Winter Garden Tips


Weekly Garden tips for Massachusetts Gardens

Your Christmas tree can have a second life.
When it’s time to take down your tree, cut the branches from your tree (making it easier to remove from the house) and add them (or additional mulch) over the top of perennial beds and any plantings put in during the fall. This will protect the plants during freeze and thaw cycles.  You don’t need to wait for a January thaw to put down branches: place them on the snow atop those perennial beds.

Watering houseplants?
Fill containers the night before so the water is at room temperature and, if you leave caps off, some chlorine will evaporate into the air. To provide higher humidity, group plants or use pebble trays.  While watering, look for any pests such as spider mites that may have infested plants that have dried out.  Washing houseplants in a sink or tub (except for hairy leafed varieties such as African violets) is a good first step in pest control.   Rotate plants a quarter turn every week to prevent them leaning to the light.

Ordering seeds?    Once you’ve planned your gardens for the coming season, check with friends to see if they are planning to grow the same varieties of vegetables or flowers.  While you may use all of some seeds, many gardeners find themselves at the end of the season with a number of half-full packets, especially of things like squash and pumpkins.  Save money by planning ahead and sharing with other gardeners.  And don’t wait to put in that order!  There may be a foot of snow on the ground now, but January is when the top seed companies are filling their orders.

Deer dining?
Deer are at their hungriest right now. You don’t have to wait for all your snow to melt.  Re-apply deer repellents to evergreens and any other plants they have favored in the past, but only when the temperature is above 40 degrees.

Bird watching?
Remember each bird will eat pounds of insects next spring, summer and fall.  Feeding them now not only enlivens your landscape, it helps protect your plants during the growing season.

White on white?  Is your landscape a little bland at this time of year? Make a point of photographing it every month.  Make note of what you’d like to see out your windows, do some research and, put it all in your gardening journal.  Next spring and summer, plant trees or shrubs that add more winter interest.  Leaving sturdy perennials up also makes the landscape more attractive —  both to you and the birds.

Are you starting seeds indoors?
Begin by first cleaning up seed-starting pots and trays.  Then disinfect them before planting so your work and seeds are not in vain.   Start seeds early this month for herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme and chives as well as pansies so they are ready to set out in early spring.  Start seeds for onions and leeks at the end of the month for a great summer harvest.

Time on your hands this month?  Read a gardening book, work your way through gardening magazines you didn’t have time for last summer.  Look for upcoming classes that interest you.  All your growing should not take place in soil.  January is a great time to stretch your mind.

Forced bulbs—faded but maybe not dead.  If you forced tulips, daffodils or crocus for the holidays – or if you received them as a gift – save them in a cool dry place (a basement is ideal) and put a reminder on your calendar to plant them in the garden as soon as the ground thaws.  Those forced in water, such as paperwhites, cannot be saved and should go in the compost.

Wrapping plants.  If you have tightly wrapped your plants in burlap or plastic to protect from breakage from wind, heavy snow or road salt, undo it now!  Wrapped plants can suffer heat stress on warm days, and become a cozy home for bark gnawing rodents.  Wrap them instead in plastic “chicken wire” style fencing.  The plastic is nearly invisible to you but thwarts the dining deer, keeps branches from damage from heavy snow loads, and allows the cold air to flow through your plants making life less comfy for rodents and wintering insects.

For plants near roads where they may be doused by road chemicals, set up a burlap barrier to stop the damage.  And, in the spring, remove the soil cover under affected plants and replace it with fresh, clean (salt-free) mulch.

Winter Protection for Roses.  If you have roses, and temperatures at your home dip below 5˚F, you need to protect roses. Your goal is to lessen the effects of winter’s freezing and thawing cycle, and to keep the branches from whipping about which, in turn, causes roots to loosen. Reduce stress on roses going into the dormant season by irrigating adequately before the ground freezes.

Hybrid Teas, grandifloras and floribundas should be protected from winter damage after a killing frost but before the soil freezes. Reduce breakage of tall canes by winter winds by cutting them back to 24 to 30 inches and tying tips together. Remove dead and fallen leaves around the plants – cleanliness now helps reduce disease next year.  Mound soil over the center of the plants in broad, rounded mounds 8 to 12 high and 12 inches wide.   Never use soil from the bed—you are robbing the roots to save the crown. Cover the soil mounds with a mulch of leaves, straw, boughs, or some similar material.

