Winter Garden Planning 101

Gardeners in northern zones might be snuggled up in their beds while visions of cherry tomatoes dance in their heads, and gardeners in southern zones are still pulling fresh carrots out of the ground and snipping kale for holiday meals. 

But, there is some winter garden planning in both northern and southern zones that should be done before Rudolph takes flight. Whether it’s pruning, planning, or purchasing, there is garden work to do in early winter, no matter where you live.

Ordering Bulbs and Tubers

If you think it’s too early to start planning next year’s garden, maybe you haven’t received the first seed catalogs in the mail yet. Several have already arrived at my door, telling me it’s time to get a move on. 

Spring-planted bulbs are on sale now, even though the vendors won’t ship them until spring. In fact, many premium dahlia sellers hold flash sales and sell out in a few hours–or minutes. Gladiolas, calla lilies, crocosmia, cannas, ranunculus, begonias, and, of course, dahlias all get planted in spring. Spring-planted bulbs and tubers also make great gifts!

If you find a vendor you like, sign up for their newsletter or follow them on social media. After the initial sale, there will often be a secondary sale to finish selling off inventory before shipping time. 

Years ago, orders could wait a bit, but with the increased interest in gardening over the past several years, many top varieties sell out by January. Don’t be caught out in the cold!

Protect Young Trees

Newly planted trees and shrubs, or even those a few years old, are in danger during winter from cold weather and hungry critters. Rabbits, especially, can girdle (meaning to remove all the bark and living tissue) young ornamental trees in minutes. Hungry mice have been known to kill small trees as well. Deer dreaming of the alfalfa fields of summer will browse on any tender twig they can find — especially your new apple tree that was doing so well. 

Frigid temps before snow blankets the ground can cause root damage to young trees and shrubs. Mulch over the roots with several inches of wood chips, straw, or other material. Don’t pile it around the trunk like a mound; apply it thickly and evenly, as wide as the drip line. Keep the mulch from touching the trunk.

Wrapping young tree trunks for protection against sunscald and bark injury can be done with white plastic tree guards, which also help with the rabbit and mice problem. Ensure the guards are fastened to the tree so they won’t slide up and expose the base of the sapling. Tubes of hardware cloth can also be used. Make them about six inches larger than the tree’s diameter and bury the base in the ground a couple of inches. If deer are a problem, use fence posts and chicken wire fencing to make a circular protection zone a foot larger than the tree’s branches. 

Soil Testing

Instead of trying to get results from the lab in spring when they’re busy, now (if your ground isn’t yet frozen) is the perfect time to send those samples in. You’ll get results in plenty of time to make any recommended amendments, and you won’t be waiting for results in spring when you should be planting. 

Most state universities offer soil testing. Search online for garden+soil test+your state. 

Cover the Soil

Many gardeners in more temperate regions don’t receive the heavy blanket of snow those in the north enjoy. Bare soil is subject to erosion by wind and isn’t as hospitable for any overwintering microbial life in your soil. 

Healthy soil is rarely bare in nature at any season. Be a copycat and cover your garden soils. It’s too late for most of us to plant cover crops, but a layer of mulch will do a lot to protect your soil all winter long, and by the time you are ready to plant in spring, it can just be worked into the soil. More food for your soil microorganisms! Straw (not hay), leaves, pine needles, or even newspaper (weigh it down) can all work well. 

Speaking of leaves and pine needles, if you are raking your yard in the fall, keep those piles for mulch now or in spring. Don’t bag them up and put them on the curb — they’re too valuable!

Check on Stored Veggies and Tubers

With the holiday rush on us, it can be easy to forget that your prized bulbs, strings of onions, and a few winter squash are tucked away somewhere. These first few weeks of storage are critical and the time when most problems with storage conditions will surface. 

Check on them every week or two, looking for mold (too moist) or dehydration (not enough moisture), and adjust accordingly. 

For the rest of the winter, set a recurring appointment on your calendar to give them a peek every 2-3 weeks. Remove anything that is starting to show signs of mold or rot. 

Do Some Garden Planning

Fall and Winter Gardening Guide

Along with ordering bulbs and seeds comes planning the garden. After all, you can’t figure out what to order without drawing fun maps and chewing on a pencil! 

Make a cup of tea and do some sketching, or try one of the many garden planning apps available. Either way, it will help you to make a list of what to order and to avoid ordering more than you can possibly use — something many of us do all too often.

Set Up a Seed Starting System

With pre-holiday sales, now is the time to buy those kits, grow lights, trays, heat mats, and other items you’d like to have for spring seed starting. Some crops will be started as seedlings in only a couple of months, so it’s just the right time to clear a spot in that spare room or figure out how to fit a few shelves and lights into your dining room. 

A sunny window is usually not bright enough light, resulting in leggy, spindly seedlings. Get your garden off to a good start by getting ready for the seed-starting season now. 


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