Monthly Garden Calendar for Northern Tier United States

Organic Gardening Month-to-Month Almanac

Debby Flowers December 21, 2010

Debby Flowers calls home the 240 acre farm that her husband grew up on. Returning "up north" after living in more populated places for 20 years was a great decision for their family of 4. She has a large vegetable garden where she grow her family's favorites--peas, tomatoes, and lots of corn. Growing pumpkins for sale in the fall is a family project. She enjoys flower gardening as well.

JANUARY

This month, take time to dream about your garden and thumb through all the new seed catalogs that are arriving in your mailbox. What else can a northern gardener do to keep busy in January? Here are a few ideas:

Recycle Your Christmas tree. Many communities have programs to shred trees to make a useful mulch that the public can get free or at a low cost in the spring.

Care for Poinsettias. Cut back your holiday plant and provide water and moderate amounts of organic fertilizer until next fall. Starting October 1st, it must have total darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily.

Get Creative With Gardening Projects. Build birdhouses and birdfeeders, planters, or seating for the garden.

Get Educated About Gardening. Have you been thinking about becoming a Master Gardener? This could be the year to do it. Give your local County Extension Agent a call to check out when classes are held in your area.

Have a Project Planning Session. Evaluate last year's garden. What do you need more of? Less of? For help, visit your local library. There are many wonderful flower and vegetable gardening books available as well as back issues of our favorite magazine, Organic Gardening!

FEBRUARY

Non-gardeners might think that in February gardening would be the last thing on our minds, but are they ever wrong! As we scurry from one warm place to the next, or relax in front of a toasty fire, a gardener's thoughts frequently turn to seeds, soil and the like. Although it is too early to get our hands into the earth, there are a few things we can busy ourselves with during spare moments.

Be Seed Savvy. Many of us have a box or bin full of leftover seeds. This may be a good time go through them to see just what you have. Consider trading extra seeds with other gardeners. Check out the Seed Swap section on the Organic Gardening message boards.

Take Stock of Supplies. Make sure you have everything that you'll need to start seeds: plastic trays and inserts, peat pots, organic fertilizer (I like fish emulsion) and most importantly seed starting soil mix.

Order Up Seeds. There are many new varieties of flowers and vegetables each year, and if you haven't discovered the wonderful flavors of heirloom vegetables, this may be the year to try some out.

Give Your Houseplants a Little TLC. Indoor plants can really benefit from increased humidity in their immediate area. Simply place a layer of rocks in a tray, add water, and then put your pots on top of this arrangement.

Have a February Feast. Do you have any apples, squash, or root vegetables left in storage? This is a good time to give them a careful going over. Squash and pumpkin does freeze well, so if you still have a lot of those, you may want to freeze up a few batches.

MARCH

Although March can be unpredictable, it is known as our snowiest month for good reason. We shouldn't complain too much as a good snow cover insulates our perennials from freezing temperatures and provides good soil moisture when it melts. The sight of a fresh snowfall blanketing the fields and frosting the evergreens is a breathtaking sight, almost rivaling the beauty of our flower gardens next summer.

While admiring the snowy view from the warmth and comfort of our homes, we can celebrate the fact that spring will soon be here, and even sooner we can begin our gardening year by starting some seeds. Now is the time to research, prepare, and get organized!

Find Out Your Frost Dates. The dates to start your seeds indoors are dependent upon your average last frost date. Call your county extension agent or consult your state's University Extension website. The Old Farmers Almanac website also has frost charts for the USA and Canada.

Read Seed Packets. If you are planning to start a lot of seeds indoors this year, you may want to make a chart to keep track of when to start each kind. Many annual flowers and veggies will be around eight weeks, so you'll be starting them the first week of April. Click here for a handy seed starting chart.

The Right Mix. Using a good seed starting mix is crucial to the success of indoor started seedlings. Do not use garden soil or potting soil; they are too heavy. Purchase a mix labeled for seed starting; the bag should feel comparatively light.

Do It Yourself. You can make your own seed starting mix by purchasing the components and mixing your own. Combine equal amounts of perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss.

Light the Way! Unless you have large, unobstructed south facing windows, you'll need some florescent lights for your baby plants. Four-foot shop lights are just the things. I buy fresh tubes every year, as their light capacity does diminish as time passes.

