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Year-Round Gardening Tasks

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By Kelly Orzel | Nov 24, 2017

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Grow beautiful flowers and other plants by taking care of your garden year-round.
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“The Backyard Gardener” by Kelly Orzel is a comprehensive handbook for novice and expert gardeners alike.

“The Backyard Gardener” by Kelly Orzel (Lyons Press, 2017) is a comprehensive gardening guide that offers useful advice to help readers build their confidence and know-how. This excerpt from chapter 6 shares what to do in each season and month to prepare and tend to your garden.

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I know many gardeners can’t wait to dig their hands into the soil come January, but I almost enjoy the self-imposed exile from the garden. Nature is resting and I am hibernating. There is a time and place for everything in the garden: chores to take care of, seeds to sow, seedlings to plant, and gardens to grow and harvest. So let nature be your guide and harmonize with the environment.

When I first began gardening, I had almost no direction. All the books talked as if I already knew when to sow my seeds or transplant them out. So as I share with you my garden calendar, it is important to keep in mind what part of the country you live in. Whether you live in chilly USDA hardiness zone 5B like me, the more temperate climates of zones 6, 7, and 8, or the warm, almost tropical 9+, you’ll need some direction. So as you look over the monthly chores below, remember you might need to consider your garden region and adjust when you plant out your tomatoes or harvest your cabbage.

Mid-Winter

There’s nothing like starting out the year with a bundle of your favorite new and old seed catalogs. This is the moment when the eyes are bigger than the garden and you’ve got to rein it in. Also, if you’ve already been growing for a few years (or more) and have kept a garden journal, break it out! Look over what worked and what didn’t. Did you test out a new variety of lettuce that you just loved or wish you had given a bit more room to your brussels sprouts? Now is the time to make note of it and factor all those things into this year’s garden.

Planning is best done when you’re not at the nursery and not in the spring garden. Think about what you really want to grow and what you ate or enjoyed. Maybe you need more herbs — and if so, you need a new bed to grow them in. Where do you plan to build it?

If you’re feeling blue and had the foresight to pot-up bulbs last fall, it is time to starting bringing out the color! Many small bulbs like muscari, snowdrops, and crocus need only eight weeks of a cold treatment before you will see their green leaves emerging from the soil. Once brought out into a cool room and exposed to indirect light, they will bloom and fill your tables with fresh flowers. Other bulbs like daffodils, alliums, and tulips require longer exposure to cold temperatures to bloom. So when your imagination is not running rampant with seed and bulb ideas, check to ensure your stored autumn harvest isn’t spoiled and inspect your dahlia tubers and other bulbs for rot, discarding any that show signs of drying out.

Late Winter

This is the hardest month for me. It’s easy to get overzealous and start sowing everything at your disposal, but restrain yourself and only sow slow-growing veggies like onions, leeks, celeriac, celery, and sweet peas. Test whether your leftover seeds are still viable. Lay out a few seeds from each pack (labeled of course) on a damp paper towel and expose to light. If you see germination you are good to go! Chuck whatever seeds don’t show any signs of life. This is also a good time to set up your growing system. It doesn’t have to be fancy — a few shop lights from your local hardware store with grow bulbs suspended a few inches above your seedlings are all you need. Bottom heat can also be useful in getting your plants off to a good start, so stock up on any heat mats on sale.

In my world garden plans are fluid and ever changing, but it is important to finalize your ideas for the upcoming season so you know you’ll have a place for all the seeds you’ve ordered. Most flowering branches can be cut and forced starting at the end of January through mid-March, making this a primo time to force witch hazel, dogwood, forsythia, and cherry blossoms to name a few.

