my garden chores: december 2011

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel

WHAT MONTH IS THIS, I keep wondering? It snowed in October, it was September-like in November, half the seed catalogs have already arrived, and this might be the latest ever that I’ve had the frogpond plumbing still bubbling away. The long-range forecast on NOAA rates my area as “EC”—meaning equal chances of above- or below-average weather—but I think at this point, it’s time to do the last of the chores or maybe get caught short. One of the year’s easiest to-do lists:

I LOOKED AROUND THIS WEEK trying to remember what I had forgotten—were any hoses still on “live” taps, or non-weatherproof pots still out in the open?  Windy weather can make a mess, too, so out came the saw and loppers again, and off came torn or hanging branches that probably were weakened but not broken all the way through in the freakish October snowstorm. Sigh. And will the leaves ever stop showing up from nowhere? Oh, and there are overwintered plants in the basement and garage to inspect for possible water needs, and also produce like potatoes in storage. Check it, too. One bad apple, as the saying goes. Examine monthly for any mold or softness. Want to check whether you’re storing various crops correctly?

I’M MARKING WHERE THE BEDS and paths meet, and where the driveway meets lawn, with tall, flexible fiberglass rods to drive into the ground as markers to try to keep my shoveling and plowing in bounds.


SEED-CATALOG SEASON GETS GOING in earnest shortly, with the first arrivals already online and in the mailbox, 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.  Or better yet, start with my Seed Viability Chart.

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, and here’s 2010 and 2011.

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 (down to an extra-short 2.5 inches or even slightly less), rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank by running it dry.  If there is fuel in machines that you cannot drain, add stabilizer (available at auto-supply and hardware stores).


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. Sarah says:

    I was going to post my list today — even had it mostly written. Of course, then I had to leave it at school over the weekend. *sigh*

    While you are recovering from your freak snowstorm, I am recovering from flooding. I aerated my problem areas today, but do you have any other quick-fix ideas?

  2. Candylei says:

    Self control and seeds? I wish I had an empty plot outside just to toss all of my seeds in and not have to worry about chilling them, etc.Sometimes I think it would just be better to shake all of the seeds out around the plants, but then you can’t mulch very much. Have you ordered any seeds yet? ;-)

  3. mary jean hunt says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the amaryllis. I have been watering them. I will stop now! Do they get fed at all? I have never revived one before.

  4. Deborah says:

    Your use of “tall, flexible fiberglass rods” to minimize snow plow damage is a great idea. But I’m not sure what this product is. When I googled it at places like Lowes, they showed fishing supplies, and one rod was nearly $40. I know that’s not what you’re using. Can you mention a source?

  5. Karen says:

    While walking here in Delmar NY (zone 5), I came upon a large forsythia in full bloom I have occasionally seen sporadic sparse blooming out- of- season but never to this extent. i find myself still weeding as I walk around the still warm, soft gardens. This cannot be good.

    Thanks for the reminders as surely winter will arrive and we do need to prepare.

    1. Margaret says:

      Yes, Karen — I have seen Cornus mas (the Cornelian cheery, really a dogwood) in full bloom along the highway, and forsythia too as you say. Insane, not good. I have never seen full spring bloom in winter before myself. Scary, and apparently the plants are as confused as we are.

  6. Hi from Anne. For driveway “posts” go to the plumbing department in any big box store and see the “plastic” pipe. There are some small diameter pipe materials that make great markers. I also use this to teach my Portuguese Water Dog the “weaving” required for agility work. Just saw off one side to make a point and then cut a length that will let you see it from the tractor or car and hammer (gently)
    into the ground.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Anne, for the good suggestion. Last year I had them too short for all the snow that piled up and they were hidden!

  7. Smallpeace says:

    Yes, indeed, I’m so confused that I forgot about the hoses on “live” taps. Though, if this strange weather continues, I can rest easy until the weekend…or spring for that matter.

  8. Claudia says:

    I agree with Esther. I live in south Florida and you make it sound so exciting to batten down the hatches, that sometimes I wish I was living in your zone just to experience the excitement. We do have our “seasons” here, too, just not as dramatic.

    So enjoy your blog, Margaret, and all the photos, recipes, etc.

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