By Jennifer Fairfield, owner of the Garden Mill
(This is part one of this column. Part two will publish tomorrow.)
If, like me, you haven’t gotten as much done as you think, here’s a list of what you should make sure to get done outside this month:
- Pull out spent plants and compost them, as long as they are disease-free. Cold-weather composting doesn’t generally produce enough heat to kill off any diseases, so you will just re-introduce those problems to your garden next year if you put them in your compost pile now.
- Remove weeds, and do a light tilling to expose weed seeds and insects to hungry birds (yep, I’m finding more ways to feed the birds, while helping out my garden.)
- Add compost to the garden to help improve the soil and add nutrients.
- Plant spinach and peas now for an early crop in the spring.
- Plant garlic now for the best tasting garlic you’ve ever had next summer.
- If you have perennial herbs, like thyme or sage, spending the winter in your garden outside, give them a good layer of mulch.
- Consider sowing a cover crop, such as annual rye, to help prevent erosion and to add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil in the spring.
- Do a soil test to see if your garden is lacking in any nutrients. Doing it now will give you time to make any adjustments to the soil that are necessary before planting time comes back around. You can have your soil sample tested by Michigan State University’s Extension program, which will give you a comprehensive report about your soil and recommendations for what to do about any deficiencies. Information is available at their website.
- Plant spring-blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, and allium. You can plant them up until the ground has frozen, but the sooner, the better. Right now, the soil is still warm enough to allow the roots to get going before winter truly sets in.
- You can also plant spring-blooming bulbs in containers, if you don’t have a spot for them in your yard. They’ll need to spend the winter somewhere cold, but not freezing (in the ground, they are insulated from completely freezing by all the soil around them, and mulch on top – containers don’t provide enough insulation). Keep them in an attached garage or unheated basement, and bring them out as winter is waning, for a lovely spring display.
- Another option for bulbs is to “force” them for blooming indoors. To do this, you need to trick them into believing they’ve been through winter, which can be done in a few ways, including putting them in your refrigerator. You can come into the store to get a write-up on the process.
- When your annuals are finished for the season, pull them out and compost them. Also pull weeds out of your beds to give you a head-start on spring.
- Add mulch to your flower beds as the soil cools down.
- You can cut back perennials and ornamental grasses once they have gone dormant, or leave them until spring. I like to leave mine up for a few reasons. First, because standing grasses and flowers can catch drifting snow and leaves and hold them in place. Second, I like the look of the plants in the snow – it breaks up the vast expanses of white. Third, some native bee species and other beneficial insects will use the hollow stems of perennials for shelter, or to lay eggs in or on, that will hatch next spring (like the preying mantis egg sacks I found when cutting back some catmint to divide – not to worry, I was very careful not to harm them). Lastly, those plants can provide shelter and food for overwintering birds, and I like giving those guys any advantage over the cold I can. If you do cut your perennials back, handle the stems carefully, and set them out of the way somewhere on your property so that, if you have beneficials overwintering in or on them, you keep them around to help you out next year.