Time For a Trim. Give overwintering geraniums and a severe cutting back now, and they'll be bushy and ready to bloom again in a few weeks. Don't forget to compost the trimmings.

Don't Forget to Label Your Seedlings! There are many commercial labels available made of materials such as wood, plastic, and various metals, as well as special pens to write on them with. Or you can make your own labels by cutting up plastic milk jugs and writing on them with permanent marker.

A Composting Tip. Your compost pile should be 2/3 dried out "brown" ingredients (straw, leaves, etc.) and 1/3 "green" stuff ( banana peels, grass clippings, etc.). Browns are usually in short supply at this time of year. You can help to keep things in balance by adding some paper products, like shredded black and white newspaper or butcher paper.

Prepare to Prune. Late winter is an ideal time to prune many types of trees, including fruit trees. Notable exceptions are maple and birch, which should be pruned after they leaf out.

APRIL

Who doesn't love the month of April? We may have a little snow, ice, or mud (or in many cases, all three), but there is no doubt that spring is on the way. At our farm, and those of our neighbors, robins and other returning birds sing songs of the season, while peeping chicks scratch about under their heat lamp in the henhouse.

Successful Seedling Germination. Find a warm, dark place to put seeded flats to germinate. They must be checked daily (twice daily is better) and at the first sign of growth be moved under florescent lights.

Water Seedlings Properly. They must not dry out, nor be soggy. It is best to water them by adding water to the tray that the containers are sitting in, not by watering from above, as they are very delicate.

Preserve Your Soil Structure. Resist the urge to dig or till the soil in flower and vegetable beds until it has dried out well. Working wet soil can damage soil structure, and make things more difficult for you later.

Say Goodbye to Your Mulch. Remove winter mulches from around roses and shrubs around the third week of April, depending on the weather. Rake away leaves or straw covering strawberry plants, too.

Build a Cold Frame. Cold frames may be as simple as some straw bales with a piece of Plexiglas laid across the top, or more elaborate if you want to try out your carpentry skills. Keep old blankets handy to add extra insulation on very frigid nights.

Ponder Your Planting Strategy. Some vegetables, such as peas, lettuce, and beets, may be seeded directly into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Every year will be different, and when you get them in will depend on the weather and how wet the soil is.

Peas Preparation. Pea seeds germinate faster if they are soaked overnight in warm water. Use a container big enough to allow them to swell to double their size. If you have some soaked pea seeds left after planting your pea rows, try planting them in a large outdoor containers, such as a half-barrel.

Rhubarb Recommendations. Plant or transplant rhubarb before it begins to grow. Rhubarb can stay in the same place for many years, but it should be divided if you are mainly getting skinny stalks.

Tree Tips. For planting trees, soak bare roots in a bucket of water for an hour or so before planting. Be careful not to plant trees too deeply. If you study the base carefully, you should be able to find the old soil line and use that as your guide. You can also be thinking about pruning your deciduous trees.

MAY

May is my favorite time of year. Spring flowers such as lilacs, daffodils, and peonies are exquisite, delighting the eye and the nose. These lovely blooms put smiles on many faces, and brighten our homes when brought indoors to enjoy. There is much for us to do this month, and since we've been waiting all winter, it is a pleasure to get outside.

Fertilize Your Lawn. Wait until you've mowed your lawn a time or two to fertilize. Organic fertilizers are becoming more available these days. Corn gluten meal is a 10% nitrogen product that has the added benefit of being a natural pre-emergence herbicide.

Perennial Pleasures. I like to divide most of my perennial flowers in the spring. As soon as the new growth is a couple of inches high, dig the clump and pull or cut it apart. Be sure to amend the planting hole with plenty of compost when replanting. Do not divide or transplant peonies at this time.

Special Delivery. It's fun to get plants by mail order, but sometimes they come at the worst time; like just after a spring snowfall, or before you've dug that new bed. Just pot them up in some of the nursery pots that seem to accumulate and multiply out in the tool shed.

Baby Food. Seedlings do not need a great deal of fertilizer. Weak compost tea, or 1/4 strength diluted fish emulsion is enough.

