my garden chores for january 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI HEAR YOU! Like the kid in the back seat on the way to somewhere special, all you want to know is, “Are we there yet?” There being: Is it time to start seeds—or at least to do some serious seed shopping? The answers: Maybe not quite yet, unless you’re much farther south than I am and the crop is onions, but absolutely yes on the binge.  Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our gardens, though, so first let’s review and reflect a moment, shall we, as we start laying plans together for the 2014 garden? Happy New Year!

Top priority: Take a mental spin through your 2013 garden, or review notes or photos. If you didn’t make/take any, resolve to keep records in 2014. List anything you want to do more or less or just plain differently, to keep in mind before catalog-induced temptation (and then spring fever) take hold.

I’ll confess I haven’t made my 2014 resolutions yet, but the year is young; my 2013 list is here, and proved so helpful. All I know so far: It was a good, bad and ugly year.

Resolution-type thinking: Do you want to mow differently (as I did last year to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy), or otherwise invite more birds to the landscape (here’s how to create a habitat garden)? Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water to the backyard picture, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?

Be honest: Does your garden suffer from the polkadot effect—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of a group or drift of the same variety to punch up the visual volume)? One accomplishment last year: I forced myself to harvest divisions of plants I’ve had a long time, and repeat them in sweeps elsewhere–rather than bring home so many new one-off’s from the garden center.

And then there are these key questions: Does one season (perhaps winter?) need some added visual excitement? Or in the edible garden, was there a crop you wish you’d enjoyed over a longer span, not just a momentary harvest? (Examples: Do you need a more heat-tolerant spinach for later plantings, or just the discipline to actually sow a short row of lettuce every two weeks?) Smarter shopping is part of helping to rectify things.


TREAT YOURSELF to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too.  My recent seed series—in stories and podcasts—has featured some standout seed sellers, with more to come in the weeks ahead. The links to all those interviewed so far, to get you started:

THEN, READ UP ON the seed-shopping rules I live by (or better yet, watch the video version!). The rules are meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see.

NEXT, INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Lately I’ve been reading up on how not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work; more on that important topic here.

STORE KEEPERS of your leftover seed 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.

PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (And please, don’t sow too soon! My “when to start what” seed calculator will tell you the proper dates.)

WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? You’ve got time, but best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought.

IN 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but two years ago, I got a miniature version with new-fangled grow bulbs that I love. My seed-starting FAQ page has all my seed how-to’s. Oh, and do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots?


KEEP AN EYE OUT for spider mites, mealybugs and scale insects. If tackled before they get out of hand, nonchemical methods are usually successful: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray or horticutural oil (as directed on labels) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter, so go easy.

I DON’T FEED in the low-light months, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice the accumulation of “extra” minutes of daylight, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so). I just started watering my Clivia again; I keep them dry and cool from fall until the New Year or thereabouts.

trees & shrubs

IF THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow 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? I’ll wait a bit longer to cut back twig willows and dogwoods because I’m so enjoying the show. Maybe March with those, or even April. My Pruning FAQ page will help!

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important in winter, with its harsher, windy weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage.

BUT DON’T RUSH: Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if January thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud wrecks the soil.

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood. 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.)

CONIFER RESEARCH: Take note in your local travels (or in books), of conifers that look good to you, and think about adding a few to the garden come spring. Some of my favorite colorful conifers.

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.

DID YOU CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area right around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits? Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round as well.

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. How and where I stash everything non-hardy. The rosemary’s handled this way; the fig is over here.

NOTE: All chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshires MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

  1. Dee Matthews says:

    Happy Gardening New Year Margaret! Thanks for Wendell Berry’s “What We Need” to get us going-he IS my favorite poet. I’m looking forward to learning lots of new stuff this year from A Way to Garden-thanks! PS Love Marion’s new site as well!

