Maybe it’s just the holidays on our minds, but we can’t help but think of ornaments when we look at the ripening fruits still hanging from the bare branches of our persimmon tree this December. As fall quietly gives way to winter, a few tasks linger on the gardener’s to-do list, but few — if any — of them are urgent. As months in the garden go, we appreciate that this one is rather forgiving for gardeners caught up in the hectic holiday scramble, and we’re perhaps more thankful than ever to be able to escape into the garden for small moments of beauty and stillness.
One of a gardener’s greatest joys during the winter is the visiting fauna that stand out even more against the backdrop of dormant flora around us. Encouraging wildlife to use your yard is as simple as providing shelter, food, and water. Consider leaving parts of your garden “messy” to give critters places to hide and overwinter. You could even create a specific habitat area in an undisturbed corner of your garden by adding a pile of old logs that can provide shelter for toads and other ground-dwelling wildlife.
Bird feeders are a great way to help our feathered friends through the cold months, as long as you make sure to keep them not only full, but clean, too! You can also feed birds the old fashioned way by planting native shrubs like Snowberry, Huckleberry, Salal, Serviceberry, and Cascara that provide winter berries they will love. There are other non-native choices, too, including Beautyberry, Pyracantha, Holly, Barberry, and Korean Ash tree. This time of year, overwintering hummingbirds will also continue to drink from hummingbird feeders through the cold months as a supplement to winter-blooming plants like Camellias, Mahonia, and Hellebores. And if you have the ability to provide it, birds of all kinds will greatly appreciate access to fresh, non-frozen water, as well.
Planting & Transplanting
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve had a fairly mild fall, and the transition between seasons has been gradual and rainy. We have yet to have a hard frost, and we may not for several more weeks, so there is still time to add plants to your garden if you so desire. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, you can still plant any early holiday presents to yourself — or the birds — that might come in the form of bulbs, perennials, shrubs, or trees. In the event that it doesn’t rain for a few weeks, anything you add this late in the season should be kept watered to protect its roots through the cold months ahead.
If your fall containers feature plants that are beginning to wane — or if you never transitioned from summer containers in the first place — you should consider changing them over to a winter palette of plants before it gets too cold for them to get established. Any faded annuals can be discarded, and tender perennials can be moved into the garden to make room for evergreen alternatives. If you’re looking for a bit of holiday cheer, you can even include cut greens and berry bunches in your design. After all, there’s no rule saying you only have to use living plant material in your pots! If you are re-planting your containers with the likes of bright pansies and heucheras, throwing in a few bulbs while you’re at it will reward you with an additional burst of color in the early spring.
Any containers not being used should be emptied of soil prior to outdoor storage or moved to an area that stays above freezing. This is particularly true for porous terra cotta, which should also be moved to a warm, dry storage area to prevent damage from freezing and thawing.
It’s important to clean up any rotting fruit and leaves from around the base of fruit trees to minimize the potential transmission of diseases and pests between growing seasons. (Apple scab and coddling moth, we’re looking at you.) In fact, it’s a good idea to remove most faded plant material from your Kitchen Garden for the same reason. Leave any cold hardy edibles such as lettuce, kale, endive, spinach, and arugula; they will overwinter just fine if protected with frost cloth during particularly cold or snowy periods. Similarly, perennial herbs like parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, chives, and sage can be harvested year-round, so there’s no need to disturb them. Once you’ve cleared out your beds, one last weeding for the year would do them good before you cover them with straw, compost, or mulch. In a mild winter, you could also sow a cover crop of Fava Beans as a living mulch that will help restore nitrogen to your soil and prevent weeds from taking hold.
In the rest of the garden, it’s okay for things to be a little less tidied up — unless tidy is your thing, of course! While any brown, dead perennial foliage can certainly be cut back and added to the compost pile for a neater appearance, we’ve got the perfect excuse for any “lazy” gardeners out there who don’t want to go to all the trouble this month: If left in place, these stems and leaves will provide food and habitat for overwintering wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects. Ornamental grasses, coneflowers, rudbeckias, and sedums are just a few examples of plants that provide special fibers or seeds that are particularly important to wildlife during the winter. If anyone gives you a hard time for having a messy yard, you can tell them Cornell Farm told you it was more environmentally friendly. (You have our permission to deadhead your hydrangeas, though.)
Dead branches can be pruned from woody plants like trees and shrubs, but don’t prune anything back too hard this time of year, as this can stimulate plants to invest precious energy reserves into new growth that may die back during freezes to come. Hard pruning is best done in mid to late February for all plants except spring-blooming shrubs and trees, which you can wait to prune until after they have flowered.
Winterization & Garden Projects
If you haven’t already done so, this month is the time to tuck your garden in for the winter by adding one to two inches of compost, leaves, or mulch around the plants in your landscape beds. This will not only help to insulate their roots, preserve moisture, and prevent weeds, but in the case of compost and leaves, this will also help provide fertility to the soil. As we said back in November, just be careful not to mulch over the crown of perennials or to smother the base of woody plants’ trunks. December is also a good time to make sure your water spigot is protected from freezing temperatures and to double-check staked plants for any ties that need to be adjusted to ensure that they are ready to withstand the winter winds. On warm days, lawns can be spiked with a garden fork to improve drainage and aeration, but try to avoid walking on grass when it’s covered in snow or temperatures are below freezing.
If you’re really itching to spend some extra time in the garden this month, here are a few more projects you could begin, but that are probably okay to wait until at least January to undertake:
- Clean, oil, and sharpen garden tools.
- Clean out your shed or greenhouse.
- Build or buy a compost bin and start it off with end-of-season clippings and leftover fall leaves.
- Begin converting sections of lawn into a perennial garden or no-mow lawn alternative by covering them with cardboard and compost.
Finally, as many deciduous trees finish defoliating, this month gives you a chance to look at the exposed “bones” of your garden. This is a great time of year to start or add to your garden journal. You can reflect on what went well and what could be improved for next year, writing down ideas about what you would like to change or plant in the coming year. Peruse garden magazines or come walk around the grounds at Cornell Farm for winter interest inspiration. If you walk through the nursery once a month over the course of a full year, you’ll see all the exciting possibilities to enhance your landscape in a given season. Each month, there’s something new!