my december 2010 garden chores

IRAN AROUND THIS WEEK trying to remember what I had forgotten—hoses still on “live” taps, non-weatherproof pots still out in the weather—as the first string of hard freezes settled in, one after another. Windy weather made a mess, too, so out came the saw and loppers and off came torn or hanging branches. And will the leaves ever stop showing up from nowhere? Here’s the rest of one of the easiest of the year’s to-do lists:

THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES lies just ahead. Gardeners, like their gardens, benefit from a bit of dormancy, and the time is upon us. Enjoy it.

THIS YEAR I’M MARKING where the beds and paths meet, and where the driveway meets lawn. I bought a bundle of tall, flexible fiberglass rods to drive into the ground as markers to try to keep my shoveling and plowing in bounds. Wish me luck!

SEED-CATALOG SEASON GETS GOING in earnest later in the month, so early December is prime time to inventory leftover seeds and store them 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. If you want to test your germination rate now, here’s how.

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 sources is in on the Resource Links page; my 2009 order is here.

POSITION YOUR SEED-SHOPPING easy chair to point out the window, where there are still riches: all kinds of fruit, including berries, bark, new birds. Did you join Project Feederwatch yet? (A recap of making a bird-friendly landscape is here.)

REMEMBER: TAKE THE MOWER in for service after the final mowing, rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank by running it dry. Oh, and there are overwintered plants in the basement and garage to check for possible water needs, and also produce like potatoes in storage. One bad apple, as the saying goes. Examine monthly for any mold or softness. Want to check whether you’re storing various crops correctly?


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: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter…go easy.

REMEMBER, HOUSEPLANTS are semi-dormant now (unless growing under plant lights). Don’t feed (or feed very little); watch it with the water in particular. Take it easy while they take their naps.

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.


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

BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites added troubles next season.

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.

PREVENTIVE PRUNING: Always be on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important before winter arrives with its harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.


MOLE PATROL: I am still setting out mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans in the gardens where I see any activity, to rid them from my beds and borders.

PROTECT ROSES FROM WINTER damage 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.

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

  1. terryk says:

    I can’t beleive we are already in December chores!

    I have some bags of straw that I have not laid out on the vegetable bed. Cover now or wait till the ground freezes?

  2. Brian G. says:

    Great tip about marking paths and driveway and such. I need to place markers along the road frontage. Last year the town snow plow not only took out my mailbox but also lifted a good 12 to18 inches of lawn for a good 300 feet. Wasn’t that nice of him? The only caveat is to get the markers in before the ground freezes solid!

    1. Margaret says:

      @Brian G. — I know, I have been frantic about forgetting this critical item on my to-do list for yet another year. Tomorrow: installation. I am determined not to scalp things if I can help it, but once the whiteout begins, I can’t get my bearings and always go astray. Oops!

      @TerryK: Is the mulch meant to protect something that’s in the ground (a perennial crop?) or what? I usually wait till the ground is frozen to mulch if I am trying to keep things in the ground — like recently planted things that might heave — but my expert friend whose 2 cents I believe always says it makes no difference, and just do it when you have the time. If there is no reason to mulch right now though (no tender thing to protect) I hate to provide extra hiding places for moles, voles, mice, etc., so I’d probably not spread it till I planted the bed. Just my paranoid, critter-loathing opinion. :)

  3. Matt says:

    I know that I hated snow shoveling our deck last winter. I jammed the shovel at one of the railing posts and broke that little decorative thingy that slides down the posts and I guess hides the gap between the post and the decking boards.

  4. Abby says:

    I have a vole problem, and it had not occurred to me to try mousetrapping them. I could bait the traps with potatoes, since they seem to like them. They ruined a lot of my crop this year, the little buggers. Thanks for the idea!

  5. terryk says:

    The straw was supposed to be put down earlier to supress the weeds, and you know how some of them seem to grow with just a bit of warmth or sun even in winter (I have a few of those in the garden!). Or maybe a part of me wants to do the Ruth Stout thing, straw on the beds at all times. Last I fugured that it may just break down a bit and add to the soil structure when it starts to warm up again.

  6. Joan says:

    I’m still planting bulbs, trying to get holes dug to sink pots so I can plant tulips that voles won’t find. Heaven help me!

  7. To me the garden chores at the end of November, and beginning of December, are the WORST. The days are shorter, the weather is cold, windy, and unpredictable. I feel I have to get it ALL done NOW, because the next day might be miserable. That is just the gardening part of it. I did not mention putting up the Christmas lights and wreaths. December though, is the perfect time to look at the bones of the garden. The line quality of the bushes and trees. The silhouettes of evergreens against the winter sky. I LOVE the winter ski at dawn, when it looks like a Winslow Homer painting, all the different colors of crimson red. December is also about the Zen simplicity of the garden, and the STILL in the air.

  8. Joan says:

    Interesting about the voles and potatoes. Mine were decimated this year by voles as well. I’ve been growing them for 30 years or so and don’t ever remember this problem before. I did discover a nest with the tiniest vole baby you ever saw, in midsummer. No, I couldn’t— I covered it up again with grass clippings.

  9. Joey says:

    I just flipped the whole compost barrel that I started this spring near where I put down new bubs. The bottom is completely decomposed now. Now the top is the bottom and that has a chance to rot well. I put this on top of the new bulbs that went in last month. I think the smell should keep the voles away. I’ll rake it all down when the weather breaks so I have new top soil atop the new bulbs come April.

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