  2. Yes you can work on seeds in January. Some seeds need stratification, that is, a period of moist cold, before they will germinate. Examples: Goatsbeard, Butterfly weed, Lavender, Gayfeather, most beardstongues, Meadowrue and more. Just soak the seed overnight in water, drain the water, then put seeds in a baggie with moist (not wet) sand, twisty tie it up and put it in your frig for a month or two. Just make sure no one in the family thinks it’s some kind of exotic food. Happy gardening nearly all year round.

  3. Beth says:

    Happy New Year Margaret!! I’m sitting in my sunroom looking out at my new garden with the snow falling, watching the birds happily gobbling up sunflower seeds! Life is good here in Northeast Missouri!!
    Hope you have a great day and a wonderful year~and I hope Mother Nature behaves herself this year so we can all enjoy the hard work we put into our gardens!
    Take care and give Jack a hug for me!:)

  4. Katherine Stevenson says:

    Happy, Happy New Year to you Margaret and Jack. Thank you sincerely for all this great information in one place! Much appreciated. I thoroughly enjoy our gardening friendship and look forward each time to your posts. I also agree with Dee = Marion’s revamped site is great. Cheers to everyone.

  5. Paula Wolff says:

    Happy New Year, Margaret. My extra January chore is watering my sweet pepper plants. I brought them inside (right here in Columbia county) in Nov because they still had young fruit on them that I couldn’t bear to see killed by frost. So they continued to grow and are turning yellow and orange, and I’m still harvesting and either using or freezing. Luckily, they were in pots, so it was easy to transport them inside my house.

  6. I suffer from onesies in parts of my garden. I’m trying to get more large sweeps. Looking better in my front garden. Working on the back garden. Hoping to fill more gaps this year.
    Found a better seed seed source last year. Ordered just a few from them as a trial but going all in this year. Time to make those orders. Snow here today so the garden is just a dream at this point. Happy New Year!!!!

  7. Elaine says:

    Happy New Year, Margaret.

    My comment is a response to your January 1st newsletter – I hope it’s ok to make it here. Thank you so much for sharing Wendell Berry’s “What We Need is Here” as an invocation for the beginning of 2014. I’ve been struggling to pick a word of the year. Instead, I will choose this poem, which to me speaks of presence, acceptance and gratitude. Blessings back to you.

  8. GardenGuy says:

    I’ve been gardening for quite a while now, but last year I finally decided to grow more plants from seed. I don’t have a large amount of vegetable garden space, so I’m limited on what I can grow. Of course, I bought too many seeds and ended up with too many plants.
    I guess I don’t understand some people and their multiple, large seed orders. Does everyone but me have HUGE vegetable gardens? Or are you all getting just a tad bit too enthusiastic when planning? I refuse to request seed catalogs, or even order online, because I can see myself doing that. I suppose this limits me on the varieties I can grow, but I’m ok with that.

  9. Renay says:

    Great advice, as always. I was so interested to hear about High Mowing Organic Seeds that I visited their website and ordered all I need (yes, rather than too much!) for this year’s new garden in a new yard. A few days went by and I started to get concerned that there was no order-confirming email in my inbox. Instead, all the seeds I ordered just showed up in my mailbox on Thursday this week. So far, I’m very impressed and can’t wait (though I will…) to get things started indoors.
    Thanks for your wonderful, oh-so-practical without being boring blog…and books.

  10. Candylei says:

    Lovely reading. I have been away too long. So excited to see you have a new book published. Yay! Hope you are keeping warm as this cold, snowy spell has most all of us! More time for seed catalog reading.

  11. sydney says:

    Hi Margaret, I noticed the slide show for showing our gardens to you is no longer accessible. I just discovered it and was disappointed when there were no new images after 2012. Will that part of your blog be revived or is it gone forever?

    Sydney in Philadelphia

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sydney. Not sure if we can revive it or not. Everyone put in such giant files (despite the instructions) that it causes technical issues…but I will see whether my web guys have any solutions after all. Sorry.

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