Northeast Regional Reports

Northeast December Garden To-Do List

These are the contents of my garden tote at season’s end, ready for inventory and reorganization. Photo: Kristin Green

December’s shortest days allow scant time to enjoy being outdoors, and we’ve barely had a chance to acclimatize to the cold, but winter is still full of gifts for Northeastern gardeners. The best is an excuse for rest. Anything resembling a chore can wait for restored energy and better weather. But before taking a much-deserved break, tackle a few last-minute tasks in the garden.

rose whip
Cutting back long rose canes, or whips, by a third to a half will protect plants from winter wind damage. Hilling up small shrub roses insulates the bud union. Photos: Kristin Green

Prepare your roses for winter. Don’t procrastinate in preparing your roses for their own winter’s rest. Save hard pruning for early spring, but trim long canes just enough to prevent them from whipping around in the wind and damaging themselves. To protect the bud union from freeze damage, “hill up” your roses by covering their base with a mounded foot or so of soil. Use finished compost and/or soil from another part of the garden, and be sure to rake and dispose of any diseased foliage first. Come spring bud break, the soil should be pulled away and spread out. Learn more about overwintering your roses here:

holiday arrangement
Use materials from your own landscape to create long-lasting arrangements, swags, and wreaths. Photo: Brittany Carlson

Create your own winter décor. Prune evergreens now, and repurpose their overgrowth in table centerpieces, wreaths, and outdoor container arrangements. Indoors, greens will last weeks in water. To anchor heavy pieces in a vase or bowl, use an old-fashioned frog rather than floral foam, which contains carcinogens. To prevent branches from blowing out of outdoor container arrangements, stuff the ends into used potting soil. Cold temperatures help preserve color in wreaths and arrangements left outdoors. Learn more about creating your own decorations here:

bird feeder
A community of birds (and squirrels!) enjoys a feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. Photo: Kristin Green

Start filling bird feeders, if you haven’t already, to supplement your garden’s natural buffet. Avoid birdseed mixtures, because many contain fillers that the birds won’t eat. Instead, keep it simple. A feeder of black-oil or striped sunflower seed will attract a wide variety of birds. Or use nyjer/thistle seed (seed from African yellow daisies [Guizotia abyssinica, annual]) to attract finches. Also, marauding squirrels and grackles will dine elsewhere if you offer nothing but safflower seeds. Learn more about helping birds through the winter here.

planting a terrarium
When planting a terrarium, aim for the gravel, charcoal, and soil layer to take up no more than one-third of the depth of the container. This will ensure the right amount of airflow around your plants. Photo: Kristin Green

Create gardening gifts. Share your love of plants this holiday season. Pot up amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum spp. and cvs., Zones 8–10). Sink each bulb about two-thirds deep in a pot an inch or two larger than its circumference. Keep it watered, and fertilize it after sprouting. Plant terrariums for the nongardeners on your list. In clear glass containers, layer fish tank gravel for drainage, lightly sprinkle it with activated charcoal to filter toxins, and top it with dampened potting soil just deep enough to plant in. Choose plants that grow slowly and thrive in humidity. Water them in lightly, and cover the containers with clear plastic film—perforated for air exchange—or loose-fitting tops. Placed in bright, filtered light, a well-balanced terrarium will water itself for weeks or even months.

broken garden tools
Here are some of this season’s tool casualties: a pruning saw left out in the rain, a blown-out glove fingertip, and a broken shovel. All are repairable! Photo: Kristin Green

Make a tool wish list. Take a tool inventory now to reorganize, and make a wish list of your own. Leave hints for friends and family. Empty out your tool bag, and go through the shed. Donate unnecessary duplicates and any tools you never use. Retire or mend worn-out gloves. Identify which favorites need fixing, replacing, cleaning, or sharpening. If you don’t find new or repaired tools under the tree, you don’t have to deal with the old ones right away. That’s a chore that can wait. Now is the time to enjoy the best gift December has to give: an end-of-season breather.

—Kristin Green is author of Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big With 150 Plants That Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter. She gardens in Bristol, Rhode Island.

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