the december garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI’M STUCK ON A DR. SEUSS RIFF: ‘How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon…My goodness how the time has flewn…” While that plays on a continuous loop in my head, there are also moments of panic: Did I forget to turn off the outdoor tap and drain the lines? Is the potted rosemary in a place that will make it happy all winter?  I’m double-checking, and doing other last-minute tasks that make up the December chores—the year’s shortest list. Most important, I’m working on memorizing another Dr. Seuss-ism: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

“What have I forgotten?” is the theme of December, especially early on, while there is still time to react and make things ready. Besides the hoses to check, are any non-weatherproof pots still sitting, shivering, out in the open? Are the poles for the bird feeders anchored well into the ground (which will freeze here before long)? 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?

If you skipped it because your weather has been warmish so far, don’t delay any longer: The water garden needs immediate attention and winterizing, to avoid burst plumbing; here’s how.

As I buzz about one last time, I’ve still got an eye out to prevention–of pests, weeds, and general chaos in 2014. More on that below.

Windy weather can make a mess, too, so out come the saw and loppers again, and off came torn or hanging branches that probably were weakened but not broken all the way through. And will the leaves ever stop showing up, as if from nowhere? To the heap with them!

And then there’s list-making–the stuff of next year’s garden resolutions. Don’t wait much longer to start making notes on what you’ll do differently; easier while the garden’s still fresh in memory. The area-by-area details follow:

‘How did it get so late so soon?

It’s night before it’s afternoon.

December is here before it’s June.

My goodness how the time has flewn.

How did it get so late so soon?’Dr. Seuss

seed shopping

SEED-CATALOG SEASON GETS GOING in earnest shortly, so 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. To test your germination rate now, here’s how.  Or better yet, start with my Seed Viability Chart.

I’M KICKING OFF a seed series on radio and the blog this month and next. The first installment is here, and each week I’ll introduce a great source and some of their irresistible offerings, so stay tuned!

TOSS THOSE MORE THAN a few years old and make a list of what you’ll need. Not that any act of self-control stops me from ordering yet another gourd or pumpkin variety, or some oddity I simply must have or perish. My list of favorite seed sources is in on the Resource Links page; and here’s my 2010 order, and 2011 and 2012, and 2013.

POSITION YOUR SEED-SHOPPING easy chair to point out the window, where there are still riches: all kinds of fruit, including berries, bark, new birds. Did you join Project Feederwatch yet, or the Christmas Bird Count (it starts mid-December)? (A recap of making a bird-friendly landscape is here.)

vegetable & flower gardens

AGAIN: REDUCE 2014 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.

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.

PROTECT ROSES FROM WINTER damage in cold 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.

ANYTHING STILL STANDING in the vegetable beds (kale perhaps? Brussels sprouts?) or that’s 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 and is still a little green)? If yes, those should run, not walk, into the soup pot asap, to become sweet potato-greens soup or vegetable soup, for instance. Toss that last of the kale or chopped-up last Brussels 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).


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”); also watch it with the water in particular.

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

BRRRRR! Is the potted rosemary still outside in its pot, or maybe the fig (both of which could use a little help about now in cold climates).

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.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”Dr. Seuss

Note: All based on my Zone 5B Berkshire (MA)/Hudson Valley (NY) location; adjust accordingly.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Adrianne, for the sweet video link! And yes, the weather beckons many December days, doesn’t it? (And then it forbids us to come outside on others!) ;)

  1. Sarah says:

    Winter here in northern-ish, coastal-ish California is pretty mellow, but we did get our first frost last night. Yay for seasonally appropriate weather and cute little vegetables dusted with white sparkles.

    Dr. Seuss is wonderful. Your quotes make me want to go read his books.

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