Winter Garden Tips


Weekly Garden tips for Massachusetts Gardens

photo1Protection from Deer and other Animals
There is no single, magic solution to protecting your plants from being ravaged by deer and other animals.  But there are ways to make yours the least attractive plants around, and early December is the right time to take action.  Your first line of defense is to spray with deer repellent.  These sprays also work to deter smaller mammals.  The best of these products are the ones that contain putrefied egg and garlic.  These products smell terrible when first sprayed on but, to human noses, fades after an hour or two.  To animals, though, the taste remains and is bad enough to send deer elsewhere for up to a month.  During winter months you should re-spray monthly, but only if the temperature is above 40 degrees.   Sometimes the memory of the taste will keep animals away longer, but always remember that a starving animal will eat anything.

p2Use fencing to protect your plants from deer and other animals.  Most of us have no interest in (or resources for) surrounding our property with seven-foot or higher fences.  Instead, fence the plants most likely to be eaten.  Use the plastic mesh that has replaced chicken wire in gardening to invisibly wrap evergreens from the ground up to about 6 feet.  The plant is not harmed and the deer cannot eat through the mesh.  Wrapping evergreens in burlap limits sunlight getting to the live greens and can harm the plant.  A loose burlap ‘fence’ up to about 6 feet around a prized evergreen will also deter deer.

Deciduous plants with an open framework of branches can be protected from winter deer damage by using a “stay-away fence of chicken wire or burlap. Wrap vulnerable trunks of small or new trees with a paper or plastic tube designed to deter small animals from eating the bark.  Remove it early in the spring to prevent any heat build-up as the sun gets stronger.  Preventing animals from feasting on bark or leaf and flower buds, as well as tender branches, means a better spring for you and your plants.

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.

p4December 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 a-winter-mothsmothers 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.


red twig dogwood

Red Twig Dogwood

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)

 paperwhitesForce 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