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December is a great time to clean up the garden. This month also gives you a chance to look at the “bones” of your garden while leaves are off the deciduous trees to plan for next spring.
Start or add to your garden journal -- reflect on what went well and what could be improved for next year. Write down ideas about what you would like to plant in the coming year. This will help come spring. Peruse garden magazines or come walk around the grounds at Cornell Farm for plant inspiration to fill any holes you notice.
Make sure watering systems are protected from freezing.
Think about adding new garden paths before the ground freezes, or plan them out for spring.
Add one to two inches of compost and/or mulch to landscape beds to insulate roots, preserve moisture, and prevent weeds. Compost is preferable if you can manage it since it adds fertility to the soil, while mulch just covers it.
Make sure things are watered, especially newly planted trees. Check staked plants, loosen or tighten ties as needed to make sure they are ready to withstand the winter wind.
Cut back to the ground any brown, dead perennial foliage and put them in the compost pile. Consider if you might want to leave some things as they are if they provide coverage, include special fibers, or seeds that may be important to wildlife.
Prune dead branches from trees and shrubs. Deadhead hydrangeas.
Don’t prune shrubs back too hard at this time of year, but if anything is much too overgrown this is a good time to shorten long canes to protect the plant from damage during high winds.
Clean up debris and rotting fruit around trees. Cut down remaining annual kitchen garden plants, weed, and cover beds with straw, compost, or mulch.
Keep bird feeders full and clean. Make sure birds have fresh, non-frozen water.
Leave parts of your garden “messy,” to give critters places to hide and overwinter. To enhance this further, you could make a pile of old logs in an undisturbed corner of the garden to provide shelter for toads and other wildlife.
On warm days, spike lawns with a garden fork to improve drainage and aeration. Try to avoid walking on grass when it’s covered in snow or temperatures are below freezing.
This is a great time to cover lawn with cardboard and compost if you’d like to start converting sections to a perennial garden or no-mow lawn alternative come spring.
Build or buy a compost bin and start it off with end-of-season prunings and left-over fall leaves.
Clean and oil garden tools.
Clean out your shed and/or greenhouse.
Any containers not being used should be emptied of soil if being stored outside or moved to an area that stays above freezing. All terra cotta should also be moved to a warm storage area to prevent damage.
If the ground isn’t completely frozen yet, December is your last chance to get bulbs into the ground for spring color. You might also be able to squeeze in some last-chance perennials, shrubs, and trees too!