Garden Tasks For December

By A. Goldman and C. StClair

To ease into the non-outdoor gardening months, treat yourself to Paperwhite or Amaryllis bulbs.  They are easy, gratifying bulbs that only require a pot with good drainage, a sunny location, and sometimes something to support the tall foliage.

If you brought houseplants back in from outside this fall, start scouting for pests like spider mites, mealybugs, and scale. If caught early, pests can often be managed by simple hand removal.  Those fuzzy mealybugs can be tough but can be removed with a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol.  Houseplants are not growing strongly with the shorter days so they need less fertilizer and probably less water. Although dry winter air can cause stress – misting the foliage helps. Try to position plants so heat vents do not blow directly on them.

Take some time to organize all the planting pots, stakes and other items that accumulated over the season. Take an inventory of any leftover fertilizer, potting soil, soil amendments, plant tags and other highly-used garden items.  Make sure fertilizer bags are closed. Excess moisture can cause some fertilizers to clump and degrade.

Don’t forget to winterize hoses, hose nozzles and any gas powered equipment. It’s also a good time to clean and sharpen tools so they are ready for action next year.

Survey your trees and shrubs. Remove any damaged branches that may split further during a winter storm. Make sure evergreens do not go into winter dehydrated. Evaluate whether you need deer protection.

Remember to use trunk protectors on newly planted trees.  A smaller diameter trunk is susceptible to buck rub, which can kill a young tree. Young trees can also be girdled by animals feeding on bark in the winter. Make sure there is adequate mulch around the base but not up against the trunk….a donut not a volcano. Shredded leaves can work great for this.

If at all possible, provide clean, unfrozen water for wildlife throughout the winter.

We could all use some extra cheer this year, so add some evergreens, colored twigs, ribbons, and cones to your outdoor planters for added interest through the winter. 

Here are a few posts from the past that might also be useful:

Tasks for the November Garden

Preventing Deer Damage in the Winter Gifts for the Gardener

Gifts for the Gardener

Winter Interest In the Garden

By Alyce Goldman and Cathy StClair

Once frost hits, the evergreen plants in your garden really stand out and provide interest in the bleak winter months. Although conifers can provide an evergreen backdrop, there many other plant options to consider. 

When adding either evergreen perennials or shrubs, consider how winter will treat these plants.  Snow load from plowed driveways and walkways may bury a plant for a month and falling snow from a roof may totally flatten a specimen.  Also, by using a magnesium chloride product for ice treatment on hard surfaces, you can protect both plants and pets from salt damage. 

Deer resistance is another important aspect to keep in mind.  Deer browsing can increase in winter due to the lack of other tasty plants to eat.  

Here are a few plants to consider for winter interest in your garden.

Mahonia bealei

An evergreen shrub with columnar growth with early yellow flowers for spring foraging bees followed by dark blue berries that are adored by birds. The sharp spines at the end of the leaves make this plant very deer resistant. It can be used as a barrier to help protect other planting from deer browsing.

For shade to part shade. Deer resistant. Find more information here.

Illicium floridanum

An underused evergreen shrub for shade that is a US native (from areas south of Delaware County). The fragrant foliage makes it unattractive to deer.  Illicium blooms in spring and is available in many cultivars. While preferring a moist, sheltered spot, it tolerates dry shade when established. Find more information here.

Leucothoe axillaris

A native, evergreen shrub with cascading foliage that gently expands eventually reaching 3-4’.  There are variegated and solid green varieties – all with fragrant white flowers in spring. It prefers shade to part shade and moist, acidic soils. It is considered deer resistant. More information here.

Yucca filamentosa

A great native plant that provides a spiky contrast to other round-leaved evergreens in the garden. There are different cultivars including solid green and varieties with yellow variegation. This plant creates impressive spikes of flowers in early summer. It grows best in full sun to part shade. It is drought tolerant and works well in outdoor planters. Beware the leaves are tipped with spines, making the plant quite deer resistant. More information here.

Sarcococca hookerianii

A glossy-leaved, low-growing, groundcover plant that provides sweet smelling flowers in very early spring – earning its common name, Sweet Box. It is a good “socks” plant for planting under other shrubs and can tolerate dry shade once established. It is deer and rabbit resistant. Here is our plant profile for this plant. You can also find more information here.


Hellebores are an extremely versatile group of perennials that look good pretty much anywhere except for hot sun.  The foliage holds up all season until new growth pushes forth during the winter.  There are several species of Hellebore and many cultivars resulting in a variety of flower colors and forms.  Many bloom very early – in February or even January if mild so they provide nectar and pollen for bees early in the season. They truly are a year-round perennial that is not bothered by deer or rabbits.  More information: helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, and Wikipedia for more info than you probably ever wanted to know about Hellebores.

Rohdea japonica

A great plant for dry shade, it has low, evergreen, strappy leaves and develops bright red berries in winter.   It will expand slowly to form a ground cover.  It is very deer resistant. More information here.


Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a native evergreen fern.  Deer will eat this if desperate but otherwise it provides an upright, evergreen clump.  Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) will grow up to 2’ tall and new growth is an orangish-pink that matures to green.