An alternate way of protecting roses is to use a lighter material that will include many air pockets such as wood or bark mulch.  In the spring, the mulch can be spread around the rose bed and won’t need to be carried away. Other rosarians prefer to construct wire mesh cylinders to surround each plant, which they fill with mulch, leaves or straw.  Or, you may use rose cones (inverted paper maché or plastic baskets), or burlap to wrap individual plants.  When the first signs of growth appear in the spring, carefully remove most of the mulch and soil from around the bases of plants.

Protecting Trees and Shrubs. Plants can be protected with wind screen or cages stuffed mulch, straw or leaves.  Plants susceptible to branch break from heavy snow need special help.  Tying branches together with heavy twine can be effective. For small plants, structures allow good air flow while preventing crushing snow loads from building up.

Thwarting Bambi and friends.  If your plants have suffered from the ravages of hungry deer, rabbits or rodents, use the next warm day (temperatures above 45 degrees) to spray all your evergreen trees and shrubs.  There are several products (Deer Off, Liquid Fence) available.  We have found Bobbex most effective at deterring grazing on our plants.  If you repeat the spray monthly until spring, damage should be eliminated, or in a hard winter, minimized.  And while the awful smell dissipates quickly for humans, smell and taste remain to grazers for three to four weeks. For young trees, a metal (such as hardware cloth) or plastic barrier placed well away from the trunk can keep Bambi at bay.  Add chicken wire at the base for Thumper.

Time for houseplants.   Houseplants brighten our homes, particularly in winter.  Further, many of the leafy plants — peace lilies, dracaena, most palms, and ivy – remove carcinogenic chemicals from the air we breathe.  Except members of the cactus family, you can make your house plants happy by placing them on pebble trays.  This will also add humidity to an otherwise dry home.

sharpen-tools-before-you-put-them-away-for-the-seasonTool Clean-up
It’s tool clean-up time.  If you haven’t already cleaned up your tools for winter, do so now.  It’s much easier to take a morning or afternoon now to remove dirt and rust from lawn tools than it will be in the spring.  After it is clean and dry, sharpen any tools in need and then coat the metal parts with oil and give the wood a thin layer of wax.  In the spring, you’ll be happy you took the time now.

December Outside Chores
Here are some December outside chores:  Put a leaf or pine needle mulch over any beds of perennials.  Place pine needles over strawberry beds and cut down and dispose of raspberry and blackberry canes that fruited this year.  Allow leaves to remain under bushes both as protection for the roots and as a home for many moths and butterflies that spend the winter in the leaves.  In the spring those caterpillars will provide food for the birds as well as beauty for your garden.

Winter Moths
If you see large numbers of winter moths on your property in December, make a note on your calendar to apply horticultural oil to trees.  The application of horticultural oil should be on an early spring day when the temperature is above 45 degrees. in order to not harm your trees.  The oil smothers the eggs before they hatch.  While you won’t get them all (because the eggs are often under the edges of bark or too high on the tree for your to reach) you’ll limit damage.  Once they have begun to hatch into caterpillars, be ready to spray your trees with B.T. K.—a caterpillar-specific product that is activated in the stomach of the winter moth caterpillar and then kills it. B. T.K. may also kill beneficial Lepidoptera if they are out eating on the same trees.  You will need to be vigilant when you see winter moth caterpillars which can ‘balloon’ from one tree to another.  As they get older there is no foolproof way to rid your property of these pests, but you can help vulnerable trees and shrubs (such as blueberries) survive while we wait for biologists to find the secret bullet.

Tips provided thanks to Neal Sanders

If you have been keeping up with your gardening tasks for the last few months, you should be able to take it pretty easy this month; (at least in the garden.) There are a few things to keep an eye on, and a few optional things you can do in the garden. Your biggest concern will probably be tending to your house plants.

Living Christmas Tree
This year, consider purchasing a living Christmas tree for your home. They really aren’t that much more expensive than a cut tree. This is an excellent way to improve your landscape, and at the same time, save a tree. Before bringing a living tree into the house, water it thoroughly. Living Christmas trees should not be kept in the house for any longer than 10 days.

Annuals, Perennials, and Bulbs
If you potted up some bulbs, such as hyacinths, daffodils or tulips, last September for winter forcing, keep an eye on them. Make sure they remain moist, and in the dark until they have established their root systems. It is possible that they have already filled their containers with roots and that the new top growth has begun. If this is so, bring them into the house and set them in a cool room, in indirect light. After a week or so, move them into bright light, and watch them go to town! Check on any corms and tubers which you dug up, and stored this fall. Remove and discard any which show signs of disease or rot.