Plant Preparation. Give pumpkins, winter squash, melons and cucumbers a head start by planting them indoors about three weeks before planting out time. I use peat pots, as their roots do not like a lot of handling. They may not be in a warm enough place if it seems to be taking them too long to germinate (more that a week).

Toughen Up. Seedlings that you've grown yourself or purchased should be hardened off, which means gradually introducing them to outdoor conditions. If you have a cold frame, your seedlings can go outside early this month, but if not, about two weeks before your planting out date, start taking your little plants outside for "field trips". At first only an hour or so is enough, but gradually lengthen the time that they are out.

Sow Smart. Sow spring vegetables such as lettuce and spinach at intervals of one or two weeks for a nice continuous harvest.

Keep Compost in Check. Has your compost pile thawed out yet? A good way to turn your pile is to make a new pile next to the old one. Hopefully you'll have some good finished compost in there. I like to screen my compost. A compost screen is easy to built using scraps of lumber and 1/2 inch hardware cloth (available at the hardware store). Mine fits snuggly on the top of my wheelbarrow.

Please Your Peonies. Put support in now while they are still small. Peony rings can be purchased, but I use cut down tomato cages—they are too flimsy for tomatoes anyway. Use wire cutters to shorten them. Cut open the circles and bend them out into a C shape. Two or three can go around a peony.

JUNE

June is the month of roses, weddings, and little league baseball. Even though there is a lot to do in the yard and garden, be sure and take time to enjoy the warm weather and the fruits of your labors.

Support Your Tomatoes! Most tomato plants will need stakes or cages, and it is best to install them while the plants are still small. Rebar, a steel bar made for reinforcing concrete, makes a very sturdy stake.

Much Mulch. When the soil is thoroughly warmed up, you can go ahead and mulch flower and vegetable beds. Shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, or straw make good mulches. Wild rice hulls are available in my area, so I use those. 2 to 4 inches of mulch will help keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture.

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe. If you have too much garden to mulch, with large plantings of corn and potatoes, you'll need to do some hoeing to keep ahead of the weeds. A scuffle or stirrup hoe is a nifty tool to use. The swivel head allows you to use a back and forth "mopping" action, rather that a chopping motion used with a more traditional hoe. It's easier on the back.

More Veggie Support. Put up a fence or trellis for pole beans, snap peas, cucumbers, gourds, etc. when you plant, or while the plants are very small. Check out wire fencing on rolls at the hardware store, or get creative with tree prunings and brush.

For The Birds. Keep your birdbath full of fresh water this summer. Not only will water attract bug-eating birds to your garden, it will keep thirsty birds from turning to your tomatoes for moisture. Our friends the toads appreciate water too, and sinking a shallow saucer or pan up to its rim and keeping it full of water attracts these pest eaters to your garden.

Keeping Things Tidy. Many of our most beautiful flowers are blooming in June. Stay on top of deadheading chores (removing the spent flowers) and many more flowers will often reward you with more blooms.

Continue Planting. You can continue to make small sowings of radishes, lettuces, spinach and other greens every other week or so. Try to choose the most heat tolerant varieties, and give them a break from the sun by planting them on the east side of taller plants, such as snap peas or corn.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Irises. If your Dutch irises are getting crowded and need dividing, do it right after they finish blooming. Remove the flowers stalks and cut the fans of leaves down to about six inches. Replant the rhizomes with the tops levels with or just about the soil. Don't forget to add some compost to the planting area.

Saving Produce For A Snowy Day. Save some of summer's best flavors for winter use. Rhubarb and strawberries are some of the easiest produce to freeze. Clean and hull berries and freeze on cookie sheet. When they are frozen hard, pack them into freezer bags.

What's Bugging You? In many cases, carefully observing your plants and handpicking the damaging insects will be all you need to do. If the bugs are getting the best of you, seek out organic solutions such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).

JULY

Summertime is a wonderful season here in the northland. Every resort and campground is filled with vacationers and the lakes are lively with boaters and fisher folk. Evenings spent with family around a campfire are memories in the making. It is prime time for gardeners too, with our flowerbeds bursting with color, and enough tasty veggies from our gardens to share with friends and neighbors.

