Should You Start Watering Your Plants More Often in Late Winter?

Most gardeners are ready to start planting when early spring comes around. But what about your existing plants? Should you water them while there's still a bitter chill in the air, even though spring is just around the corner? In this article, gardening expert Jill Drago examines how much water your plants need in early spring, even when there's still a danger that another snapback frost could be around the corner.

water plants when cold

Contents

Watering is the number one most crucial gardening task there is. Without it, there is no point in fertilizing, mulching, weeding… you get the idea. Water is necessary for all of the plant’s functions used to survive as well as thrive in our gardens for years to come.

So when is the best time to begin watering your gardens? Our beloved plants start to wake up before we even realize it. Roots begin to stretch and grow, and new leaf buds and flower buds begin to form. This takes a lot of energy, and water will help your plants along the way.

Spring is right around the corner. Should you up your watering frequency in late winter, or hold off until the middle of spring? How cold is too cold? Let’s find out!

The Short Answer

May is typically the month when you need to begin watering your plants full-time, but in most locations, you’ll want to increase your watering frequency earlier than this. You’ll likely need to up your watering frequency in March or April, depending on the moisture level of your soil. This can mean increasing your watering frequency in late winter, depending on your hardiness zone. Just pay attention to your weather and make sure your temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Begin by watering about once a week with your hose, skip the sprinklers for now. Allow about 6 inches of your soil to become moist. This usually will take about one to two inches of water. Using a rain gauge is a great way to keep track of how much water your gardens are getting between hand watering and rainfall.

The Long Answer

Watering shrub at base of plant with fertilizer on ground. Gardener is using a watering can made of green plastic and a dark metal head. Green foliage is visible on the left-hand side of the image.
Plants should be watered after they exit their dormant phase.

Plants go through a period of dormancy during the winter months. Dormancy slows down all of the plant’s processes so that it can protect itself from freezing winter temperatures. While the plants may be resting, the weather certainly is not.

The sun is just as intense in the winter, and the winds can whip just as hard. Both of these weather conditions will cause your plants to lose water.

When we are not watering our gardens the water supply in the soil and within the plants themselves will become scarcer. This is why it is a good idea to start watering as early as you can in the springtime, even in late winter.

When to Start Watering

Close-up of watered young lettuce seedlings in the garden in early spring. Lettuce seedlings have a small rosette of pale green oval leaves with wavy edges. The soil at the base of the seedlings is completely in water.
Start watering your plants when the temperature is 40 degrees or higher.

Even if the temperatures seem chilly to us, plants know when it is time to start producing new roots and buds. Often this will begin in March or April, making watering very important!

There are two key factors that you are looking for when it comes to late winter watering. You will want your ground to be thawed, and the temperatures should be 40 degrees or higher.

If your temperatures are still dipping below freezing at night, try to water earlier in the day to give your plants a chance to absorb the water before nightfall.

In the fall we wean our plants off of supplement watering, in the late winter or early spring, we should slowly wean them back in. Plants do not need as much water in the spring as they do in the summer.

When to Hold Off on Watering

Plantation of young green lettuce covered with hoarfrost, early morning frost in early spring. Lettuce has a rosette of small, slightly wavy, light green leaves covered with frost. The soil is dark brown, frozen, covered with hoarfrost.
Refrain from watering if the temperature is below freezing to avoid damaging your plants.

If your daytime temperatures are consistently below 40 degrees, you should hold off on watering your gardens. Watering when it is too cold can damage your plants, and the water may not be available to the plants once it has gotten too cold.

If your temperatures have been above 40 for a while, but you notice that you will have consecutive days of below freezing, you should stop watering until the temperatures rise again.

If you have had a lot of rain, or snow lately check the moisture in your soil before you add any extra water to your gardens. Overwatering your plants is never a good idea, no matter what the season is. This can lead to fungal issues, as well as problems with the roots.

If your ground is frozen, this water will most likely run off and not have the opportunity to be absorbed by the plant. At the end of the day, that is not a good use of a wonderful resource.

How to Water

Close-up of a blue watering can watering a plant at the base, in a garden bed. The plant has an upright stem and oval bright green leaves. The soil at the base of the plant is completely in water.
Water at the base of the plant to prevent problems with snapback frosts.

When you are watering during the chilly late winter or early spring temperatures, take extra care. It is always good gardening practice to aim your garden hose at the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves and flowers. This is especially true during late winter.

If too much moisture forms on the leaves of the plants, the likelihood of frost forming on the leaves increases. This can lead to plant death or at least death of the frostbitten plant tissues. This can result in a loss of flowers, or distorted or unattractive foliage that will last through the year.

Watering to Prevent Frost Damage

Close-up of watering pepper seedlings from a watering can, in the garden. Pepper seedlings have thin stems with bright green, oval leaves with tapered tips.
Water your plants a day or two before the expected frost to protect plant roots from the cold.

If you have begun springtime watering and are due for a late frost do not worry. Watering your plants a day or two before the expected frost can insulate the plant’s roots from cold temperatures. Watering before a frost will also help the roots stay nice and cozy. Moist soil retains more heat than dry soil.

Make sure you are not watering after the temperatures drop. This will cause the remaining water in the soil to freeze which can lead to damaging frost heaves.

Frost heaves occur when there is a lot of freezing and thawing going on in your soil. This constant change in soil temperatures and structure can cause your plants to lift out of the soil which will ultimately damage the root system and can lead to the destruction of your plant.

Don’t Neglect Your Bulbs

Vegetable salad young spring shoots of narcissus flowers, in early spring, break through the ground in the garden. Sprouts are oval, wide, flat leaves, bright green in color with slightly pointed tips.
Water the bulbs only when green shoots appear.

Bulbs do not require watering until the ground has thawed and you notice green growth popping out of the soil. Flowering powerhouses like tulips and hyacinth have been dormant all winter long and will benefit greatly from late winter to early spring watering.

Do not overwater your bulbs, as this can lead to the rotting of the bulb. Water lightly when there has been a dry stretch.

Preparing For Snapback Frosts

Close-up of lettuce growing in a garden bed mulched with straw. Lettuce is a beautiful rosette of large, slightly wavy, pale green leaves. The gardener's hands demonstrate the salad.
Add mulch to your garden to keep moisture in the soil.

Many things in the world of gardening can be more of an art than science. If you are in danger of snapback frosts, there are actions you can take to prevent damage outside of making sure your plants are watered.

Mulch: Adding mulch to your gardens will help keep moisture in the soil. Of course, this will allow the roots of your plants to drink as needed.

Cover Your Plants: Frosts in late spring happen. If you are looking ahead to your future weather and notice a cold snap coming, it is a good idea to cover some of your shrubs and plants with blankets or burlap. This will protect the leaves and buds of your plants from direct contact with the freezing air.

Final Thoughts

Even though watering may not seem important in late winter or early spring, it is crucial. Plants spend months drying out and doing their best to survive the harsh winters. To have the best growing season possible it is important to start watering your plants as soon as the weather allows. Keep your eye on the temperatures and make the best call for your garden.

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Adjacent to the sunlit window, potted plants stand with wilting, drooping greenery. The plants appear weak and thirsty, their leaves sagging and lacking vibrancy, yearning for hydration and care.

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