Shrubs and Trees
Winter rains tend to make you forget about watering your garden. However, plants and shrubs which are growing beneath large evergreens or under the eaves of the house, may be bone dry by this time. Lack of water in the cold winter months can be fatal to many of these plants. A quick check will let you know if you need to do a little winter watering. If there is a sudden drop in the temperature, provide extra protection for your more tender flowering plants like Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas and Daphne. You can provide temporary, emergency protection by driving in three of four stakes around the plant, and then simply covering the plant with some type of cloth, like burlap, a sheet or an old blanket. Don’t let this material come into direct contact with the leaves of the plant. Remove the cover completely, as soon as the weather moderates. December is a good month to take cuttings of rhododendrons, azaleas, and other evergreen shrubs. The cutting should be taken from new tip growth, and kept in bright light, at about 70 degrees f.

Lawn Care ~ Stay off frozen grass!!!

House Plant Care
Glossy leaved house plants such as Philodendrons, Rubber plants, and Palms should be sponged off periodically, to allow them to breathe. Plants which have fuzzy, textured, or other non-glossy type leaves should be set in the sink and sprayed gently with room temperature water, until the dust is cleaned away. Be sure that the foliage is allowed to dry completely. Provide your house plants with extra humidity by grouping plants together, or by setting the pots on leakproof trays filled with moistened pebbles. If you successfully kept last year’s plants alive, and have been keeping it in 14 hours of darkness since September, your Poinsettias and Christmas cactus should be ready bring back into the living room by December first. With the proper care, these Christmas plants will remain beautiful for many weeks.

  • They prefer to be kept on the cool side, 65-70 degrees during the day and 55-60 at night.
  • Keep them in bright, natural light whenever possible.
  • Keep them away from heat sources.
  • Keep them out of drafts.
  • Be sure to water them when they become dry.
  • Never allow them to stand in water for more than an hour. 

Odds and ends
Take care of our feathered friends! Keep your bird feeder filled, especially when there is snow on the ground. Don’t let your hose freeze and burst. Stretch it out with both ends open, to allow the water to drain completely. Coil it up and put it away. Make sure your outdoor faucets are covered to protect them from freezing.

Jazz up your winter landscape by adding plants with interesting bark: red and yellow twig dogwood, coral bark Japanese maple, Japanese Stewartia, ninebark and paperback maple or trees and shrubs with unique branching habits like Harry Lauder’s walking stick, threadleaf Japanese maples and weeping Siberian pea shrub. (Kerry Ann Mendez 2016 calendar)

Grow winter blooming houseplants for a flower fix. Crown of Thorns is a blooming machine! Other inspirations during cold winter months are Clivia, Cyclamen, African Violets, Christmas cactus, Kalanchoe, and Cape primrose. (Kerry Ann Mendez 2016 calendar)

 Force flowering bulbs to melt winter blues. Set paper whites or Amaryllis in soil, pebbles or marble-filled containers and in about four weeks you’ll have blooms. Daffodils, Hyacinth, crocus, Scilla and grape hyacinths take longer. They need 12+ weeks of chilling before being forced. (You can buy pre-chilled bulbs.) (Kerry Ann Mendez 2016 calendar)  Keep your boxwood tree (from workshop) watered and cool and you may be able to redecorate it for New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.

  • Place Christmas trees away from fireplaces, radiators, heat vents and anything else that could dry the needles. Keep your Christmas tree well watered from the time it is brought home until it is discarded.
  • To prolong bloom, protect poinsettias from drafts and keep them moderately moist.
  • Check all house plants closely for infestations. Quarantine gift plants until you determine that they are not harboring any pests.
  • House plants and holidays gift plants should not be placed on top of the television. This location is too warm and in most homes too far from windows to provide adequate light.
  • When using salt to melt ice on walks and driveways, spread it carefully to avoid damage to nearby shrubs. Consider using sand or sawdust instead.
  • Minimize traffic on a frozen lawn to reduce winter damage.
  • House plants with large leaves and smooth foliage such as philodendrons, dracaena and rubber plant, benefit if their leaves are washed with a damp cloth to remove dust.
  • Turn and prune house plants regularly to keep them shapely. Pinch back new growth to promote bushy plants.
  • Humidity may be increased by placing plants on trays lined with pebbles and filled with water to within one half inch of the base of the pot. If you heat with wood, keep a pot of water on the stove. The added moisture will be healthier for you as well as your plants.
  • Add garden record keeping to the list of New Year’s resolutions. Make a note of which varieties of flowers and vegetables do best and which do poorly in your garden.
  • Do not wait until late in the winter to order seeds. Many varieties sell out early.
  • Feed the birds regularly and see that they have water. Birds like suet, fruit, nuts, and bread crumbs as well as bird seed. (Selected garden tips from : University of Nebraska Extension at