Story time! December of 2009, I met with Bob and Marilyn to walk through the layout of their front walk. The crew was coming the following day to rip out the existing walk and we wanted to get all our ducks in a row. “Can we really do winter landscape projects like this?” asked Marilyn. I waved off the question. “This is Virginia! With our mild winters, your guests will be walking up to the front door for Christmas Eve on your brand new walk.”
Thus began the season of Snowpocalypse. We weren’t able to finish that front walk till February, and it was another month till the dumpster company could actually get down their gravel road to pick up the box. These days, I’m much more conservative in my pronouncements of what’s possible and what’s not, and I always mention that because it’s Virginia, who the heck knows?
The truth of the matter is that most landscape projects can be done all year long in Virginia, provided there’s not two $@^&@^-ing feet of snow on the ground (I’m still bitter). That’s not to say we don’t have limits.
Limits on winter landscape projects: planting
If we can get to the ground, and we can get a shovel IN the ground, we can plant most woody trees and shrubs in the winter. Planting deciduous trees and shrubs in winter is great. They’re dormant, and the lack of leaves means that these trees and shrubs aren’t going to dry out from moisture loss through the leaves. We may have less selection in the winter, as we’re not getting much field dug, but most nurseries still have plenty of stock.
Evergreens require a little more thoughtful approach. Generally speaking, the smaller the leaf, the safer it is to plant in winter. Junipers and boxwood are pretty safe. Southern magnolias and broad-leaved hollies like Nellie R. Stevens or Oakleaf? Nope, no way. I won’t do it. Here’s why:
This holly was planted late in the fall, towards the end of October/early November. It looked great at first, but because the roots didn’t have time to get established, it had a hard time getting water once the client shut off her outside faucets. As dry winter winds raced across Virginia, they sucked all the moisture right out through those big leaves.
We also don’t plant most perennials after November 1st. There’s just not enough plant mass to stand up to our bizarre and sometimes frigid winters, and it’s just depressing to see a bunch of lifeless piles of brown in the spring. Liriope is the big exception. I will always plant liriope. A post-apocalyptic world will be run by roaches eating Twinkies and relaxing under liriope.
Limits on winter landscape projects: masonry
Concrete is created via a chemical reaction between Portland cement and water (with a bunch of aggregates and sand as well). That water needs to be liquid, which is why temperature is a limiting factor when it comes to masonry work. If daytime temps are above freezing, we can use insulating blankets or even just straw to protect the new work if nighttime temps are going to dip below freezing. In some cases, we’ll even put up a tent and use heaters to make it easier for the guys to work during the day. However, if it’s consistently below freezing, we hit the pause button. It’s not great for the guys to work in those conditions, and it also impacts the quality of the masonry in winter landscape projects.
While paver installations don’t require mortar or concrete, freezing temperatures can also cause us to pause work on pavers. If the bulk materials we’re working with – sand, gravel, or soil – are frozen, we can’t reliably get a smooth surface, and we’ll need to come back to fix it. We’d rather get it right the first time.
Limits on winter landscape projects: inclement weather
The bottom line is that the crew needs to be able to work efficiently and SAFELY. Dangerously cold and windy? We can’t work. Same with an icy jobsite.
Snow falls under the category of “it depends”. A couple of inches can easily be shoveled off the work area, and the remainder will disappear as soon as the sun’s been on it for a while. Too much snow, however, and we have to wait.
Pricing and winter projects – can you get a deal?
You hear it everywhere, especially online: wait to do your landscape project in the winter and you can score amazing deals. Is this true? Not really. Here’s why.
For one thing, productivity goes down and we’re accomplishing less per day with winter landscape projects. It’s cold, it’s miserable, and it’s harder to move around and work in heavy clothes and gloves. Sometimes we need to move a little slower just for safety. Sometimes we’re moving slower because it takes more time to get the same results from cold or frozen materials. Our vendors are open fewer hours. And we have to plan for the likelihood of not being able to work every day due to weather.
Additionally, our costs don’t drop in the winter. Some vendors (like ready-mix concrete) actually charge more in the winter. Add all this up and it costs me more to build a project in the winter than it does in decent weather, so I’m unlikely to offer a huge discount for winter work. It’s just not good business, and I want to be here creating beautiful landscapes for a long, long time.
What are you working on this winter? Let me know in the comments!