Twelve things you can do for your garden this winter.

seed catalogsWinter blankets our gardens, covering our work in frost. The beds are tucked in; garlic and tulip bulbs alike sleep in the soil until spring. A gardener might think they must put their hobby to rest (and might even be grateful to!). When you’re getting restless in the late months, here are twelve great things that you can do to stay busy. The big payoff in gardening is that we get to see our successes; this list has more things with definite results. Keep reading to see what to do… 

Clean and condition your leather gloves.

Gloves are my barrier against yucky-ness in the garden. Psychologically, I can deal with touching insects, half-rotted compost and dead voles that the feral cats leave around – as long as I have my gloves. These are white goatskin and were a gift from my mother. They are a phenomenal pair of gloves. As they are leather, they need a bit of particular care.

Water dries out leather, so don’t use water to clean them. What you’ll need is a product that lifts off the dirt and puts moisture back in. I trust European Leather Restorer for my gloves and my white leather couches, since it is the right pH to keep the leather soft. Saddle Soap is for more rugged leather and it can cause soft leather to crack or get brittle. I just put the gloves on, pour the conditioner on and rub my hands together like a scheming villain.

Your gloves will thank you with years of use. Before I conditioned these, they felt almost crinkly when I put them on. Twenty minutes later, they were supple.

Clean and sharpen your tools.

I’ve got a number of metal tools, from trowels to my fantastic Corona pruners, and they periodically need a simple cleaning. Again, water isn’t great here. I like to brush off what I can and then polish with steel wool. Your clean metal tools will love a thin film of mineral oil as well. Just pour a little on a paper towel and wipe them down. This keeps the rust away, and as Neil Young can tell you, rust never sleeps.

You may have tools with sharp edges, too. Hoes, pruners, chainsaws and lawnmowers have sharp edges. For the high-tech stuff like my chainsaw, I use the specialty files. For the hoes, though, I just clamp the tool into a vise and use an angle grinder to put a fresh cutting edge on it.

Take a time-lapse video of your yard to see where the light is.

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This is a great time to record a time lapse of your back yard. You’ll see where all the light is, especially around December 21 – the winter solstice. When you know what your light looks like, you can better plan a winter garden and place spring plants in high-sun areas (even if the tree leaves would have shaded them later in the summer).

Taking a time lapse video is easy, and I explain it in this blog post.

Make garden stakes and new tools.

This is a good time of year to work on your woodworking techniques. I’ll have a blog post soon about building more stakes, but you can use my previous post on trellises for a good guide to an essential piece of dirt furniture.

I’m going to be constructing raised beds this winter, too. That’s not too hard, and I will be storing them in a semi-completed state in my garage.

Keep composting!

Your pile may look like it’s sleeping, but it still appreciates organic matter from your kitchen. Just today, I burned a pot of split-pea soup on the stove because I walked away from it. I ended up just pouring the contents on the pile. You don’t need to scorch legume porridge to feed your pile, though. Onions, apple peels and the other debris that come with winter cooking should all still end up on the pile.

The pile may be paused, but the freeze-thaw cycles will start to break down the matter you put onto your compost. In the spring, you’ll have a big reservoir of food for the bacteria to break down. You’re pre-building a fire in your fireplace this way, and once the spring temperatures get up, it’ll be the match to the newspaper that breaks it all down quickly.

Make a planting calendar.

This is a cool technique that I do with Google Calendar, and you can do with whatever you use to log doctor’s appointments. When you read about seeds, you might see phrases like:

“start indoors four weeks before last frost”

“ready in 110 days”

“plant after danger of frost is over”

(a lot revolves around frost!)

You can look up your region’s last frost date and then plan everything else around that. For example, Cincinnati is April 15th. I opened up my calendar and stuck in all the times to get things started. Leeks, for example, get started indoors six weeks before the last frost. I made a note to plant them in starter pots on March 1st, which is coincidentally Saint David’s Day, when leeks are often eaten. Part of my fun in gardening is making those sorts of connections through history. I made a note on my calendar on April 15th to start hardening them off for planting outside, knowing that I could hold them a little longer in pots if it was an especially bad winter.

You can do this with just about everything. The worst situation in gardening is buying the seeds and missing the window to plant them. This way, you have noted when to get the seedlings going and when to transplant.

Build a cold frame.

One of the first things I wrote about was how I constructed a cold frame, a semi-magical mini greenhouse. It’s too late to plant winter greens in a cold frame, but it’s still a great idea to build one. First, it’s a good, long project to keep occupied with. It’s also a great season-starter for your garden. You can build it now and put it out and you’ll get an early lead on anything you’ve already planted underneath it. That means that overwintered garlic gets a head start, for example. If you have a bare patch of ground, you can put the box over it in February and sow peas in the ground. They, too, will benefit from the early, gentle start and you can have a few weeks’ lead on your spring veggies.

Prune your trees.

February is a great time to prune back fruit trees, because the trees have not awoken from dormancy yet. I’ll be doing a minor amount of pruning on my new cider apples. This step also includes making limb spreaders for my trees. When a tree branch is near-vertical, it tends to grow up and make a lot of leaves. When you bring it down to near-horizontal, it tends to set fruit instead. This is the secret of espaliered tress, by the way.

Test your soil.

This is such a big deal and it gets ignored once the season starts up again. My best guess why is that we’re so eager to get things into the soil that we aren’t making sure that the soil is right for what we’re planting.

Luckily, you can get an analysis of your soil for the low price of only $15 from UMass. This is really important, especially if you’re into organic gardening and you can’t rely on broad-spectrum fertilizers to fill everything in. Here’s a pretty good guide for how to prepare your samples.

Later this winter, I’ll be testing mine and sharing the results here.

Put out your birdfeeder.

Feeding the birds in winter is cheap, it’s fun, and it has tiny benefits for your garden. See, you’ve got dozens of birds coming to the feeder all day. They’re munching on seeds, leaving the sunflower hulls on the ground. Those compost in. They’re also… um, pooping, so they’re fertilizing the ground. I suggest setting up your feeder in a spot where you’ll put a garden later in the summer. Despite what birds will do to a blueberry bush, most birds are welcome guests in a garden. They’ll eat insects, for instance. They’ll root up grubs. And if you have wrens, they happen to be charming little pudgy creatures.

Read seed catalogs.

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They’re already sending them out! I already got these two, along with one from High Mowing Organics. This is the time to start planning out your next plots of land. Lots of fun heirlooms await you. Those purple carrots on the cover of The Good Seed Catalog look mighty appealing, after all. I browse mine, dog-ear pages and then think about what I can’t live without.

Plant windowsill herbs

Plenty of little herbs will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill. Chives, basil, thyme and the incorrigible mint will all do it. You can even get a head-start by sticking fresh herbs from the grocery store in wet soil and keeping it moist (this is great for mint). It won’t grow as vigorously as it would outdoors, but there are no aphids or groundhogs to mow it down, either. I’ve started a pot of oat grass seeds for my cats, for example.

What do you do in the wintertime? What are you looking forward to planting?