my december garden chores

chores-logoTHE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES: Gardeners, like their gardens, benefit from a bit of dormancy, and the time is upon us. Enjoy it. I’ve already shared some of my winter plans, and here’s the rest of one of the easiest of the year’s to-do lists:

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 the right-hand sidebar of every page here; 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?

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 for any mold or softness.


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.

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.

Categorieschores by month
  1. chris says:

    clear out brush.
    clear out brush.
    clear out brush.
    paint the back stairs.
    pour myself a stiff one…
    and wish everyone a very merry holiday.

  2. L.T. TRAN says:

    Hi Margaret,

    A lot of people cannot get their clivia plants to bloom due to lack of a resting / dormancy period. Now is also a good time to give your clivia a rest, so that they will bloom in the spring. A cool and low light area inside an unheated room will do.

    Best regards,

  3. Margaret says:

    @Bee Balm Gal: I am not much for gadgets and gizmos; a good pair of Felcos and a long-handled shovel and a trowel that feels good in the hand are the kinds of tools I like. Pretty boring, I am. Sorry about that. I have given many gifts of starter plants of fancy-leaf begonias from Logee’s (in sidebar), like ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ and ‘Marmaduke,’ to turn people on to those great plants…but tricky to ship in some weather conditions. I will think on it and try to put together a post. Sorry not to have an instant “aha” answer.

    @Chris: Oh my, yes: Clear out brush. (Wait for next storm to deposit more.) Clear out brush. (Wait for next storm to deposit more.) I suspect yours isn’t the kind that falls from the sky; here that’s what I am always marveling at the unending supply of. :)

  4. Chris in So Calif says:

    Thanks so much for the recommendation to give paperwhites some alcohol. Mine always droop so it will be fun to see them stand up tall. Seems like the alcohol would have the opposite effect.

  5. Deb says:

    On my chore list for December — bring in birdhouses to clean out and repair over winter and put out the bird wind shelters; also bring in most yard art to likewise clean and rejuvenate (or perhaps cull out). I do like to leave a few for winter interest.

  6. Liisa says:

    I have come to rely on your site for my monthly to-do list, as well as being a great resource for a beginning gardener such as myself. I hope you don’t mind, but I have recently honored your blog at my site. Thank you for always providing me with inspiration!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Bright and Blithe. Loved those acorns on your blog (I took a sneak visit). Love acorns in general — so amazingly constructed. See you soon here again, I hope.

  7. James says:

    I kicked off December with another round of leafing this morning, the leaves that usually get dealt with in early spring. But it’s been a rather gentle November, no? The ground is still workable, so in the afternoon I planted 50 crocus bulbs. Wondering if you have any thoughts about other bulbs I might possibly slip in this weekend, or if it would be better to put the trowel in the shed and go flip the compost pile instead.

    J.M. in N.E. Dutchess

  8. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    I don’t think December is the time to sit back, and look through seed catalogues, no matter how lovely, and tempting they might be. To me December is the month to think “HOW CAN I”, with evergreens, dried flowers, and seed pods, etc, make my Winter Garden more beautiful for the next four month, or so….. Here are a few of the things I have done. I put away my beautiful white plastic urns from Italy, and replaced then with large green pots that bushes or trees come in. I filled them with dirt, and stuck FIVE, four foot long bambo stakes, into the dirt, equal distance around the edge of the containers. I then pulled all the stakes together at the top, and fastened them with a length of florist wire. Then I stabbed assorted evergreen boughs, dried hydrangea flowers, artemisia, and raspberry caned in them. Now I have beautiful winter arrangements to look at. To keep them from blowing over, I hammered a rebar stake behind each pot, and tied a florist wire around the pot. …Another thing I did was hang an assortment of SILVER toned plastic Christmas ornaments in a lilac bush, by my dining room window. The Silver is a great color to match the snow, and not being a color, it does NOT say CHRISTMAS. My decorating for winter is all about WOOD LANDS, not HO-HO. …My next outdoor decorating thing was to hand artificial wreaths on the fancy trellises that I have in the garden. Some are just the evergreen circle, others have silk ivy added to the evergreens for a more decorated look. BUT no bows, or other decorations. I have also placed evergreen boughs around a iron face of a man (the north wind) that is in the garden. …I found a pair of white wire light up deer at a church rummage sale. I sited them in the upper garden, and they became instant sculptural focal points (they will not be lit). … My 79 year old neighbor has a collection of garden pots, drift wood, and other found things on her front porch. To that I added an assortment of evergreen branches. She made a bouquet of Russian Sage flowers from my garden, and with Japanese lanterns hung them off of a front porch lamp. I added evergreens to the fall bouquet, and now it is something pretty to look at through out the winter. By thinking WOOD LANDS, and not HO-HO, you have wonderful decorations that you don’t tire of, or want to get rid of Jan 2. ….Margaret’s Buddha would look WONDERFUL with a scarf of evergreen tips tied around him for winter protection!

