the january garden chores
THE ANSWER IS NO: No, you probably shouldn’t start all your vegetable seed now, unless it’s for a cool-season crop and you live in a relatively warm zone. And no, you probably can’t take a soil sample, either, in much of the nation (like here in Zone 5B, though technically the ground is unfrozen still).
But planning for these and other key activities that form the lead-up to another active garden season are what the January chores are all about. Planning—and some dreaming, too, in the pages of the catalogs, but seasoned with lots of patience.
It’s always good to pause on the cusp of the new year, and try to put some words to what will be the focus, or adjustments, in the garden ahead.
“Dig in.” That’s my promise to myself in 2016, and my garden mandate, too. In 2015, I swore I’d finally tackle the long-neglected, oldest parts of the garden, right in front of the house. But the forces of nature had another task in mind, throwing me off course.
Remember how one of the giant oldest apple trees fell apart, leaving me with a big, established shade garden minus its former shade?
I improvised, planting a small fringe tree and numerous deciduous azaleas where the one massive side of the apple had been, and never did get to the neglected mess out front.
This year? I must dig in, and re-do that mess out front. More on that plan to come.
I won’t forget my 2015 and 2014 mantras, though, which are sort of my forever ones: “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” I’d said out loud last year at this time, with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action is taken. A year earlier, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: “Be kind!”
regional chores links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer in the chores will apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To help adjust the timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). Again, I encourage you to read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
Topic by topic, the month’s chores:
TREAT YOURSELF to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too. My Seed Series—now in its third winter, in stories and podcasts—has featured some standout sellers and breeders, with more to come. Some of the links so far (or browse the entire archive):
- Power-shop the 2016 catalogs, with me and Joseph Tychonievich
- Better beans and tough tomatoes, with Prairie Road Organic Seed
- Grow onions from seed, with Siskiyou Seeds’ Don Tipping
- Growing kale from seed, with Sarah Kleeger of Adaptive Seeds
- Heritage corn and polyculture tactics with Rowen White
- Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed
- Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds
- Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Bill McDorman and Native Seeds/SEARCH
- Better beets and Brian Campbell of Uprising Seeds
- Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds
- Squash and kale diversity with Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds
- Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Library
- Carol Koury of Sow True Seed
- University of Wisconsin corn breeder Bill Tracy
- John Navazio and Organic Seed Alliance
- …and more sources can be found in my Resources List
BUY ORGANIC, THINK REGIONAL: I’ve written about why I buy organic seed and focus on regionally appropriate varieties for “The New York Times,” for “Mother Earth News,” and also on this website, and my reasoning is all rounded up on this page.
NEXT, INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Lately I’ve been reading up on how not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work; more on that important topic here. Old seed that perhaps can technically sprout but loses steam after that is a frequent reason behind garden failure.
STORE KEEPERS of your leftover seed in a cool, dry place. A friend stashes his in the fridge, first sealing in zipper bags with the air squeezed out, then placing the bags in a sealed plastic box.
WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? You’ve got time, but best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought. Don’t skimp on light.
IN 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but two years ago, I got a miniature version with new-fangled T-5 grow bulbs that I love, and that provide so much more light than the old-style tubes (though not as much as outdoors even on a cloudy day). Do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, or a soil-blocker? If not, order them.
review 2015, revise for 2016
TOP PRIORITY: Take a mental spin through your 2015 garden, or review notes or photos. If you didn’t make/take any, resolve to keep records in 2016. List anything you want to do more or less or just plain differently, to keep in mind before catalog-induced temptation (and then spring fever) take hold.
RESOLUTION-TYPE THINKING: Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last few years to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy), or otherwise invite more birds to the landscape (here’s how to make a garden for the birds, and a little archive of advice from habitat-garden experts)?
SPEAKING OF WILDLIFE MAGNETS: Will this be the year you add water to the backyard picture, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this? Or let a dead or dying tree stand, with some adjustments for safety’s sake, to become a wildlife-sustaining snag?
DOES YOUR GARDEN SUFFER from the polkadot effect—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of a group or drift of the same variety to punch up the visual volume)? I forced myself to harvest divisions of plants I’ve had a long time, and repeat them in sweeps elsewhere–rather than bring home so many new one-off’s from the garden center. That work will continue. Additional DIY garden-design advice.
MORE KEY QUESTIONS: Does one season (perhaps winter?) need some added visual excitement? Or in the edible garden, was there a crop you wish you’d enjoyed over a longer span, not just a momentary harvest? (Examples: Do you need a more heat-tolerant spinach for later plantings, or just the discipline to actually sow a short row of lettuce every two weeks?) Smarter shopping is part of helping to rectify things.
KEEP AN EYE OUT for spider mites, mealybugs and scale insects. If tackled before they get out of hand, nonchemical methods are usually successful: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray or horticultural oil (as directed on labels) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter, so go easy. How expert Tovah Martin cares for her indoor plants, including begonias.
I DON’T FEED in the low-light months, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice the accumulation of “extra” minutes of daylight, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so). I just started watering my Clivia again; I keep them dry and cool from fall until the New Year or thereabouts.
trees & shrubs
IF THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow but still-frozen or at least not-muddy soil occurs on a sunny day, get out and prune. Fruit trees, like my old apples, benefit from a late-winter cleanup; here’s how. First: Are all your cutting tools sharp, blades cleaned, moving parts oiled? I’ll wait a bit longer to cut back twig willows and dogwoods because I’m so enjoying the show. Maybe March with those, or even April. My Pruning FAQ page will help.
BUT DON’T RUSH: Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if January thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud wrecks the soil.
ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important in winter, with its harsher, windy weather, where weaknesses left in place invite bark tearing and unnecessary extra damage.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. (I also watch in May for larvae hatch and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests I missed.)
CONIFER RESEARCH: Take note in your local travels (or in books), of conifers that look good to you, and think about adding a few to the garden come spring. Some of my favorite colorful conifers.
DID YOU CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area right around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits? Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round as well.
pantry, cellar, shed
BE SURE TO CHECK stored vegetables (“one bad apple…” and all that, you know). My garlic doesn’t make it all the way through the year in the cellar so about now I freeze some, as whole cloves. Like this. Ditto with onions if needed to keep them fresh, not sprouting. Remember the ideal storage conditions for each crop?
TENDER ORNAMENTAL PLANTS in the cellar, garage, shed need a check, too–and perhaps water in some cases, or culling of any bulbs that have started to soften and may taint the rest. How and where I stash everything non-hardy. The rosemary’s handled this way; the fig is over here. Potted citrus goes like this.
for other regions…
NEED REGION-SPECIFIC ADVICE? My page of links to garden checklists and calendars may get you to an expert who can help.