I 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.
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:
- John Navazio of Organic Seed Alliance
- Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed
- Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds
- Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Bill McDorman of Native Seeds/SEARCH
- (Coming up next: Uprising Seeds, Wild Garden Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, Hudson Valley Seed Library and more–all to be found in my Resources List)
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.
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.