Early Spring

March is one of those wait-and-see months. You can begin to start seeds inside, sowing beans and brassicas as soon as the ground can be worked, but make sure it isn’t wet and soggy. Wait until mud season is over — especially if you live in northern climates — and your soil has warmed to at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise you will be trampling all over the ground, damaging your soil structure and running the risk of damping-off in muddy conditions. Use an online seed starting calculator (johnnyseeds.com has a good one) to help you determine the best time to start your seeds and begin prepping the ground. Now is the time to weed, turn any green manures you grew last autumn, and use plastic mulch to heat the soil. Plant bare-root plants, prune your fruit trees and late flowering shrubs while still dormant, and divide any perennials that you didn’t get to last fall. It’s also an ideal time to sharpen and clean your tools and sterilize any pots and trays you plan to reuse. Vegetables and herbs like rhubarb, artichokes, lovage, and French tarragon enjoy being divided every few years. And lastly don’t forget to protect any tender seeds and seedlings from killing frosts and hungry critters.

Mid-Spring

If you have not yet done so, it’s not too late to soil test! Go out, get a sample, and send it off. You still have time to amend your soil for the upcoming season. Continue cutting back and dividing perennials, finish pruning your fruit trees, and perform general garden cleanup. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and other tender crops are sown in the greenhouse, cold frames, or indoors under lights. They don’t get planted until the danger of frost has passed.

Plant your asparagus crowns when they arrive and sow in situ crops like lettuces, peas, beans, and onion sets. Trellises and plant supports are most easily installed now before plants get too large. I like to plant quick-growing radish or spinach crops alongside slower-growing ones such as carrots, parsnips, and celery. Then round out the month by transplanting cool-weather brassicas. Remember to monitor nighttime temperatures so you know if — and when — you have to protect your seedlings.

Late Spring

Continue sowing seeds for late-season crops and succession plantings. Harden off your seedlings for at least a week or so before you transplant into the garden, water-in, and mulch garden beds. Once you hit your frost-free date, plant away! Tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, and flowers can go in the ground now (double-check your frost date, especially if you’re a cool-season gardener). Once squash are planted, cover to protect against pests and cold. It is usually about now that I have confirmation that I have more plants than space, so a few new beds are installed and planted. Stay on top of those weeds — they’re much easier to manage when small. Mulching, whether plastic, landscape fabric, seaweed, or wood chips will go a long way to suppress weeds and retain water. And lastly begin pruning early flowering shrubs once they finish flowering. If you fail to prune and deadhead, next year’s blooms won’t be as plentiful.

Early Summer

The garden should be planted, and as the weather warms up, the garden will start to take off. Asparagus should be in full swing and other early crops such as lettuce and peas should be harvested regularly to maintain high production yields. Water regularly, and other than a steady sowing of succession crops, fertilizing and staying on top of those weeds, there isn’t much to be done. I alternate feeding the garden between a fish emulsion and seaweed mix and comfrey tea every few weeks. To reduce time spent watering, consider installing a drip line irrigation system. Like plastic mulch or landscaping fabric, the time invested is well worth the time saved over the season. Lettuce and onions interplanted under a cucumber A-frame trellis.

Mid-Summer

This is my favorite time of year in the garden — the growing season is at its peak! Your main concern midsummer is staying on top of the harvest, weeding, fertilizing, and watering.

If you have an irrigation system set up, watering should be easier, and mulch should take care of much of the weeding. Stake and trellis any vining crops, pruning tomato side shoots and suckers to increase production and later ripening. Continual deadheading of flowers will keep the garden clean and full of blooms. At this point I walk through the garden every night harvesting vegetables, herbs, and flowers and weeding whatever I see. It only takes about fifteen minutes each evening, and you leave with so many goodies it almost doesn’t feel like work. Slugs, aphids, Japanese beetles, and other pests can be an issue at this point, so while walking though the garden, keep an eye out for insects and potential disease, cutting away and destroying any damaged or infected plant parts. It is also time to open any insect barriers or row covers for plants like pumpkin, squash, and tomatoes, which need pollinators to develop and bear fruit.

Late Summer

Enjoy your garden as the end of summer draws near. The garden should still be jammed full of deliciousness to harvest, meaning you should be out regularly to collect as many tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and cucumbers as you can to keep production high. If you find you have a surplus, share with friends, donate to Harvest for the Hungry, or preserve it! There are so many options between canning, freezing, and drying that you should be able to enjoy your fruits and vegetables well into the fall and winter. Make sure to process and store each to maximize its flavor. Garlic and onions should be dried and cured, and I prefer my peas and tomatoes frozen, my cucumbers pickled, and my herbs preserved.

