Margaret's garden clogs and trowelTHE ANSWER IS NO: No, you probably shouldn’t start all your vegetable seed now, unless it’s for a cool-season crop and you live in a relatively warm zone. And no, you probably can’t take a soil sample, either, in much of the nation (like here in Zone 5B). But planning for these and other key activities that form the lead-up to another active garden season are what the January chores are all about. Planning—and some dreaming, too, seasoned with lots of patience.

It’s always good to pause on the cusp of the new year, and try to put some words to what will be the focus, or adjustments, in the garden ahead. This year, my 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!)

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.

Topic by topic, the month’s chores:


TREAT YOURSELF to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too.  My seed series—now in its second winter, in stories and podcasts—has featured some standout sellers and breeders, with more to come. The links so far (or browse the entire archive):

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

BUY ORGANIC, THINK REGIONAL: I’ve written about why I buy organic seed and focus on regionally appropriate varieties for “The New York Times,” for “Mother Earth News,” and also on this website, and my reasoning is all rounded up on this page.

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. Old seed that perhaps can technically sprout but loses steam after that is a frequent reason behind garden failure.

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 offers 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. Don’t skimp on light.

IN 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but two years ago, I got a miniature version with new-fangled T-5 grow bulbs that I love. My seed-starting FAQ page has all my seed how-to’s. Do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, or a soil-blocker?

review 2014, revise for 2015

TOP PRIORITY: Take a mental spin through your 2014 garden, or review notes or photos. If you didn’t make/take any, resolve to keep records in 2015. 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 the last two years 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?

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)? 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. That work will continue come spring. Additional DIY garden-design advice.

MORE 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.


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. How expert Tovah Martin cares for her indoor plants, including begonias.

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.

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.

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 bark tearing and unnecessary extra damage.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

  1. Jason says:

    Hey there – really appreciate the great advice I get from your blog! And now I’m hoping I can get your advice or maybe one of your readers can help.

    I live in Maryland (zone 7A) and for Christmas I received some bulbs of Naked Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna). We’ve been having a week of nights at or below freezing so I’m afraid it’s too late to plant them in the ground.

    If I move them to my unheated shed, will they be OK until spring?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jason. I don’t like to leave bare bulbs unplanted, even in a shed, to ride out the winter, but rather get them into soil (even if a very large pot). I’d get them into the ground if there is somewhere diggable. My raised garden beds tend to thaw fast if the weather breaks, for instance. If not I’d at least do the big pot, planted and then in the shed. I’d barely moisten the potting medium (not soggy, but not powdery-dry, either). Remember: it’s colder out of the ground (less insulated) so it’s as if it’s a zone or a zone and a half colder to the plant. That’s why I say large pot (more insulation).

  2. Tammy says:

    Hi! I went to look at the regional links, but there’s nothing there for East Coast (I live in northern Virginia, zone 7A). Will you be adding anything between North Carolina and New England? The entire East Coast is missing from the links. :(

  3. betsy winters-russell says:

    I have a hellebore plant in a pot that has been blooming all December indoors
    it is ready for it’s forever home. I live in Old Chatham NY. when can I put this in the ground?
    Should I house it somewhere in my unheated barn until spring?


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Betsy. This is tricky, because in my garden (near Chatham) the ground is semi-frozen. Is there a spot where you can dig in and “plunge” the pot so the root area is well-anchored in the soil (albeit with the pot still around the roots)? Maybe by your compost heap or somewhere that stays a little warmish? I hate to try to unpot and plant something when I can’t really work in loose enough soil to securely backfill around all the roots and get rid of air pockets and such, which is often hard to do with clods of semi-frozen soil. Hence my suggestion to plunge it.

      You could also put it in a shed or garage but the inadequate insulation around the roots (from just a small amount of soil in the pot) would be hazardous to survival. If you had a very big pot of loose soil you could likewise plunge the potted hellebore in that, and tuck the whole pot in the garage. I would not leave it in the house all winter.

  4. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Margaret, I’ve been so enjoying re-reading your earlier posts about various seed breeders and seed -sellers. And, reading the new 2015 seed catalogs, now that they’re available. At this time of year, I Love to research various cultivars (for example, which lettuces taste wonderful and are resistant to bolting), and to dream of the garden I hope to grow. Your posts are such a helpful resource for learning! Thank you so much for all the inspiration and practical knowledge!

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