Don't Let Your Garden Go! Be sure not to abandon your garden simply because it is too hot to weed. Try getting out in the early morning. It's cool, quiet, and the mosquitoes aren't as abundant. I find hoeing the potatoes at dawn to be a great time for reflection.

Be Benevolent to Your Beans. While early morning is a great time for hoeing and weeding, stay away from your beans while they are wet. Disease is easily spread from plant to plant, so save your bean picking and weeding until later in the day.

Got Beetles? Early morning is also a great time to patrol the potato plot for signs of the dreaded Colorado Potato Beetle. When they are cold and wet with dew, it is easy to knock the yellow and black striped adults into a jar of soapy water, along with his not-so-attractive, slimy red offspring. Be sure to check under the leaves for their yellowish orange eggs and smush them.

Potato Pleasures. The first new potatoes of the season are a real treat. Carefully harvest a few small spuds from under your plants by carefully feeling around with your hands. If you don't disturb the plant too much, it will continue to nourish the rest of the tubers into full size potatoes.

Veggie Harvest. You can harvest many of your vegetables when they are still small and tender. Check daily for zucchini, green beans, and cucumbers. Better still; check twice a day, because there are always some veggies that get missed the first time.

Peruse Your Perennials. Take a good look at your perennial beds this month. If you aren't happy with how they look, go for a drive and check out what is blooming in other folks' yards. Some July mainstays that provide a lot of color are purple coneflowers, rudbeckia, and daylilies.

Dressing On the Side, Please. Many vegetables and flowers too, can benefit from a side dressing this month. This means to dig some organic fertilizer, compost, or composted manure into the soil around your plants. A half-inch of compost added to the top of your container plantings is a good idea as well.

Pass the Peas! Depending on our variable spring weather, many gardeners in zone 3 are just now harvesting shelling peas. Peas are easy to freeze. Just shell, drop into boiling water for a minute or two, then plunge them into ice water (just like a sauna in January!). Drain, dry a bit by rolling them on a clean dishtowel, then package and freeze.

AUGUST

For me, thinking about the month of August has always brought to mind images of warm, humid days and abundance from the garden. But if you are new to zone 3, be warned. Frost happens! Enjoy your garden now...while you can!

Tasty Tomatoes. Homegrown tomatoes are at their best this month. After you've eaten your fill of fresh tomatoes, try preserving some. Tomato sauce is easy to make.

Inspect Winter Squash, Pumpkin, and Melon Vines. You can remove any blossoms, and the smallest fruit now, as they will not have time to develop. The plant can then devote its resources to the fruit that remains.

Blackberry Bonanza. Wild Blackberries are one of the pleasures of our area. Protect yourself with a hat, long sleeves and heavy jeans, and seek them out. Capture the true taste of summer by making syrup to enjoy over pancakes or ice cream, or try your hand at making jelly.

Beautiful Bulbs. Order tulip, daffodil, lily, and other flower bulbs for fall planting this month. If you want more peonies, order them now as well, as fall is the only time to successfully plant them.

Happy Harvest. Harvesting vegetables and herbs is one of the pleasurable tasks of gardening. Check daily for beans, cucumbers, zucchinis, tomatoes, etc. Very large zucchinis can still be used in zucchini bread, cake, etc.

Summer Sweet Corn. Sweet corn is ready to savor this month and is best when cooked soon after picking. It is also easy to freeze: just blanch (drop into boiling water for 3 minutes), cool in ice water, then cut off the kernels, and pack into freezer bags.

Think About Your Lawn. If you are planting a new lawn or have some bare places to repair, late summer into early fall is the ideal time to plant grass.

Water Carefully. If you need to water the garden, then water smart. Give it a good deep soaking, rather that frequent small waterings. Watering early in the morning will give your plants time to dry off during the day, which can help to avoid plant problems that are caused by wet foliage.

Sowing Lettuce. Plant your last sowing of lettuce planted during the first two weeks of the month. August is usually a very warm month, so protect your little lettuces for the heat by planting them on the east side of something taller, like corn, tomatoes, pole beans, etc. You can also rig up a shade cloth or plant in the shade of a building.

Raspberry Care. When your raspberries have all been harvested for this year, give the planting some maintenance to keep the canes from becoming an impenetrable tangle. Prune out the canes that bore fruit this year, being careful not to damage the new, developing canes that will provide your fruit for next year.

