December 02, 2020 3 min read


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, add in winter interest plants, and 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. If you visit the nursery once a month over the year, you’ll see all the exciting possibilities to enhance your landscape.  Each month, there’s something new!


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.  Raking leaves to surround shrubs counts as compost.

Garden Plants

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, such as ornamental grasses, coneflower, sedum and black eyed susans.

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.  Hard pruning is best done in mid-late February for all plants except spring-blooming shrubs and trees.  Hard pruning stimulates new growth, which can be nipped back by unusual cold spells.  Waiting for spring takes advantage of avoiding cold winter die-back and the tremendous energy stored up to flourish and expand when warm, sunny weather predominates.


Remove fall annuals and move perennials into the garden. Fill pots with holiday color, including pansies, evergreen plants and cut greens and berry bunches. This is also the perfect time to plant bulbs in containers for a burst of color in early spring.

Kitchen Garden and Other Edible Plants

Clean up debris and rotting fruit around trees to minimize apple scab and coddling moth hiding places. Remove annual kitchen garden plants to compost, weed and cover beds with straw, compost, or mulch.  In a mild winter, you can still sow Fava (Faba) beans to restore nitrogen to your soil and prevent weeds. There are cold hardy edibles that usually overwinter, such as, lettuces, kales, endive, spinach, arugula and mache that you might need a frost cloth to cover in colder weather or snow.  Herbs like parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, chives and sage are perennials for year-round harvest.

Wildlife Habitat

Keep bird feeders full and clean. Make sure birds have fresh, non-frozen water.  Hummingbirds love winter-blooming camellias and hellebores.

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.  

For our over-wintering birds, planting shrubs with winter berries, such as native Snowberry, Huckleberry, Salal, Serviceberry, and Cascara are important.  Other great choices are Beautyberry, Pyracantha, Holly, Barberry and Korean Ash tree. 


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, oil and sharpen 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. 

Last chance

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!

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