Margaret's garden clogs and trowelTHE SHORTEST garden to-do list of the year, December’s, begins with a fire drill—one final last-minute check of whatever I have forgotten to secure outdoors, before entering my own semi-dormancy and holing up with a pile of seed catalogs.

Here in the Northeast, I re-check myself around Thanksgiving, before it’s really too late, 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 now.

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.

Are any non-weatherproof pots still sitting, shivering, out in the open? Are any leaves piled up but not yet shredded and inoculated with finished compost (like this) to get them started on their way to becoming future mulch or compost themselves?

Are bird-feeder poles feeders anchored well into the ground before it freezes deep (and are they either closer than 2 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; 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, like the ones I made one recent year. Don’t wait much longer to start taking notes on what you’ll do differently; easier while the garden’s still fresh in memory.

Those were some of the checks during the last fire drill the other day in my yard (oh–and stashing the last parsley and sage in the freezer like this); the area-by-area details 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 there is frost in the ground, around month’s end, or when the snows fly. Are you ready? Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this, and also plan to help birds stay safe from window strikes and predation by cats (expert advice on that).

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.

seed shopping

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, and I want to make it feel at home here. Here’s the whole story, plus links to great sources.

LISTEN IN, OR READ ALONG: My radio seed series (each available as a podcast) is another great place to get more ideas and “meet” more experts.

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, 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 Resource Links 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. When it is time: 18 confidence-building tips for starting seeds.)

vegetable & flower gardens

ALERT! REDUCE 2016 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. Again: 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.

ANYTHING STILL STANDING in the vegetable beds (kale  maybe, or 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)? Those should run, not walk, into the soup pot, to become sweet potato-greens soup or vegetable soup, for instance. 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.

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

BRRRRR! Is the potted rosemary still outside, or maybe the fig? I rolled the last subjects into their wintering spots around Thanksgiving.

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.

  1. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I have shared the “NO MOTHBALLS” rule with several other gardeners who were unaware of the deleterious effects.

    Sadly, I came across the local website of a guy growing dozens of types of figs in his backyard and he was PROMOTING the use of mothballs. Shameful.

    Thanks for the reminders about pots shivering… I have a stack I forgot about.

  2. gina s. says:

    do you put up a Christmas tree in December also? anything unusual? I know in previous year you mentioned a potted Korean fir…looking for some ideas other than cut trees!! thanks in advance Gina

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gina. I don’t usually do so indoors any longer, but I like to put little white lights on several tuteurs, those tall metal frames that hold vines, that are often pyramidal like a teepee or tripod so they look like a lit-up tree. I put them where I can see them from the main part of the house and star at them in the evenings. : )

  3. Aimee says:

    read “And I Shall Have Some Peace There”, then the “The Backyard Parables”.
    Thank you!
    Your experiences made me wonder if you know (know of/have read) Dominique Browning? No longer working for a national magazine, spent a year in her pajamas mastering The Goldberg Variations, if I remember correctly.
    Paragraphs are for unrelated thoughts, yes?
    We have lots of seats in the garden—not because I spend a great deal of time sitting, but because we like to take our meals outdoors (me more than him)
    I am 65. Beth Chatto, who I believe is 93, still goes out into the garden every day, at least to assess and direct gardeners.
    Bird by bird, baby!
    Aimee and Pumpernickel Catloaf

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Aimee. Yes, I know Dominique, and our paths crossed many times in our careers and socially, because we have common friends. I love that you mention Beth Chatto, whose garden is still vivid in memory from a visit decades ago.

  4. You know, it’s been such a warm season for so many of us that normally experience hard freezes by now. The soil here is moist, but it’s not frozen. I even noticed some grass growing! I have been putting some things in the ground, with fingers crossed. I am loving the extended season so far!

    Might be a great season to treat yourself to something new. Spring will be long awaited but it’ll come fast. Hellebores are popular… might be worth trying one or two.

    Greenwood Team

  5. North GA Gardener says:

    Fall and Winter clean up a sign for us that the major growing season is over, but only three short months and we are back at it again. We are seeing 70’s in mid December in North Georgia!!

    1. margaret says:

      Warm here, too, 50s and near 60, which terrifies me. Where is the winter chill that so many Northern plants require? Uh-oh.

  6. polly says:

    I just planted 90 Darwin hybrid tulips (couldn’t resist at $2 for a bag of 45) up here in southern VT. The most remarkable bit is that I did it without my bare hands getting cold. Hope that my garlic doesn’t sprout in the continuing warmth.

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