SEPTEMBER

For those of us who have had a busy, hectic summer, September brings a welcome respite. The kids head back to school, and the sound and sight of a "V" of southbound geese is an uplifting experience, giving one an excuse to pause for a moment and enjoy the wonders of nature.

Enjoyed Fresh Herbs This Summer? Many herbs are easy to dry for winter use. You can use the time-honored method of hanging small bundles upside down in a warm, dark place, or spread your herbs out on an old window screen in similar conditions. You can also go more high tech by using your refrigerator, oven, dehydrator, or microwave to dry them.

Dig 'Em Up! If you have any potatoes left in the garden, it is time to dig them up. If you damage any in the harvesting process, eat those as soon as possible. Store the rest in a cool, dark place. It is important to keep potatoes in the dark to prevent the skins from greening up.

Happy Houseplants. Houseplants that have been outdoors over the summer need to come back inside before frost. If you have room, you can also bring in some of your container plants that you can't bear to throw out. Given a sunny window, geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) will bloom for most of the winter with minimal care.

Frost Takes Place. Some folks are ready to let the garden go and just let it happen. Others of us do what we can to hold off the inevitable, knowing that we may yet have a couple of weeks of beautiful weather. Row covers are a good way to protect low growing crops like lettuce. Bring out the old sheets and blankets for larger plants like tomatoes.

Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts. Winter squash and pumpkins are not damaged by a light frost, but watch out for a hard freeze. Find a fairly cool, dry place to store them for fall and winter use.

Thin Those Perennials. Perennial flowers can be cut back this fall, or that task can wait until spring if you like the look of the stems out in the snow. Depending on the size of your garden, this can be a big job, so start early and spread the chore out over a few weeks.

R.I.P. Annuals. Many annual flowers are looking a bit tatty by now. Send them packing to the compost pile and replace them with some fall flowers from your local nursery. Mums are the old standby, and there's nothing wrong with that. Flowering cabbage or kale is an attractive option as well.

If you like to preserve your garden bounty, just keep on canning, freezing, and drying as long as your plants are producing.

OCTOBER

What makes October such a special month? It must have something to do with the crisp, cold morning air, and the way the frost glistens on outdoor surfaces. Daylight hours are in short supply, and the garden season is coming to its inevitable end. Does this bother us? Of course not, because as gardeners we know that we get to start all over again next year!

Tidy Up. Roll up and store soaker hoses. Stow away any decorative stepping-stones and other garden ornaments. Dismantle temporary trellises and store them away for next year. If you aren't going to heat your birdbath, turn the basin upside down to prevent breakage from freezing water.

Dig 'Em Up! Dig up cannas, gladiolas, dahlias, calla lilies, and other tender bulbs in your garden. They will not survive the winter in the frozen ground. Let them dry a day or two, then store in peat or shredded leaves in a cool place, similar to where you would store potatoes.

Hybrid Tea Roses. If you have planted some Hybrid Tea roses in your garden, they need some serious protection if they are to survive the winter. Mid October is the time to "tip" your roses. This is accomplished by digging a trench the same length and width of the rose off to one side of the plant. On the other side, loosen the soil enough so that the entire plant may be tipped over and buried in the trench. Then, pile on the mulch.

Preserving Peonies. If you want to transplant peonies, this is the only safe time of year to do it. When you re-plant them, dig in plenty of compost, and add some bone meal to the soil. Peonies must be planted so that the pink buds on the root are no more than 1 and 1/2 inch deep. The soil will settle some, so you need to account for that. If your peonies are planted too deeply they will have lovely foliage next summer, but no blossoms.

Blooming Bulbs. Plant your spring blooming bulbs this month. Daffodils, tulips, crocus, and the many other small bulbs will really brighten up your garden next spring. Plant generously, you really can't plant too many!

Mucho Mulch. It is recommend that gardeners apply a winter mulch to strawberry plants, rose bushes, shrubs, and perennials beds, AFTER the ground has frozen a couple of inches. This is to keep the ground frozen, preventing the thawing and refreezing that can really damage plants, and even push them out of the ground.

