In December, many of us turn our attention away from our gardens and toward the cheer of the holiday season, but winter weather can wreck havoc on your garden. While December does bring cold weather to the garden, the coldest weather of the year has yet to come. This makes it the perfect time to get outdoors to take care of a few remaining gardening chores.
Obviously, what you can do this time of year will depend largely on your local weather and whether the ground is frozen or still workable. Still, spending a little time in the garden now will safeguard against problems and ensure a healthy garden in spring. Here are a few tips to help get your garden ready for the winter months ahead.
Trim and prune (some) trees and shrubs. Trimming during dormant season can invigorate some trees and shrubs because it leaves them with extra root energy reserves that support new growth on the remaining branches. Winter pruning is nice for you, too. You’ll be able to see the branches easily without leaves in the way. But be careful, not every plant should be pruned in the winter. Dead stalks, tall grasses, and seed heads on plants such as sunflowers or coneflowers should be left standing to provide food and shelter for wintering birds. Here’s a handy list of plants that should be pruned in the winter to get you started.
Weed garden beds and cut back dead plant matter. Give your spring garden a boost by removing the weeds now. Doing so prevents early germination in warmer weather. Remove diseased plants and discard. Cut back dead plant matter and compost it in place by chopping the plants into small pieces that will break down over time and add valuable organic matter to the soil.
Rake leaves and make leaf mulch. Mulch is a gardner’s best friend- especially in winter. A thick layer of mulch will help to keep the soil temperature steady during winter and fall leaves are the best for the job. Plus, they’re free! Leaves alone tend to blow away in windy conditions, and they can be washed away in heavy rains. They do best as a mulching material when the leaves have been shredded. Non-shredded leaves can form a thick layer over plants that makes water penetration nearly impossible. To solve this problem, before you rake, make leaf mulch. Simply run a lawn mower over the leaves until shredded, making them easier to break down.
Cover beds with leaf mulch. Leaf mulch insulates plants and protects the soil against the winter winds and heavy rain or snowfall. It improves soil fertility as it decomposes. It helps to maintain the soil moisture by reducing evaporation and it also inhibits weed germination and growth. All you need to do is place a two to three inch thick layer of leaf mulch in flower beds and around the base of established trees and shrubs.
Cover vegetables with a cold frame or row cover. While some plants need to be planted in spring or summer, many vegetables can be grown throughout the winter under protection. In order to have a productive winter garden (depending on your region), plants should be planted under a row cover or cold frame. Plant lettuce, radishes, spinach, broccoli, carrots, garlic, or kale, for example. Here’s a list of what to plant in December to help get you started. Be sure to check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map before planting to determine which plants will thrive in the zone you live in. And don’t forget, if you can’t plant outside, you can always plant a winter container gardeninside the house.
Help Wintering Backyard Animals. Wash and disinfect bird feeders and bird baths. Birds and other small animals need access to food and fresh drinking water, even in the winter. Use an immersion-style heater to keep the water in birdbaths from freezing. Put one source of water up high for birds and squirrels, and another lower on the ground for non-climbing animals such as rabbits. If you don’t have a bird bath, you can use a small dish of water or you can make your own. Fill feeders and keep them stocked. Make piles of fallen branches and brush in an undisturbed corner of the garden to provide shelter for small animals, birds, reptiles, and insects to take cover. Bird and squirrel houses, and bat boxes can also provide much-needed shelter from the elements.