Margaret's garden clogs and trowelTHE HOUSEPLANTS ARE NOTICING, and so am I: the days are longer, making us both want to get up and grow. Rather than torture tomato seeds by starting them too soon, divert that energy into pruning—or into making plans and gathering the gear to add a water garden, improve your compost set-up, or finally get a deer fence, perhaps, when spring arrives. Those and other productive stalling tactics form the February chores.

Some stats on that astronomical provocateur, the sun: On the last day of December where I live, the day was only 9 hours 5 minutes 57 seconds long; by February 1, it was 9:58:33, and February 28 promises me an embarrassment of light: 11:10:19. (Calculate your daylength for any day of any year here.)

new feature for 2015: regional 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 a new page of 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.

Rushing around right now can be harmful, including to the soil. Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud is a no-no, and honestly, I don’t even walk on frozen lawn grass unless I must.

My top tip: Don’t! (Don’t rush, I mean.) A short, stout, sturdy 6-week-old tomato transplant (or anything else) is better than a leggy, all-stretched-out weakling. Only leeks and onions are started indoors this month in my zone, at the earliest.

garden design, garden functionality

IN THE JANUARY chores, I reminded myself that it’s always good to pause on the cusp of a new year, and try to put some words to what will be the focus, or adjustments, in the garden ahead. This year’s mantra is “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action is taken. My resolutions. (A year earlier, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: Be kind!)

Some needed changes are more practical and tactical:

SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of deer damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches.

IS YOUR COMPOSTING operation just not yielding enough, or taking too much work?  Nobody does it better than my friend Lee Reich, who composts like this.

SICK OF MOWING? Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last two years to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy).

WILDLIFE GARDEN THOUGHTS: Perhaps it’s also time to otherwise invite more birds to the landscape.  Here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat. Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?

ARE POLKA-DOTS dominating your garden—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of an impactiful group or drift of each variety)? Last year I forced myself to divide plants and repeat sweeps elsewhere–rather than buy so many new one-off’s. Additional DIY garden-design advice.


MY RECENT SEED SERIES—in stories and podcasts—introduced some new (and new old!) varieties and new companies, too; find those here. Get caught up now if you missed any installments, or scan my Resources list for all my seed-company suggestions.

STUDY UP on how to grow growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started:

SKETCH OUT what will go where in the vegetable garden–space, water, and your maintenance time are not infinite commodities! To that end: Read up on the seed-shopping rules we live by at A Way to Garden, meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see. Here’s that info in a video format.

PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (My “when to start what” seed calculator gives the proper dates for your zone.)

INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work, though; more on that important topic here. Store keepers 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? Best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought. In 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but a couple of years ago, I got a miniature version with efficient T-5 grow bulbs. Also: Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?

PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless mix each year. Wash flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach:water, and stock up on fresh seed-starting medium. My friend Ken Druse fights damping off this clever way.

IF YOU HAVE a cold frame and conditions allow, sow an early crop of spinach and lettuce in it. I’ll start spinach in the open ground at month’s end if snow has melted.

trees & shrubs

IF THE COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow (or none) 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?

SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY, the intermediate witch-hazels will try to bloom, I expect. Other extra-early blooming shrubs in my garden include the pussy willow called Salix chaenomeloides.

I’LL WAIT a bit longer to cut back twig willows like this and also twig dogwoods because I’m enjoying the show. Maybe March with those (with pussy willows, right after bloom is good). With the willows especially, which are so vigorous, I’ll coppice them (cutting to 1-2 inches from the ground to rejuvenate).

PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.

FORCE BRANCHES. Early blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry are all good candidates, and branches can be cut once their buds have begun to swell. Also try the shrubby clove currant, the so-called Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, and pear, beeches, birches, and redbuds. No big surprise: The closer to actual bloom date, the higher forcing success. Gather branches–taking only judicious prunings, being mindful to not disfigure plants–then prepare for forcing by either splitting the bottom inch or two with a knife or pruner, or hammering the ends gently to split them and make for better water uptake. Prepped branches go in a bucket of water in my cool mudroom out of the light, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. Then I can move them to a warmer, brighter room to arrange.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune it out as discovered. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

WHILE OUT THERE, I’ll make a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance. Other to-do’s for whenever you can to-do them:

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood to reduce larvae and beetle issues. 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.)

VOLE AND MOUSE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: I am still setting out mousetraps under my special homemade boxes in the gardens where I see any activity. Never, ever use mothballs. Here’s why.


TIME FOR A HOUSEPLANT TUNEUP. Everybody over here is getting a trip to the shower and more, like this.

KEEP AN EYE OUT for signs of houseplant pests like spider mites, mealybugs and scale insects. If tackled before they get out of hand, nonchemical methods are usually successful: that simple shower, as above; insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label), or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip.

I DON’T FEED in early winter, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice slightly longer days, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so).

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.

for other regions…

NEED REGION-SPECIFIC ADVICE? My new page of links to garden checklists and calendars may get you to an expert who can help. (I’m in Zone 5B, on the border of NY-MA-CT.)

  1. nancy giges says:

    Is there a time (weeks) correlation between your zone 5B and mine officially 6B but really more like either 7A or even 7B – so if you’re planting something on a certain date, can I assume that my ideal date is X? I know how to do the counting back from frost date but it would be so easier since you are our go-to-gardening advisor to know that we just need to do things a few weeks ahead of you. Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy. I know where you live (!!!!!) so I’d say add 2 weeks as a better-safe-than-sorry cushion. Your final frost date is about 10 days or 2 weeks before mine, hence my suggestion.

  2. I’m officially getting spring fever in my zone 6 and patiently (well not so patiently) waiting to get out in the garden again. I have big plans for a vegetable garden this year, in our new home, so the planning has begun. Thank you for your tips.

  3. Joe says:

    The extension office at Virginia Tech has a nice publication about vegetable planting and harvesting dates. I coded it up as an Excel spreadsheet. I enter the date I guess the last frost is going to be, and it lines up the calendar accordingly. (This year, it feels like I should enter the Fourth of July.)
    If anybody’s interested, I’ve linked to it with the “website” field of this message.

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