Turn your Compost. Turning the compost pile is not so much of a chore when done in the cool days of autumn. There is a lot of garden debris and tons of leaves to be had. I like to use the bagger on the mower to collect the leaves, chopping them up in the process. Some go into the pile, ideally mixed with some manure, and it is nice to store some to use as mulch next year.

Mow Tall. Set your mower height at about 2 inches for your last fall mowing. Lawn-care experts recommend a fall application of fertilizer around the middle of this month.

A Fall Cornucopia. Make a colorful fall display for your front yard with cornstalks, pumpkins, a scarecrow or two, and a straw bale. Protect your pumpkins by throwing a blanket over them or bringing them into the garage on nights when a hard frost is expected.

NOVEMBER

Well, November is here and our gardening season is pretty much over. Many folks in my area are happy to trade in their gardening shoes for hunting boots, while others are just biding their time until the lakes freeze over and they can get out the ice-fishing gear. Here are a few things to do while you are waiting.

More Bulbs Please! This late into fall, you can usually find clearance priced bulbs at discount and hardware stores, and even at the grocery store. Why not pot some up to force into bloom in late winter. Plant them in damp potting soil and enclose the pot in a loosely closed plastic bag. They need to go into the refrigerator for 10 to 13 weeks.

Tidy Up. If you haven't gotten to it yet and the ground isn't under a blanket of snow, tidy up the garden. Clear away any dead plants and weeds, put away ornamentation and tools. Put a good edge around the flowerbeds.

Indoor Plants Get Thirsty Too. Don't forget to water and rotate your indoor plants, but keep in mind that they slow down in the winter, due to having less light. They will not need as much fertilizer and water as they did during the summer.

Tweet Tweet. Stock your birdfeeders for overwintering birds, and include some suet for the woodpeckers.

Get Ready to Mow. Prepare your gas-run mowers, tiller, trimmers, and etc. for winter by running the gas out of them, or by adding STA-BIL to the gas tank. Give them a good cleaning and store them away.

Maintain Your Garden Tools. Give your hand tools a good cleaning before storing them away for the winter. A light coating of oil will keep the metal parts from rusting. Sand wooden handles and apply some linseed oil, or give them a new coat of bright paint.

Icy Faucet. If your outdoor faucet has a shut off valve inside the house, turn that off for the winter to avoid possible breakage from ice.

DECEMBER

Happy Holidays! December is such a busy month, what with the shopping, baking, decorating, and visiting...it's a good thing that we don't also have to mow, prune, weed and dig in the garden, since many of us don't have the time to spare anyway! I hope you do have time to enjoy the season and appreciate the special beauty of winter. There are only a few things on our garden to-do list this month.

Preserve Your Pumpkins. If you are serving up homegrown pumpkin and squash for your holiday meals, why not save some of the seeds for next year? Save the seeds from open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties. Seeds saved from a hybrid vegetable will not result in the same variety. Just clean off the stringy gunk, and spread the seeds out on a newspaper to dry. In a week or so, when they are good and dry, you can label and store them in a cool, dry place.

Indoor Gardening. Can't wait until spring to get your hands in the soil? Try growing a flat of lettuce under lights or in a south window. Fill a flat with damp, lightweight soil mix, then sprinkle the seeds sparsely over the top. Lightly cover with more soil mix. Keep the soil damp, but not soggy. If you are keeping the flat in a window, keep a close eye on it. It can get very warm there on sunny days and your little plants could get baked.

Christmas Tree Care. While your Christmas tree is in your home, check the water level frequently, as it will take up a surprising amount. Some people add soda, sugar, or even an aspirin to the water, but plain water is really fine. Never let your stand go dry. The end of the trunk will seal up and tree will dry out rapidly.

Natural Style. Add some natural decorations to your porch or front steps. Push evergreen trimmings from your Christmas tree into pots filled with sand. Add some twigs with colorful bark, pinecones, or berries and a bow and you've got a tasteful, welcoming arrangement.

Start Thinking About Seeds. Along with the holiday cards, seed catalogs are already showing up in our mailboxes. Find a place to stash them until you have time to browse. Recycle last year's editions as their replacements arrive.

Holiday Plant Care. Water and sun your poinsettia every few days when the soil feels dry, but do not let it sit in water, or it will repay you by dropping leaves. Water Christmas cactus sparingly. Too much water causes the buds to fall off.

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