  9. chigal says:

    Plotting for next year while it still seems to be too early to clear up the last of my containers (first frost hit this week … maybe that’ll about do it for the flowers that are inexplicably hardy this year).

    I didn’t offer much in the way of hummingbird food, this spring/summer, with some choices that bloomed later than expected. Guess I’m in Santa letter mode, but if you have any ideas for early-early-early zone 5 flowers for them (esp. from seed), much appreciated as with all of your advice!

  10. Paulette says:

    Margaret, I have frequently seen the red garden shoes in many of your posts. Years ago, I had the same ones. They were faithful and served me well. However, last year we had to part ways as they finally split to the point of being unwearable. Where did you get your red garden shoes? I have Ladybugs, but they are NOT the same. Every time I see your red shoes, I remember the years mine were my most worn summer shoe.

    Here in the eastern panhandle of WV, there are still days that can be spent in the garden before it is time to curl up with seed catalogs. Most recently I (embarrassed) found a few unplanted alliums which I quickly got in the ground, as well as some saffron crocus that I put in a pot in the chilly unheated laundry room.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Paulette. This would be the shoe: the Super Birki polyurethane clog. I think I have had them for more than a decade; can’t really recall. I no longer wear them all the time, but keep them by the door for when I run in and out, especially in wet grass in the early morning and when it’s bad weather — to quickly pick something, for instance. Hope this helps, and hope to see you again soon.

  11. lynn druskat says:

    Oh, the winter is coming and what shall we do with out our gardens? I have found some worthwhile winter activities, new recipes to try, bread to make, pottery to throw, mittens to knit, dare i say, get organized??? look through ALL those garden photos and decide what really worked? I guess just to have some time to reflect, reconnect with family and friends, and eat from the freezer, man, that is the best. Oh, and try to stay ahead of those nasty pounds that like to accumulate on my hips. ha L

  12. arlene shechet says:

    2 years ago I finished building my dream studio that included 1000sq ft. of beautiful green roof. Planted with a variety of sedum, some ferns and a few spots of carex grass it was a joy and a wonder UNTIL the wood sorrel/oxalis plant/weed took hold mid-summer. I had to be away for a few weeks and when I returned it had embedded. I am a beginner gardener and did not understand..until now…the tenacity of that species. Through hyper vigilance and too many back breaking hours, I have managed to contain the weed to approx. 1/3 of the garden but need help figuring out if it is
    possible to get rid of this problem or should i just dig out and start over. Last week you could find me with a plumbers torch scalding the weeds…Lime has been suggested, vinegar too. Help…I’m desperate!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Arlene. Sorry about the oxalis. Here, too, always in the cracks in the paving stones especially. Ugh. Kitchen vinegar (5 percent acetic acid) will kill topgrowth but not roots as tough as those; you need a stronger concentration (probably 10 percent and they go into the 20-plus range). Warning: when you get into the industrial strength, it can be harmful to skin (or eyes) like any acid and must be used with protective gear etc.

      More on acetic acid pro and con.

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