Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
One question I often get by gardeners from warmer climates is “What do you do in winter?” If our north country winters get a bit long for you, here are ten gardening activities to keep your spirits up and get you ready for and thinking about the coming growing season.
Order some seeds. This means obtaining by phone or mail some seed catalogs if you don’t already have some. The internet also is a great resource for choosing and ordering seeds. First, though, check in early spring with your local garden store as they may have what you want. Be forewarned of the temptation to order more seeds than you need or can keep up with.
Of course you can wait to start seeds outdoors, but with our short growing season in the north it is best to start at least some plants indoors if you can make the space. The temptation here is to start seeds too soon, only to have them get leggy. Many small seeds like begonias can be started in February, tomatoes in mid-March, many other flowers in early April, and quick growing plants such as squash, melons, sunflowers or zinnias only two or three weeks before setting out.
If you have houseplants, check them often for pests. Fertilize them if they are growing or blooming. Repot ones that are rootbound and dry out quickly. Propagate from cuttings those that may be getting leggy. Simply cut about four to six inches, remove the lower leaves, and place stem bases in a medium such as perlite, vermiculite, or a combination. Cover with a plastic bag to keep humidity inside, and check often to make sure not too dry or too wet inside. Keep out of direct sunlight. Don’t forget to buy a cut flower bouquet occasionally too.
Review garden catalogs, but as with the seeds, don’t order more than you can plant, weed, and maintain. It is best to figure where plants will go before you buy them. Keep in mind their environmental needs, such as light and soil type, and whether you can supply these. With the costs of shipping, and many mail order firms selling very small plants, often it is best to check your local nurseries first in spring. Do your research now, then visit them around late April or early May for the best selection and the best chance to get what you want.
Plan a new garden, or to renovate an older one. This applies only if you have room, and only if you think realistically that you can keep the new perennial garden maintained. This is not an issue if you are merely replacing a current annual flower bed or vegetable garden. If the latter, figure where each crop will go, rotating their locations from year to year to minimize diseases. If some perennial beds have gotten out of control through neglect (as have some of mine), perhaps you should plan to just remove the desirable plants, then start over removing all that remains.
Winter is the time to get tools in order, cleaning and sharpening if you haven’t already. Get pots cleaned and ready, a good job for a basement or garage. Stock up on supplies while garden stores are slow and you have the time. Look for “green goods” such as recycled materials and biodegradable pots.
Make plans to visit a local flower show, such as the Vermont Flower Show March 1 to 3 at the Expo Center in Essex Junction (greenworksvt.org). Also, watch local garden stores and gardening groups for seminars (http://perrysperennials.info/events.html).
There are many wonderful books on all aspects of gardening and gardens, design, plants and more. Check these out online either from booksellers or my publications list (perrysperennials.info), at your library, and local bookstores for the latest releases.
Plan a trip in summer to local gardens or specialty perennial nurseries with display gardens (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/vpdgli.html). You can find some local gardens on my website, either in photos or in videos from Across the Fence that you can watch online (perrysperennials.info). I like to visit gardens and nurseries when the weather isn’t ideal for working in my own garden, something you can’t obviously plan this winter. But you can plan to visit them every few weeks to see what is in bloom. This is a great way to find plants to keep your garden colorful all summer.
The internet has been mentioned already, but use it to explore the rest of the gardening world. This easily can fill your whole winter, or at least as much time as you can take on a computer. Have a slow connection like I do? Then take a laptop to your local library, many of which have wireless capability, or just use their computers. I love to make virtual visits to famous botanic gardens, and gardens of artists and designers. Of course you can learn so much more online, on any topic you can think of, and many you never thought of! Again, a starting point might be the links on my own website (perrysperennials.info).
These are only a few ideas for how you, as a gardener, can make the most of a long and cold winter. Don’t forget to take a break, get outside, and enjoy the winter effects of your garden and public ones. Think how you might improve yours next winter by adding shrubs or trees with evergreen colorful leaves, berries, attractive bark, or great textures and silhouettes.