my january 2012 garden chores

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel

AND AWAY WE GO: Admittedly, January may be one of the quietest outdoor gardening months of all here in the North, and perhaps in most every part of the country. It’s prime time to assess the winter garden and plan additions, and with the influx of catalogs and fruit-tree-pruning season coming into view, I’ll manage to stay busy. The current chores list follows—in print or in podcast.

Prefer the Podcast?

The January Garden Chores are covered in my weekly podcast with WHDD Radio in nearby Sharon, Connecticut—the nation’s smallest NPR affiliate. Stream it now while you read, or subscribe free on iTunes.

NOW THAT THE HOLIDAYS are past, start the new garden year off right by treating yourself to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too? When those catalogs arrive, read them. I know, that sounds obvious–but I mean really read them, like they were magazines. So much to learn: growing tips, research and breeding developments, and sometimes just lots of fun trivia.

IF THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow (or none) but still-frozen 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. Are all your cutting tools sharp, blades cleaned, moving parts oiled? (Remember to keep your shears off spring-flowering ornamentals whose buds are already set or risk having a no-show of flowers this year. This is no time to reshape lilacs, for instance.)

BUT DON’T RUSH: Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if the January thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud wrecks the soil.

INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS by assessing their viability (this chart and accompanying links will help) and even do your germination testing to see what’s still good. Store keepers 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 have strays get lost among the yogurt and mayonnaise.

TOSS THOSE SEEDS 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 on my Resource Links page.

CONSIDER ORGANIC SEEDS this time, another way to vote with your pocketbook for less chemical usage, in this case in seed production—which is very chemical heavy. Here’s why. I don’t order from companies that knowingly deal in genetically modified seeds, more precisely knows as transgenic seeds, either. The background on my GMO thoughts.

WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? You’ve got time, but best to get the equipment in order—or built. In 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but last year I got a miniature version with new-fangled grow bulbs that I love. All my seed-related posts are here, lest you need them now.

TAKE THE TIME TO READ UP ON the seed-shopping rules we live by here at A Way to Garden, then position you comfiest chair for seed-shopping (and naps) to point out the window, where there are still perhaps some visual garden riches: berries, bark, new birds.

FEEDING BIRDS THIS WINTER? Why not feed them all year-round with a bird-friendly garden? Make the plans now for a habitat garden in the New Year. More winter beauty for you, too.

MOLE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: 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.


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 pebbles and water, or better yet a water-booze mix, and stagger forcing of another batch every couple of weeks for a winterlong display.


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 conifers.

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. 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.)

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

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 weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

NOTE: All based on my Zone 5B Berkshires MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.


  1. Robin says:

    This is exactly what I need. It doesn’t feel like winter in my corner of Maine. We don’t have snow and it’s 43*. I should be sitting by the fire with a stack of seed catalogs but it just doesn’t feel right. I’ll start to inventory seeds (which would be a wise thing to do before I start filling out seed order forms).

    Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks for the list Margaret. I love the beginning of the month with the chore list. I have a question, we didn’t receive our order of woodchip which we usually put down in October, but the supplier is saying that they can deliver it in the next few weeks. It is relatively warm here and we have not had a hard frost yet, and no snow. If it arrives, then would it be okay to put the woodchip down?

    Happy New Year!


    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Robin. Good plan. (Love the sitting by the fire part eventually, too!) Happy New Year.

      @Pru: I think it’s fine. The weather should be your guide — whether it snows or not, and whether it is still warm enough out for you to be able to stand spreading them around!

  3. Abby says:

    Yesterday, my SO commented in the middle of a conversation, “Here is is, January 1, and we are already talking about gardening!” I am making many lists and checking them twice, performing germination tests, and reorganizing the seed-starting area.

    Are your pod casts available for the Nook?

  4. Jayne says:

    Your lists always get the garden fires going! Thank you for them! January is always tricky; I like to look back in my journals. 2007 – Jan. 6 “like a Spring day.” 2008 – Jan. 5 “two very cold days 10 degrees in the morning.” What we can count on in January is variation!

  5. bethalina says:

    Just did seed inventory this morning.
    Not sure if I am happy or disappointed I only have five things to order.

    But, i do get to order some shrubs! Yay!

  6. Isn’t that funny? This is probably the very first time that I’ve been anxious to get going with seed catalog – good sign! I’ll be ordering organic seed too, as this GMO stuff is getting out of hand. Vote with your wallet! If anyone is interested, (and it’s okay with you Margaret go to my site and just for fun, fill out the questionnaire on this page: http://www.drought-smart-plants.com/online-plant-catalog.html and tell me your favorite seed suppliers.

  7. Kristina says:

    The weather in Nebraska has been lovely this winter (knock on wood) so I’ve been outside doing a bit of cleaning up that didn’t get done earlier this fall. The seed catalogs have been arriving and I’ve been making wish lists! On the menu for summer, several blueberry bushes, raspberries and blackberries, and a new rhubarb bed!

  8. Carly Casper says:

    Can you believe this F%$#-ing weather? I don’t usually curse but this is rediclous! (I can’t even go skiing in VERMONT, for goodness sake.) I don’t esp like cold – but I live in CT and EXPECT it to be freezing in January – not 55*. I usually get thru winter by enjoying winter sports and there are NONE this year. OK – so I can GARDEN PLAN, right? Thanks for the LIST…

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Carly, and yes, this is expletive-deleted weather for certain. I fear that we will have no spring at springtime. See you soon again. Fingers crossed meantime for things to settle down.

  9. Deborah Banks says:

    Thanks for the great list. One of my resolutions this year is to do better plant labeling. I want to try the Dymo M1011 metal label maker you mentioned a couple years back. They have them on eBay right now for around $100, which sounds like a steal, compared to the $197 price you mentioned earlier. Do you like the stainless steel tape or the aluminum tape better?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Deborah. The punching is easier with the aluminum, as I recall, but they are very thin/lightweight so not good for really long labels (like if you were to spell out Latin genus and species and then the cultivar name too). Maybe try both and see what works for you? Glad to hear the device has come down in price!

  10. Use the ‘double jeopardy’ method of plant labeling – one label that is exposed, such as your metal ones, and then put another one down in the soil beside the plant – then, no matter what happens (a dig crazy puppy? strong windstorm?) your plants will always have a label. I just use the cheapie plastic ones, with a sharpie pen (get the industrial kind) and sink them well out of UV light exposure.

  11. Kallie says:

    Janurary is my favorite gardening month. I live in the south and the winters aren’t too harsh and I can garden all year long. Janurary just let’s me know that spring is almost here!

  12. BARBARA P. says:

    I just discovered your book at my local library – I was laid off Dec 2011 after 29 years and although busy during holiday – I was starting to get restless this week – I have always gardened but weekends were just not long enough – so now as I try to reinvent who I am, I am going to focus of the positive and keep busy getting prepared for spring – thank you so much for sharing your experiences and feelings

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Barbara, and welcome. Sorry to hear of the shift in your job, but glad to hear that you have such a good approach to the change. Every day is a little bit of reinvention! I hope to see you soon here again.

  13. Emmon says:

    Hi Margaret! So thrilled to find your blog. It looks like a GREAT place for info. Enjoyed this summary of Jan. chores, even if I’m a bit late! Cheers!

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