the january garden chores
THE ANSWER IS NO: No, you probably shouldn’t start all your vegetable seed now, unless it’s for a cool-season crop and you live in a relatively warm zone (my handy calculator tool will confirm when’s the right time). And no, you probably can’t take a soil sample, either, in much of the nation (like here in Zone 5B, though technically the ground may still be unfrozen some years).
But planning for these and other key activities that form the lead-up to another active garden season are what the January chores are all about. Planning—and some dreaming, too, in the pages of the catalogs, but seasoned with lots of patience.
It’s always good to pause on the cusp of the new year, and try to put some words to what will be the focus, or adjustments, in the garden ahead.
“Dig in.” That was the promise I made to myself one recent New Year, and my garden mandate, too. I’d sworn to finally tackle the long-neglected, oldest parts of the garden, right in front of the house. But the forces of nature (life!) keep throwing me off course and otherwise distracting me. That fall I actually began the exhumation of the tangle of botanical bodies out there. Better late than never, right? The following year my motto was “Don’t stop now,” and frankly, even though I didn’t stop, I’m still at it.
So I guess if I’m being honest, that rallying cry continues. Onward! My garden resolutions for 2020, made with my friend and regular podcast guest Ken Druse, reflect that spirit, and the need t focus to avoid overwhelm. “One area at a time,” we agreed, and here’s more about what I have under way so far.
Even if all I have mustered in some spots is the cleanout phase, and slathering a thick layer of mulch on top of the newly bared or at least tidied-up areas (perhaps with some cardboard beneath it)—so be it. Progress, not perfection (as they say in 12-Step programs).
Some earlier resolutions are sort of forever ones, too: “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” I’d said one year at this time, with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action is taken. A year earlier, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: “Be kind!”
So go ahead: Set an intention for this year’s garden. What’s yours? (At last count, already about 500 readers had added their resolves to the comments on the 2020 resolutions story–making for good inspiration, I bet, for all of us.)
regional chores links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer in the chores will apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To help adjust the timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). Again, I encourage you to read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
TOPIC BY TOPIC, then, here are the month’s chores:
BUY ORGANIC, THINK REGIONAL: that’s my top seed-shopping rule. I’ve written about why I buy organic seed and focus on regionally appropriate varieties for “The New York Times,” for “Mother Earth News,” and also on this website, and my reasoning is all rounded up on this page.
TREAT YOURSELF to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too. I have a list of resources (including a category for seed catalogs only) on this page. My Seed Series—an annual event on the radio show, in podcasts and transcripts—has featured some standout sellers and breeders, with more to come. Some of the links so far (or browse the entire archive):
growing from seed: overall how-to’s
- My seed-sowing calculator, for when to start seed.
- How long do seeds last? A viability chart for leftover seed.
- How to start seed indoors (the basics).
- How to prevent spindly seedlings.
- My seed FAQ page.
growing specific vegetables from seed
- How to grow beets.
- How to grow carrots.
- How to grow spinach.
- How to grow kale.
- How to grow melons.
- How to grow squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits.
- How to grow tomatoes.
- How to grow onions.
- How to grow peppers.
- How to grow dry beans.
- How to grow eggplants, plus “dense sowing” of seeds.
- Oddball edibles.
q&a’s with organic seed companies, breeders, farmers
- Tomatoes! With “Epic Tomatoes” author Craig LeHoullier
- Annual flowers: when to sow (and re-sow, and pinch) with flower farmer Jenny Elliott
- Better beans and tough tomatoes, with Prairie Road Organic Seed
- Grow onions from seed, with Siskiyou Seeds’ Don Tipping
- Growing kale from seed, with Sarah Kleeger of Adaptive Seeds
- How to master spinach, with Tom Stearns
- Heritage corn and polyculture tactics with Rowen White
- Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed
- Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds: hybrids, heirlooms, and modern OPs
- Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Bill McDorman, formerlt of Native Seeds/SEARCH
- Better beets with Brian Campbell of Uprising Seeds
- Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds
- Squash and kale diversity with Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds
- Carol Koury of Sow True Seed
- University of Wisconsin corn breeder Bill Tracy
- John Navazio and Organic Seed Alliance on why organic matters
- …and more sources can be found in my Resources List
INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work in garden success or failure; more on that important topic here. Old seed that can technically sprout but loses steam after that is a frequent cause of failure.
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—or refrigerated and with silica gel like expert Joseph Tychonievich does (his tip is far down in this other story).
PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (And please, don’t sow too soon! My “when to start what” seed calculator offers the proper dates geared to your precise location.)
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. Don’t skimp on light.
DO YOU HAVE seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, or a soil-blocker? If not, order them (here are the supplies I use).
review 2019, revise for 2020
TOP PRIORITY: Take a mental spin through your 2019 garden, or review notes or photos. If you didn’t make/take any, resolve to keep records in 2020. List anything you want to do more or less or just plain differently, to keep in mind before catalog-induced temptation (and then spring fever) take hold.
RESOLUTION-TYPE THINKING: Do you want to mow differently (as I started doing more than five years ago to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy), or otherwise invite more birds to the landscape (here’s how to make a garden for the birds, and a little archive of advice from habitat-garden experts)?
SPEAKING OF WILDLIFE MAGNETS: Will this be the year you add water to the backyard picture, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this? Or let a dead or dying tree stand, with some adjustments for safety’s sake, to become a wildlife-sustaining snag?
WHAT ABOUT ADDING MORE NATIVES? Here’s one expert’s take on how to choose the right ones.
DOES YOUR GARDEN SUFFER from the polkadot effect—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of a group or drift of the same variety to punch up the visual volume)? I forced myself to harvest divisions of plants I’ve had a long time, and repeat them in sweeps elsewhere–rather than bring home so many new one-off’s from the garden center. That work will continue. Additional DIY garden-design advice.
MORE KEY QUESTIONS: Does one season (perhaps winter?) need some added visual excitement? Or in the edible garden, was there a crop you wish you’d enjoyed over a longer span, not just a momentary harvest? (Examples: Do you need a more heat-tolerant spinach for later plantings, or just the discipline to actually sow a short row of lettuce every two weeks?) Smarter shopping is part of helping to rectify things.
KEEP AN EYE OUT for 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 or horticultural oil (as directed on labels) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter, so go easy. How expert Tovah Martin cares for her indoor plants, including begonias.
I DON’T FEED in the low-light months, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice the accumulation of “extra” minutes of daylight, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so). I just started watering my Clivia again; I keep them dry and cool from fall until the New Year or thereabouts. Here’s how to care for Clivia like a pro.
trees & shrubs
IF THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow 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, or even April. My Pruning FAQ page will help.
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.
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 bark tearing and unnecessary extra damage.
SPEAKING OF DEAD WOOD: The recommendation above doesn’t mean cutting down non-hazardous dead and dying trees that can instead be turned into “snags,” or wildlife trees. And the conventional wisdom about “thinning” woodlots and forests to “manage” them? Think again.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood. 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.)
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.
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. Potted citrus goes like this.
for other regions…
NEED REGION-SPECIFIC ADVICE? My page of links to garden checklists and calendars may get you to an expert who can help.