my garden chores for december 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelONE LAST-MINUTE FIRE DRILL of outdoor chores, before it’s time to settle down with the seed catalogs: That’s December in my Northeast garden life, the month with the shortest to-do list of all.

I typically close out November and begin December by quickly re-checking myself around Thanksgiving for anything forgotten, before it’s really too late. 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.

An early dump of 10 or so inches of heavy, wet snow the Wednesday before the holiday interrupted the final 2014 countdown, but now that it’s melting I am back on the punchlist:

Are any non-weatherproof pots still sitting, shivering, out in the open? 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?

Quick, in case you missed it: The water garden needs immediate attention and winterizing, to avoid burst plumbing and suffocated frogs and fish; here’s how.

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 if they’re not snow-covered yet.

And then there’s list-making–the stuff of next year’s garden resolutions, like the list I made one recent year. 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:

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

LAST WINTER’S 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. 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 2011 and 2012 and 2013 orders, and the binge year of 2014’s, too.

DON’T START SEED TOO EARLY. Use my free online calculator, inserting your frost-free date first, to calculate when the sowing begins (no time soon around 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 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 in its pot, or maybe the fig?

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.

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


  1. Hi Margaret, your December chores list emphasizes to me what an impressively thorough gardener you are. Such good advice. But I hope you get to put your feet up for a while in January! And thanks for the reminder about putting up the paperwhites. I clicked back to read about the alcohol tip, then went back to your older post about these flowers – the comments are hilarious and the whole thing very helpful – many thanks!

  2. Nancy says:

    That was a big dose of stuff to remember, a gardener is seldom idle. Good reminders of things still to address. Thanks and how about knitting a little something in an garden inspired color as we sit by the fire or stove or drier in our real lives.

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Today’s garden chores included winding wreaths from the recently cut Autumn Clematis vines which were trained up the Crabapple, but after 4 years seemed a bit overzealous, so down they came. I made 8 wreaths so far! They are gorgeous, strands wound around themselves with no frame, tones of red and green naturally on the thinner parts of the vines. It’s a therapeutic and creative outlet to make crafts while cleaning up the garden.
    I also stashed some finished compost into a large, covered garbage can to prevent it from getting repeatedly soaked and having all its value leach away.
    My Chicago Hardy Fig stays out with a wire bin surround, filled with pine needles, leaves and wrapped only on its sides with reemay fabric. It survived the horrendous winter of 2013-14 this way, only getting wrapped up in early January.

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