The December Vegetable Gardener

The December Vegetable Gardener

December is basically a transitional time for vegetable gardeners. Our engagement is some combination of cleaning up, extending this year’s garden, and beginning preparation for next year. If we manage our time well, it is also a time to relax, reflect and replenish energy and enthusiasm for next season. So let’s talk about some constructive things to do, should we feel like it.

Final Planting:

Early December is our last chance to plant garlic and shallots, as long as the ground isn’t frozen. Mulch them well for best temperature, moisture and weed management.

Extending the Season:

“6-Cold Frame Complete” by Bosshard Surveying is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

If you planted cool weather crops in the fall in a cold frame or protected them with row covers, you are likely still getting some growth from them and still harvesting. If you missed your chance, you might want to consider doing some season extension next year. Cold frames provide a multi-season vehicle that can get things started earlier in spring and with some management, keep some crops healthy through our winters. Information on cold frames can be found in this VA Cooperative Extension publication.

Hoop-supported row covers

Row covers provide a less permanent but still helpful device for extending both ends of the gardening season. Floating row covers entail simply laying fabric on plants to be protected and placing heavy objects on its perimeter to hold it in place. They provide a few degrees frost protection, except for plant tissue that is actually touching the fabric. Supported row covers use some kind of support, typically a hoop system, to create a covered space within which plants grow. Such covers provide up to 5° frost protection and can extend growing time and protect cool weather plants through most winters. More information on row covers is available in the November 2019 issue of The Garden Shed.

Protecting and Improving your soil for next season 

We’ve talked in the last couple of issues of The Garden Shed about cleaning up your gardens at the end of the season. Good hygiene is important to minimize pest and disease carryover from last year to next.

“Our compost bin” by Stowe Boyd is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In addition, since fall is the time of leaf fall, their collection provides the opportunity to start a compost batch for next spring. Worst practice is bagging leaves to have them hauled to a landfill. Having them hauled off for dropping to a commercial composter puts the product to good use, but the carbon footprint is higher than if you compost them at home. Blowing them into piles and leaving them over winter can provide habitat for various bugs and critters that will add diversity to your local environment next year. Chopping with your lawn mower, now or next spring, and using them as mulch or composting them is also a great use for them. I like to load the compost bin with shredded leaves now and add kitchen plant scraps to the pile all winter, building the carbon/nitrogen blend so that decomposition will take off as the temperature rises in early spring, providing usable compost for summer plantings.

Other tasks and activities: 

Be sure to drain your hoses. Disconnect them from faucets and lay them out on the ground, both ends open, to let them drain. Then roll them up for winter storage.

If you have rain barrels, drain them as dry as possible and redirect your downspouts to ground, rather than refilling the barrels during the cold months.

December brings the first new catalogs and communication from seed suppliers for next season’s supplies. It is fun to browse them, looking for new items to grow and assessing different varieties that may help avoid disease problems that affected last year’s selections. For help interpreting seed catalog and seed pack information, check out this article from the February 2018 issue of The Garden Shed. 

By the way, I can’t document it as fact, but my experience is that discounts on seeds and supplies are at their highest in December so that early buyers get the added benefit of low prices if we’re prepared to move now.

Finally, take care of your tools. Winter is the time to clean, disinfect, sharpen, and generally prepare them for the work ahead. Also, it’s a good time to clean pots and flats if you have a warm enough place to do the wet work. Come spring, you’ll be happy you did it, promise.

In any case, enjoy your gardening, happy holidays, and hope to see you next month at The Garden Shed.


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