it was nice to have a dozen free plants ready to plant in June. I’m going to pot them up and put them under the lights earlier this year, maybe the end of February, so they’ll be ready to bloom sooner. A quick peek into the boxes of Saran-wrapped dahlia tubers proved all is well. I collected seeds last fall from a couple perennials that I’ve winter-sown and it’s a good time to do a few more.

I’ve got a pot of lettuce under a grow light, but since it’s been above freezing, I’ve been setting it outside during the day. It’s amazing how much more it grows in the outside light. Lettuce can stand the cold but don’t try it with regular houseplants.

The good news is that most houseplants thrive on neglect this time of year, so maybe I will get presents wrapped, cookies baked, and cards written. Then it will be time to sit back and wait for the seed/plant catalogs to arrive next month!

Happy holidays from Jennifer, Jackie, and all the Crow Wing County Master Gardeners.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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