As you harvest, bare patches in the garden will open up. If you have succession or winter crops to transplant, get them in. If not, consider planting a green manure. Cover crops return nutrients to the soil, protect against weeds, and improve soil structure. Continue pruning, deadheading, and weeding to keep the garden looking good. It’s easy to neglect it a bit with the heat of summer.

Early Fall

September is the month in which you will see your garden breathe and take a rest. Nighttime temperatures begin to drop and growth rates slow down, but there is still a lot of produce to come out of the garden. Plant out the last of your successions, fall cabbage, or winter lettuce. Reduce your watering as the plants won’t be needing the extra cool down, and prune away yellowed, damaged, or diseased leaves and branches from plants. Gather, preserve, and store mature celery, ripened tomatoes, squash, and other veggies. Cut down perennials, compost barren plants, and then plant winter cover crops to keep open soil weed-free.

If you live in colder climates, this is the time to erect or begin using some of your season extension tools like cold frames, low tunnels, and row covers to elongate your season.

Mid-Fall

Autumn has arrived, and with it cooler temperatures and surprise frosts. Vegetables like kale, carrots, and brussels sprouts enjoy, and in fact taste better with, the kiss of Jack Frost, so continue harvesting your cool season crops and those under the protection of cold frames, hoop houses, and row covers. If you didn’t get an opportunity this year, now is the ideal time for a soil test. The ground is easy to dig, and you can’t beat the pricing and wait time of the off-season. You may get your results quickly enough that you can apply slow-acting amendments in the fall so your beds are ready by spring. This is also a great time to build new raised beds or prepare lasagna beds using the sheet mulching technique.

Plant cover crops and garlic, and protect winter-sensitive plants. Herbs like lavender and rosemary can be overwintered in cold climates by heavily mulching with straw and using heavy-duty row covers to protect from high winds. As much as it hurts to consider, if you haven’t already done so, it is time to put the garden to bed—with the exception of cold-weather crops or those using season extension tools. This includes digging up and storing tender bulbs and corms like dahlias and ranunculus. On the upside you can plant your spring bulbs and pot-up bulbs to force to beat the winter blues!

Late Fall

As it gets colder, it is time to get out of the garden. Finish up any last-minute garden chores and clean your tools, seeding equipment, and pots. Continue harvesting till the plants are no longer producing, and get those bulbs in the ground for goodness’ sake (if they haven’t already been planted)! Then just relax. Order some new seed catalogs and enjoy the start of the holiday season.

Early Winter

December always breezes by quickly between the holidays and end-of-the-year roundup. You don’t need to think about the garden too much at this time. Simply enjoy whatever is left for you to harvest, appreciate the bounty you preserved, and think about what you liked and didn’t in the garden. A garden journal comes in handy here! You can look back and see when you planted what, when it matured, and how much it yielded. Maybe you want to move your tomatoes to a brighter location, plant your cucumbers a little later, or start your leeks earlier. You’ll have a record of what varieties you grew, and where you grew them. So when it comes time to plan your garden rotation for next spring, you will know right where to plant everything. Or you can wait until the new year and hibernate with a warm blanket and a glass of wine and let your imagination run wild with planning!

Monthly Garden Checklists

January
• Harvest kale, brussels sprouts, and other winter vegetable crops.
• Order seeds.
• Compare/review notes from last year and plan the garden.
• Begin to bring out any of your forced bulbs.
• Check on your stored crops and overwintering bulbs, corms, and tubers, discarding any unsavory or rotting pieces.

February
• Order seeds, if you haven’t already.
• Prune fruit trees, grapes, and other dormant, late-flowering plants.
• Continue to retrieve your pots of forced bulbs as they meet their vernalization requirements.
• Test viability of old seed.
• Set up your indoor seed starting system.
• Sow slow-growing seeds.
• Finalize your garden layout.
• Force branches.
• Check on your stored crops and overwintering bulbs, corms, and tubers, discarding any unsavory or rotting pieces.
• Prune off winter damaged trees and shrubs.

