Month-By-Month: Chores for Northern Gardeners
Gardeners in northern regions deal with warm summers and cold winters. But there is work to do in your garden through most of the year. Here is a month-by-month guide that keeps you in the gardening frame of mind even through the dreary months of winter:
January: Settle next to the fire with a stack of new seed catalogs. As you order seeds, think about where you want to plant new annuals and what color combinations you find appealing.
February: Prepare a space for starting seeds. Clear an area in a sunny window or set up fluorescent lights for seedlings to sprout and grow. Buy seed-starting trays or use old trays that you’ve cleaned with a dilute bleach solution and rinsed well. Providing bottom heat maintains an even, warm soil temperature and improves germination.
March: March through mid-April is seed-starting time in cold climates. Plan a seeding schedule — essential in short-season climates where you want to make every day count. Start by figuring when you want to move plants into the ground, and work backward to calculate the best time to sow the seeds indoors — four to eight weeks ahead of transplanting time, in most cases.
April: You still have time to sow seeds indoors for transplanting next month. If your last-frost date falls around Memorial Day, sow seeds for all annuals, except fast-growing, tender plants (cosmos and zinnias, for example), by mid-April. If you live in warmer areas with milder winters, you can start sowing seeds of hardy annuals directly into the ground a couple weeks before the last frost date in their region. If it’s still cold in April where you live, wait until next month to direct-sow seeds. If you plant nothing else, sow sweet pea seeds as soon as the ground can be worked. Depending on your region, late April or May is the time to lay out beds and prepare the soil. Adjust the soil pH based on soil tests done in the fall. Amend the soil with a 2- or 3-inch layer of organic matter and a complete fertilizer.
May: Early May is generally the best time to plant hardy annuals (seeds or transplants) in most areas — 10 to 14 days before the last frost is usually safe. Check local garden centers for ready-to-plant, cool-season annuals. Look for stocky, green plants when shopping at garden centers. Avoid plants with dead lower leaves and brown, overcrowded roots, as well as plants that are already flowering. Start transplanting tender annuals, such as impatiens, lobelia, and petunias, into the ground when frost danger has passed, the soil and air have warmed up, and the nights are no longer cold.
June: Continue planting tender annuals, and remember that newly planted seeds and transplants are vulnerable. Gardeners in cold, mountainous areas often wait until June 10 to plant the most tender plants, such as impatiens. Water if June is dry. Mulch to conserve water and slow weed growth. Pull off or pinch back fading blooms of cool-season annuals to extend their season of color.
July: Plants require extra water and nutrients to keep them at their peak in hot, dry weather. Container-bound plants, particularly, suffer from heat stress and usually need daily watering if they’re located in the sun. Container gardens quickly deplete soil nutrients; feed window boxes and pots with a liquid fertilizer every couple weeks. Continue feeding annuals to promote steady growth for the remainder of the summer. Stake taller plants. Deadhead flowers regularly. In hot climates, cool-season annuals probably have peaked, so pull them out.
August: In northern regions where the growing season is 90 to 110 days long, late July through early August is the garden’s peak. Continue to deadhead, water, and weed. Containers still need to be fertilized. Tidy beds and containers by pulling out plants that have passed their peak. Harvest flowers for drying and enjoy fresh-cut bouquets
September: Be ready with row covers or blankets if an early frost is predicted and you still have tender plants in bloom. Use pots of asters, calendulas, and flowering kale to replace frosted or dying annuals. Collect seed pods, dried flowers, and grasses to make arrangements.
October: Pull out dead plants and add them to your compost pile. Take soil samples in the fall to know how to amend soil next spring. Use the results of the soil tests to gauge any adjustments that you need to make in soil pH and fertility.
November through December: Sharpen, clean, and oil your tools. Keep a record of any extra seed you have. Store the extra seed in an airtight container in a cool location; add packets of silica gel to absorb any moisture in the container. Build your own window boxes or trellises for next year. Build a cold frame for growing and hardening off your transplants. Seek inspiration for next year’s garden in books and magazines.