Making the Best Use of Winter

Making the Best Use of Winter

  • By Tom Wilson
  • /
  • January 2020-Vol.6 No.1
  • /

Happy New Year, gardeners!

Join me for a moment while I sip on my “manager’s discount” eggnog and see if I can help you sharpen your gardening preparedness this year, stacking the deck in your favor for the best results long before the roses wake up.

The first step is to keep and develop your gardening journal. Date each entry and gradually log your progress throughout the year. Note what went wrong last season and set up a plan to mitigate these issues. Note what went right as well to recreate success.

The next step is to plan out tasks to be accomplished over the winter months and schedule them for completion between the first frost in fall and bud break in late winter.

Landscaping for managing roots and debris

– Once trees are dormant, perform any necessary tree care including removing broken or dying branches, placing guards around saplings, covering exposed roots with top soil, or removing soil from trees planted too deep.
– Young trees should be shielded in the winter to avoid sun scald, which causes the outer bark to warm and split before the rest of the tree comes out of dormancy.
– You may wish to use horticultural oil if you’ve had problems with certain pests that overwinter on some plants, especially fruit trees.  Before you do so, be sure to read the article “Horticultural Oils,” at, which explains how to use it and on which plants.  The oil works on aphids, adelgids, spider mites, scale insects, greenhouse whiteflies, mealybugs, plant bugs, lace bugs and some caterpillars.
– Remove vines, weeds, invasive plants, thatch, grass clippings, old mulch, and leaves from trees and beds. You may wish to consider applying pre-emergent herbicide to reduce the occurrence of late winter weeds.  If so, be sure to read the label carefully and apply as directed.
– Edge flower beds and shrub borders using an edging spade shovel.
– Edge tree rings but be careful to avoid severing tree roots.
– Use an edging spade to cut out the sod from inside of your edge and add it to your compost pile.
– Lay down cardboard (remove all staples and tape) as a weed stopper before mulching. If you don’t like cardboard, you could use newspaper instead to create a germination barrier between the mulch and soil. It will break down in the spring.
– Bark mulch or matured wood chip mulch is good for all purposes, just ensure that this material is kept 3 inches away from the crown of the tree or shrub to avoid breeding scale or mold.
– If you create your own wood chips, allow them to mature for one year before applying them to soil.
– Winter is a good time to refresh and repair hardscapes and walkways.  You can power-wash and fix cracks in walkways, refresh gravel, or use a weed eater to cut sod back 2 inches away from walkways.

Vegetation Turnover

– In the fall or early winter, pick up all fallen fruit, nuts, seeds, and leaves
– uproot old vegetation that you wish to replace
– dig up any tender perennials or annuals that you wish to salvage, pot them, and bring them indoors before they succumb to frost damage.

-After a few frosts, you may want to cut back some — but not all — perennials.  Cut back plants with disease or insect problems to reduce the chance of infection next spring.  Cut back hostas and remove all their leaves from the ground because they may contain slug eggs.   You may want to cut back plants with blackened foliage and which add nothing in the way of winter interest,  such as peonies (Paeonia), daylilies (Hemerocallis), brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla), and speedwell (Veronica) for example. Be careful not to cut so low as to disturb new basal leaves, which some plants produce late in the season.  For more on cutting back perennials, take a look at “Cutting Down Perennials in the Fall,” Pa.State Ext./

– Anything that might have a disease or harbor pests should NOT be composted.
– Order your selected seeds, prepare sun boxes, and check light bulbs in your starter incubator.
– Plan your spring garden’s layout.


Photo: Stowe Boyd, CC BY-NC 2.0

– Cover your older, mature compost pile with a tarp for protection in winter.
– Start a new compost pile.  Collect leaves, thatch from yard, grass clippings, yard waste, old mulch chips; break down larger vegetation and work into a new compost pile.
– They may be brown in color, but coffee grounds are an excellent “green” or nitrogen source for composting.  “Coffee Grounds and Composting,”  Some research indicates that coffee ground content should be limited to no more than 20% of the total compost volume.  Were you worried that coffee grounds will make your compost acidic?  That’s unlikely, according to the research.  “Using Coffee Grounds in the Garden,” Univ.Arizona Coop. Ext.
– To review the general principles of composting, see “Backyard Composting,” Va.Coop.Ext.Pub.Hort-49 and the January 2018 issue of The Garden Shed, Composting with Practical Tips from the Pros.

Soil Composition

– Take soil samples and send to Virginia Tech.  Get detailed instructions at Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener, Va.Coop.Ext. Pub. No. 452-129.
– Follow recommendations of soil test for application of soil amendments.
– Add appropriate amendments: lime, gypsum, pot ash, Epsom salts, pine straw.
– Solarize unused beds by saturating the soil with water, and then laying clear plastic over the bed, fitting it as tightly as possible over the ground.  To achieve a tight cover, anchor the plastic with boards, metal rods, bricks, rocks, or bury the edges into the soil.  As the daylight hours increase, the solar energy gets trapped under the plastic, heating the moisture in the soil, eventually reaching temps up to 150°F. in the spring. This sterilizes the soil in that bed, killing off most larvae and seeds and giving you clean soil prior to planting.  Find out more at Soil Solarization for Gardens and Landscapes, Univ. of CA, Pub. No. 74145.


– Before the onset of winter, drain hoses by hand, and if possible, use compressed air to blow out all remaining water.
– Roll up your hoses and store them where they will not get damaged.
– Identify and repair any hose damage; repair holes and straighten or replace bent or stripped connections.
– Repair or replace trellises, cages, cold frames, boxes (solar boxes), and raised beds.
– Clean out, organize, repair, or paint your tool shed;  remove hornet nests, and oil door hinges.
– Repair your fencing, stabilize any loose posts, and repair and repaint hinges.

Photo: Abby Lanes

– Drain fuel from all power tools, cleaning out any foreign matter you encounter; replace any worn out parts, superglue or epoxy cracks in the housing, and sharpen any shears.
– Inspect and refurbish your hand tools;  if the handle is made of wood, sand down any splinters that might protrude. Perhaps you might need to apply a coat of polyurethane, use duct tape, or even apply a neoprene sleeve.
– Remove dirt and rust from tools with a wire brush and use sandpaper to remove any remaining rust. After the metal has been cleaned, spray it with a coat of flat black primer to extend its life.
– Blades should be sharpened and oiled.

Now you’re looking sharp and ready for spring.
Good luck,
Tom Wilson

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