THE SHORTEST garden to-do list of the year, December’s, begins with the annual fire drill—one final last-minute check of whatever I had forgotten to secure outdoors, before entering my own semi-dormancy and holing up with the seed catalogs and a pile of cookbooks and making lots of soup while I watch the birds out the windows.
Here in the Northeast, I usually re-check myself around Thanksgiving or the first week of the new month, looking for a hose bib not drained for winter; a partial row of potatoes still in the ground; another skimming of the water gardens for leaves that scuttled in since my last pass. Oh, and that last bag of bulbs I seem to have misplaced—till then.
garden elsewhere? regional links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer 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 adjust 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.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
my last-minute checklist, one more time
- If I didn’t have a big fence, I’d be upping my deer-control measures right now, too, like this.
- Are any non-weatherproof pots still sitting, shivering, out in the open? Are any leaves piled up on lawns or paths or the driveway that require one more raking? (Remember: in all areas where you can, let leaves lie where they fall to sustain various caterpillars and other important members of the food chain who winter in or under them. More on that ecological approach to leaves is here.)
- Are bird-feeder poles anchored well into the ground before it freezes deep (and are they either closer than 3 feet to windows, or farther than 30, to minimize bird strikes on glass)? And what about those flexible fiberglass poles or other devices meant to indicate where the driveway ends and lawn begins—key markers for a successful, safe snow-plowing season?
- Windy weather can make a mess, too, so out come the saw and loppers again, and off come torn or hanging branches that would flop around and cause more damage subsequent storms.
- Quick, in case you missed it: Besides mucking out leaves, the water garden needs immediate attention and winterizing, to avoid burst plumbing and suffocated frogs and fish and salamanders; here’s how.
- A plan for mouse and vole protection (think: trapping, and never mothballs!) must be in place in key hiding spots.
- And then there’s list-making–the stuff of next year’s garden resolutions. Don’t wait much longer to start taking notes on what you’ll do differently; easier while the garden’s still fresh in memory.
- Oh–and stashing the last parsley and sage in the freezer like this). The rest of the month’s chores follow:
best practices for the birds
IT’S FEEDER SEASON, even for those of us who don’t feed in frost-free months (or can’t, because of marauding black bear, as is my issue). I begin again when hard frosts are getting regular, usually about Thanksgiving. Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this, and also plan to help birds stay safe from deadly window strikes and predation by cats (expert advice on that). What I feed, and what feeders I prefer, is covered here.
UNFROZEN, AVAILABLE WATER 365 days a year is the Number 1 thing you can do in support of birds and other wildlife. I keep a hole in the surface of each of my water gardens with a floating de-icer, so overwintering frogs and salamanders and fish don’t suffocate, and so birds and animals can have a drink (or a splash). Water-garden wintertime prep.
EXPERT ADVICE ON BIRDS makes for good winter reading; I’ve got a stash of interviews with ornithologists and other wildlife biologists at this link. With news of severe declines in songbird populations in North America, from research released in fall 2019, counting birds and sharing our tallies, as well as the engagement that comes with feeding, is more important than ever. Here is why.
I’M MAD ABOUT SEED. So mad that I have to have “rules” for seed shopping, like restraining myself before binging in the new catalogs until I do a careful inventory of leftovers. My most important rules: I buy organic seed when available, and seek out regionally appropriate varieties, too, in the hopes of best garden success, since seed is a living thing that has adapted over generations to the conditions where it was raised, and I want to make it feel at home here. Here’s the whole story, plus links to great sources.
EARLY DECEMBER is prime time to inventory leftover seeds (which should be stored 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 rather than having strays get lost among the yogurt and mayonnaise. Mine are in a closet in my cool, dry mud room. To test your germination rate, here’s how. Or start with my Seed Viability Chart.
TOSS THOSE MORE THAN a few years old and make a list of what you’ll need. My list of favorite seed sources is on the Resources page, and my Seed Series of interviews with seed breeders and sellers (in podcasts and transcripts).
SHOP, YES. SOW, NO (unless you’re in a frost-free zone). Use my free online calculator, inserting your frost-free date first, to calculate when the sowing begins. (By the way: It’s no time soon around here, like February for some really early things—the leeks and onions. When it is time: 18 confidence-building tips for starting seeds.)
vegetable & flower gardens
ALERT! REDUCE FUTURE PESTS now by reducing places they overwinter. Squash bugs, cabbage worms and more can be limited with extra-good cleanup, like this. Author and longtime friend Ken Druse and I explained our tactics in this story and podcast. For instance, be extra-vigilant cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter in place invites added troubles next season. But…again, you don’t want to be so tidy that it upends any ecological balance, so have a read about saner cleanup here.
VOLE PATROL: I continue year-round setting out mousetraps in special boxes like this, or under buckets or cans in the garden where I see any activity. Mice are a primary vector for Lyme ticks, another reason I try to limit their population in the immediate area. I repeat: Never use mothballs!
PROTECT ROSES FROM WINTER damage in coldest zones by mounding up their crowns with a 6- to 12-inch layer of soil before the ground freezes. After all is frozen, add a layer of leaf mulch to further insulate.
IS ANYTHING STILL STANDING in the vegetable beds (kale maybe, or Brussels sprouts?) or in storage but not in absolutely prime shape (like a winter squash with a bruise or that’s lost its stem, or an onion whose top never dried)? Those should run, not walk, into the soup pot, to become sweet potato-greens soup or vegetable soup, for instance—or a great stock or broth. Toss that last of the kale or chopped-up last sprouts into a creamy, easy bowl of soft polenta called farinata, or a winter squash can become crustless pumpkin custards.
BESIDES THE overwintered ornamental plants in the basement and garage to inspect for possible water needs, do you have produce like potatoes in storage? Check that, too. One bad apple, as the saying goes. Examine at least monthly for any mold or softness. Want to check whether you’re storing various crops correctly?
TAKE THE MOWER IN for service now, rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank by running it dry. If there is fuel in machines that you cannot drain, add stabilizer (available at auto-supply and hardware stores).
TOVAH MARTIN’S great advice on making begonias happy indoors applies to many houseplants.
IF ORCHIDS are under your care, read this how-to by Greg Griffis of Longwood Gardens, which also includes a list of easiest varieties to grow.
KEEP AN EYE OUT for signs of houseplant pests like spider mites, mealybugs, and scale insects. If tackled early, nonchemical methods are usually successful: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Remember, houseplants are semi-dormant now, unless growing under plant lights. Don’t feed (or feed very little, sometimes expressed as “weekly, weakly”). Watch it with the water.
START A POT OF PAPERWHITES in potting soil or even easier, pebbles and water laced with alcohol, and stagger forcing of another batch every couple of weeks for a winterlong display.
WAKE UP AMARYLLIS BULBS by watering once, placing in a bright spot, and waiting for them to respond. If no dice in a couple of weeks, water again…but don’t repeatedly water an unresponsive bulb or it may rot. It will tell you when it’s ready for action.
trees & shrubs
CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area right around the trunks of fruit trees and woody ornamentals before snow flies to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round as well. My tactics.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs now through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood to reduce larvae and beetle issues in the coming year. 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.
need help in other regions?
AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B, though the how-to in this story will work most anywhere (if timed slightly differently). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.