Melissa Burdick is the curator of herbaceous plants at the Norfolk Botanic Garden. She lives and gardens in Virginia.

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Gear Up for Cold Weather Gardening
by Melissa Burdick       #Winter

It’s hard to keep an avid gardener cooped up inside all winter. The gardener starts to go stir crazy and, in turn, drives all those around her – those who are perfectly content to remain cozied up on the couch, mind you – just as crazy. But on the coldest winter days it can be just as difficult for the gardener to put on enough layers to keep out the chill without morphing into an awkward creature that ambles through the garden like the unfortunate love child of Sasquatch and a penguin.

That’s when it pays to shop around for the best layers to keep you warm, allow moisture to dry quickly, and still provide a full range of movement.

The good ole long johns are a classic base layer and very popular for their affordability and effectiveness. The familiar waffle-weave bespeaks winter warmth and, as most are made of natural fibers – cotton, wool, silk, or blends – they offer excellent breathability. They tend to be bulkier and, for the sake of being able to continue breathing, you might have to find a larger size pant to wear over them. I can tell you from experience, though, they aren’t the warmest option on the market any more.

More modern fabrics are rediscovering old-fashioned space-age technology (and no, that’s not an oxymoron) like polyester to create comfortable blends that are super lightweight, snuggly warm and comfortably stretchy. One of my favorite affordable brands is Cuddl’ Duds®, a silk/polyester blend, because they’re soft, thin enough to layer under your regular clothes, and surprisingly warm. Some fancier brands are even infusing fabrics with aloe to sooth chafed skin, although I think that’s a little silly.

Seriously gung-ho winter gardeners with plenty of disposable income might be interested in some of the base layer items invented for athletes. These ultra-high tech fabrics are geared to runners who need warmth and free movement as well as compression. You may have snickered at your grandmother’s support hose, but sports science has shown that compression clothing helps relieve muscle and joint stress and speed recovery time – sounds like something a gardener can appreciate, yes? Under Armour® makes a “Cold Gear” series of clothing complete with tights, pants, tops and jackets. Whether tailored to compress (and therefore suitable to go under grungier work clothes) or loose fitting, the polyester/elastane blend is undeniably warm, fast drying and slick. You will feel a little like Robo-Gardener at first though.

As for the top layers, nothing beats a slumpy pair of sweatpants for warmth, and they couldn’t be cheaper, especially when you scavenge the thrift stores. But the soft fleecy fabric that makes them so comfy is the very thing that makes them awful when they get wet, either from rain, snow or ground moisture on the outside, or from stinky sweat on the inside. Slip a pair of rain pants made with Gore-Tex® on over your sweats, or any regular work pant, and you’ll have a waterproof combo that, unlike rubber or plastic pants, still lets your skin breathe. These high-end rain pants are easiest to find among the hunting supplies.

The hunting department, by the way, is also where you can find Hot-Hands® and Toasty-Toes®, essentials in the anti-cold arsenal of any outdoor enthusiast. These little single-use pouches use powdered chemicals that give off heat when exposed to the air (your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you that was an exothermic reaction). One in each pocket will give your digits a break from the cold every now and then. I simply can’t live without my Toasty-Toes and buy them online in bulk. Peel off the backing of the thin pad and stick one in the toe of each boot. Even your pinky-toes will be warm no matter how long you garden.

Finally, for those who insist on getting out and pruning that shrub even in the middle of a blizzard, there’s the very top layer. It’s the ultimate ambition for serious gardeners everywhere to own their own set of rugged hard-working Carhartts. The covetable combination of bib overalls and traditional jacket has been keeping those who labor outdoors warm, for love of nature or love of paying the mortgage, since railroad workers first donned them during the westward expansion. Admittedly, I got my pair years ago when they didn’t have a product line dedicated to women, and I do waddle a bit like Sasquatch with the cuffs rolled up nearly a foot. In 2007, the feminist movement experienced another breakthrough – the company introduced their women’s line. You can now get a good fit in their famous bibs and jacket in the ultra-flattering colors of “brown” or “dark brown,” which Vogue says is the new black, by the way.

Accessorize the ensemble with a warm stocking cap (what I call a toboggan) to keep heat from venting off the top of your head. Skip the scarf, whose ends get tangled and muddy, and opt for a neck warmer made of a ring of warm material like polar fleece. And don’t forget the gloves. Good warm work gloves are hard to find. Either they’re warm but too bulky for dexterity, or they’re slimmer, but so cold your fingers go numb. I usually buy one or two pairs of inexpensive boy-sized ski gloves at Wal-Mart; they’re waterproof, warm and a better fit than men’s gloves (it’s oddly hard to find women’s sizes). They don’t usually make it all the way through winter, but since they’re cheap, I can consider them disposable.

It may be winter, but there’s always something to do in the yard. So if you’re fed up with the months-long TV marathon, get up, go put your layers on, get outside and garden!


Hypothermia is no joking matter. If you or a loved one is experiencing hypothermia, get inside quickly and warm up gradually. Don’t use alcohol, hot baths or electric blankets as heating the body up too quickly can cause a heart attack. If you’re experiencing a level of hypothermia that’s beyond your capability to recover at home, don’t hesitate to call 911 for help.


Posted: 12/21/10   RSS | Print


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