the january garden chores: 2013

shoes-trowel 3I’M LIKE A KID UNDER A CHRISTMAS TREE, though what I can’t wait to sit down on the living room floor and open aren’t gifts, but all the 2013 seed catalogs. Their arrival ushers in another garden year—and with the browsing comes dreaming (maybe not of sugar plums, but oh, all those “new” varieties) and also concrete planning involved in getting ready for the season ahead. That’s what fills our little list of January garden chores, and yes, I promise, a couple of other tasks—like pruning, weather permitting—will involve time outdoors. Shall we begin again then officially, together? Happy New Year, friends, and here we go:

prefer the podcast?

THE JANUARY CHORES were the topic of this week’s podcast with Robin Hood Radio, based in Sharon, Connecticut–NPR’s smallest station (and right down the road apiece from me). Stream it now, while you read…or subscribe free via iTunes or on the Stitcher app. Look for the December 31, 2012 edition.

One step before any temptation at impulse buying: Take a mental spin through your 2012 garden (or even better, review notes or photos if you have them; if you didn’t make/take any, resolve to keep records this year). Make a list of anything you want to do more or less or just plain differently, that you want to keep in mind before catalog-induced temptation (and then spring fever) takes hold. (My “garden resolutions” list is here.)

Some possibilities: Do you want to mow differently (as I plan to), or invite more birds to the landscape (here’s how to create a habitat garden), or what about adding water to the backyard picture, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?

Is there a season (perhaps winter?) that needs some added interest, or a crop you wish you’d enjoyed over a longer time period, not just a single harvest (example: did you need a more heat-tolerant spinach)? Plan your shopping accordingly!


FIRST, TREAT YOURSELF to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too. (While you’re over on my Resource Links page, connect with some new-to-you plant and bulb resources—their offerings will be out soon, so get on any mailing lists that look good.)

THEN, READ UP ON the seed-shopping rules we live by here at A Way to Garden, meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see.

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.

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 rather than have strays get lost among the yogurt and mayonnaise.

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. 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. Do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots?


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.

I DON’T FEED in the low-light months, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice slightly longer days, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so). I started watering my Clivia again, both yellow- and orange-flowered ones, by the way.

trees & shrubs

IF THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow (or none) 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.

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 tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

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.

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.

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October 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.)

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, to reduce them in my beds and borders.

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.

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.

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

  1. Pamela Christopher says:

    Dear Margaret,
    Sweet video. Loved your post today. So many things for my enjoyment as I plan for my garden to be as beautiful as yours. May 2013 be a year of weather for gardening and sharing. Blessings to you.

  2. Jane says:

    I have been searching for a gardener’s journal for a couple of years and can’t find one that seems user friendly. Do you have any recommendations?

  3. cheryl fishko says:

    Could I have some feed back on buying bare root plants. I have never done it but I have a big new raised bed where I’m planning to put in big groups of shade plants like astilbe. The price difference between bare rooted and 3 inch pots is huge! I am so confused???????

  4. tasterspoon says:

    Just got the notification from UPS that all the couple dozen bare-root fruit trees I ordered late last summer (seems like last week) are arriving TOMORROW (we’re in California) and am freaking out. Wish me luck!

  5. kim says:

    I love your gardening blog and will buy your book this week. I garden in a desert (southern California) and have
    high temduring (95-115) during the summer. The soil was poor but I added egg shells, bags of garden soil, and bags of compost. Even have a compost pile :) . Still my carrot seeds did nothing! Any ideas so my carrots grow this year?

  6. Amy says:

    65 degrees yesterday here upper East Tennessee, put arugula, turnip greens and pok choi seeds in some planters. Covered the planters with some leaves. If it stops raining today, again 60s, I might try putting out some lettuce and spinach seeds. Weird weather this year. Tomorrow is forecasted in the 30s. Oh we’ll, experimentation works for me.

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