The Eight Gardening Tasks You Should Complete in January

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Most gardeners across America are experiencing a milder winter than usual, and that means extended opportunities for fall tasks you might not have dealt with, and some additional steps you might want to take for plants that need the cold. 

Order your bulbs

Normally, bulbs are on my mind in fall, and I place orders for bulbs I neither have room or funds for, wooed by the photos in bulb catalogs and the notion of thousands of tulips in Spring. I skipped it this year because life, but with the ground still plantable, I find myself tempted every day by the insane end-of-season sales on bulbs. If the ground is still workable where you live, and you’ve got the time, a day working outside in the cold, crisp air is more delightful than you’d think. My favorite bulb houses like Brecks, Holland Farm and Eden Brothers are all featuring pretty insane discounts of more than 50% off.  It’s not just tulips, either. Now’s the time to grab expensive bulbs like alliums on sale.

Prune your shrubs and trees now that the leaves are gone

Now that most trees and shrubs are in their winter dormancy, and I don’t have a lot of other garden tasks keeping me busy, I’m taking the time to really look at them. Don’t just hack them back; think about the structure of the plant. With the leaves all gone, I can truly see the branches and take time to be thoughtful in how pruning will inform the growth pattern. For instance, the giant hydrangea at my door, devoid of leaves, is exposed so I can be sure to cut out any branches that are growing inward, or crossing another branch. Since the tips all feature buds now, I can be more deliberate in which branches are old growth versus new growth. Never take more than one-third of the plant, but now is a good time to do a hard cut back of these older shrubs to encourage healthy growth. I’m taking the same tack with the blueberries I ignored this past fall. 

Now that they’re naked, I can more clearly see where to prune the Japanese Maple and the branches of my cherry trees that overhang the street. These overhanging branches are most at risk during winter and spring storms, so the quiet of this time of year is a good time to address them if you haven’t yet. 

If you need to move shrubs and trees, now is the time. A cherry that has overgrown its space is on my agenda this month, and I started by simply going in with a spade all around the tree, to get it ready. The rain will do the rest for me, so that when i’m ready, the ground will be, too. It’s also a good time to plant shrubs and trees, even though it might feel otherwise. 

You might need to cold stratify on your own

Many seeds, whether poppies or phlox, enjoy (and sometimes require) a period of chill for six weeks. We’re running out of time on that requirement; seed starting is going to start soon. If the winter is mild enough, you may want to cold stratify inside in your fridge. 

Visit your garden center

One of my favorite places to go walking with my dog is the garden center. Unlike the spring and summer when garden centers are packed full of colorful blooms and seasonal help, winter is when the year round help are around, and they’ve got some time on their hands. Now is when they can spare 30 minutes to talk to you about a particular hedge or precisely what clematis would bloom on your wall. Take advantage of this time to really dig into their expertise about everything garden-related. Want to get your soil really healthy? These are the people most likely to be able to help and can walk you through the fertilizer section with time and thoughtfulness they won’t be able to spare in March. 

Test your soil and make any necessary adjustments

Speaking of soil, the most important factor to the success of your plants is soil health, and unfortunately, just dumping fertilizer into the soil isn’t going to do it. You need to know what’s in your soil and now is a great time to do some of that work. There are soil kits on the market, but generally its best to get a soil test to know what you’re working with. Your garden center can help you do so—just give them a call. 

Review all your notes from the 2023 garden season

If you’ve been using any of my methods for tracking your garden, whether a visual diary or a written one, now is a good time to revisit them. Take a look through and try to make a list of conclusions for planning your spring garden. Mine usually include planting more or some things, less of others, moving items, replacing them, etc. This is really the perfect time as seed buying season is upon us. 

Start dreaming and planning

Once you have those conclusions, start sketching a plan for this spring. What is going to go where; how many plants do you need; do you need new trellises or should you move them? I don’t get into varieties yet, I just worry about what I’ll plant, where, so I know I’ll need 10 tomato plants or five kinds of peas. I sketch this out in my garden journal. 

Collect seed catalogs

I’ve been ignoring the stack until I can devote time to it, but make sure you’re at least getting the catalogs and if not, get onto the websites and sign up for them. Websites are helpful and where I ultimately end up ordering, but a catalog, with its ability to be dog-eared, is indispensable for seed hunting, in my opinion. The nation is full of seed houses and I tend to gravitate towards seed houses with test gardens nearby, so I know the seeds will work where I live. You can find yours by googling. As backup for a wealth of varieties, I make sure to have Burpee and Johnny Seeds catalogs. 

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