March
• Soil test if your soil has thawed.
• Sharpen, clean, and organize your tools.
• Continue forcing branches.
• Start sowing seeds.
• Sterilize recycled pots, trays, and tools.
• Prep garden with compost and other amendments, weed, and warm the soil.
• Turn any living mulches.
• Lift and divide perennials.
• Plant new bare-root plants (fruit trees, shrubs, trees).
• Prune fruit trees and woody shrubs that flower after June.
• Vent cold frames and tunnels on warm days (40–45 degrees Fahrenheit).
• Protect young seedlings in the garden from frost.

April
• Soil test and amend.
• Finish pruning dormant plants before plant buds swell.
• Cut back and divide overgrown perennials.
• Turn your compost pile.
• Plant early crops and transplant cool weather plants in the garden.
• Clean up border and plant bed edges.
• Mulch plants.
• Sow tomatoes and other warm-weather crops under protection.
• Vent cold frames and tunnels on warm days (40–45 degrees Fahrenheit).
• Begin to pull back mulch and frost blankets from winter-protected plants.
• Soak bare-root plants before planting.
• Protect young seedlings in the garden from frost.
• Build new garden beds.

May
• Continue sowing seeds and direct seeding.
• Harden off and transplant seedlings.
• Weed, water, and mulch.
• Deadhead bulbs and spent flowers.
• Take softwood cuttings.
• Start harvesting your rhubarb.
• Protect crops from surprise frosts and nibbling pests.
• Plant annual containers.
• Prune spring-flowering woody shrubs after they flower.

June
• Harvest early crops regularly (particularly asparagus).
• Thin seedlings.
• Succession sow.
• Direct seed warm-season crops like squash, melon, and cucumbers.
• Water and weed.
• Pinch back seedlings for bushier growth.
• Feed with a fish emulsion and seaweed blend or a high potash fertilizer like comfrey tea.
• Stake and trellis tall plants or vines.
• Wet down and turn compost.
• Continue taking softwood cuttings.
• Prune early-flowering shrubs once they finish blooming and deadhead flowers.
• Monitor and protect plants from pests — especially those pesky Japanese beetles.

July
• Harvest regularly.
• Pinch back herbs.
• Continue succession sowing.
• Watch out for blight on tomatoes.
• Water, weed, fertilize, and mulch.
• Support plants when necessary.
• Deadhead spent blooms.
• Protect crops from pests and blight.
• Wet down and turn compost.
• Sow/plant kale and other cold weather crops.

August
• Harvest regularly.
• Complete your last succession sowing and plantings.
• Water, feed, and weed .
• Prune summer fruit bushes after fruiting.
• Plant green manures in bare beds.
• Wet down and turn compost.
• Plant kale and other cold-weather crops.
• Divide spring perennials.
• Watch out for powdery mildew.
• Monitor for pests and disease.
• Order bulbs.
• Preserve and store your harvest.

September
• Harvest, preserve, and store.
• Prune, weed, and mulch.
• Employ cover crops.
• Cut back and divide perennials as they die back.
• Begin garden cleanup and compost non-diseased plant debris.
• Employ season extenders.

October
• Harvest vegetables and store.
• Soil test.
• Plant winter cover crops.
• Plant garlic.
• Mulch winter-sensitive plants and cover.
• Divide perennials.
• Build and prep new beds for next year.
• Protect tender and cool-season crops.
• Clean up garden and compost.
• Employ season extenders.
• Dig up tender bulbs.
• Move cold-sensitive plants indoors
• before frost.
• Plant fall bulbs.
• Pot-up bulbs to force.

November
• Make final harvest.
• Carry out season extension harvest.
• Provide support for tall winter crops (brussels sprouts or kale).
• Plant bulbs.
• Pot-up forced bulbs.
• Finish putting garden to bed.
• Clean and store garden tools and equipment.
• Order seed catalogs.

December
• Carry out season extension harvest.
• Assess your garden.
• Inspect stored crops, and discard what’s spoiled.

More from The Backyard Gardener:

Propagating Your Garden

Seed Starting


This excerpt is reprinted with permission from by Kelly Orzel, published by Lyons Press, 2017. Buy this book in our store: The Backyard Gardener.

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