Carex are an extremely versatile group of grasses that can have either upright growth or a more relaxed cascading look.  You can find a Carex for just about any situation; sun, shade, wet, or dry.  There are native and non-native varieties of  Carex and a large majority are evergreen. Two varieties to consider are: Carex morowii ‘Ice Dance’ and  Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’.  

October Garden Chores

A few fall jobs to consider

Scilla siberica coming into bloom

Now is the time to start planting hardy spring and summer flowering bulbs like crocus, daffodil, tulip, alliums and lilies. Consider some of the less popular bulbs like Scilla,  Chionodoxa and our native Camassia. They are quite delightful and much more rodent resistant than crocus or tulips.

October also means garlic bulb planting time. Plant your garlic cloves in a sunny, well drained location. You will be rewarded by delicious, homegrown garlic next year. More information on growing garlic here.

Dahlia in bloom

After the first killing frost, it’s time to dig up and store tender bulbs and tubers – things like Dahlia, Canna, and  Colocasia.

Start fall garden clean-up – carefully. Remove sickly things first. Plants that have evidence of disease or insect infestation should be removed from the garden and generally should not be added to your compost pile. Where possible, leave plants in place as food, cover and habitat for critters, although you may want to consider removing the seed heads of rampant self-seeders.

Also where possible, leave fallen leaves in place as natural (and free!) mulch. There are many critters snuggling into that blanket of leaves to sleep through winter. Disturbing the leaves can expose and kill them. Where leaves must be removed, you can use them directly as mulch in another area, add them to your compost pile, or create valuable leaf mold for your garden.

My cute little Bosnian pine

Make sure evergreens go into winter fully hydrated – especially those planted recently or in exposed sites. Evergreens will continue to lose moisture through their needles or leaves in the winter but will be unable to take up water if the soil is frozen. They can be damaged or even killed if they go into winter dehydrated.

White deer tail damage can increase as the temperatures drop and there is less food available. Consider techniques to reduce deer browsing on foliage of vulnerable plants. Also, around this time of year, bucks will rub their antlers on young trees. So fencing or caging is important for protecting the bark of newly planted trees.

Hairy Bittercress – getting ready to shoot seeds across the yard.

I hate to say it, but… weed. Winter hardy weeds can make great progress taking over your flowerbeds, because they continue to grow while the plants start their winter sleep. If you can get them out now, things will be much better come spring.

For something a bit more fun… survey your garden for fall interest. Often we do much of our garden shopping in the spring and can end up with a spring heavy – fall light display. So if you have any areas that could use some fall punch, make a note of it for next year.

Growing Greener

by A. Goldman

Bounty from the garden

Improving our landscapes can create environmental benefits. Gardens can create habitats for wildlife, help clean the air, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, help manage storm water runoff, and even reduce our carbon footprint by growing food in our own backyard.  

Here are a few suggestions for making your garden even greener.

Follow the principals of integrated pest management (IPM). Use the least invasive and toxic method possible to control pests and diseases.

Compost bin in vegetable garden

Yard waste comprises up to 20% of a landfill. Most of these materials are biodegradable and can contribute to soil health.   There is a technique to composting kitchen and yard waste if you want results quickly, but it does not need to be complicated. A simple heap of materials will eventually break down, no turning or management needed if you are patient.  No room for a compost pile? Consider “in place” or “trench” composting right in the soil.

You can also use yard waste to mulch in place. When trimming back your garden this fall use the chop and drop method. Chop up large leaves and stems and let fallen leaves remain around the plants.  Using green materials in place can prevent erosion, increase your soil’s viability and smother weeds. However, do not chop and drop if the plants are diseased – diseased materials should be removed.

Create a Habitat Pile for birds, toads, and small critters with excess of twigs and branches.  If you don’t have the room for that, just breaking up smaller twigs and adding to the garden makes a difference. These will break down quickly and the smaller they are, the less you will see them.  Larger pieces can be used for plant stakes, defining path edges, helping to hold soil back on a hill or even pot feet under your planters. 

Gardeners usually generate a significant number of empty nursery pots every season.  The best solution is reuse, especially since nursery pots are not usually recycled even if they are included in your recycling bin. If you know of a fellow gardener who shares or propagates plants from their garden, ask them if they could use quart or gallon pots. Pots can also be used in large planters at the bottom to make it lighter and reduce the amount of potting soil needed.   They are great for pot-in-pot planting. You bury a black plastic pot to ground level and then it can accept another already potted plant.  This allows you to change out what is planted in that particular spot at any time.  Planting spring bulbs this way allows you to protect bulbs from voles and if you put some hardware cloth over the top, from squirrels. Once the bulbs are done blooming, you can then opt for something else in that same spot. 

If possible, buy mulch and soils in bulk to avoid all the plastic bags. Consider re-using the bags you do get as trash bags in your shed or garage in place of a new trash bag.  Cleaned bags can be kept in your car when plant shopping.  Place your large plants or groups of smaller in a rolled down bag to keep them upright and contain any soil from the bottom of the pot.  

Tasks for the September Garden

Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee”

September is for planting! The soil is still warm but the air is cooler and moisture is (usually) more abundant. These conditions are great for establishing most herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs. Planting them now will give you a head start on spring. The exception to this is broad-leaf evergreens like rhododendrons, boxwood and hollies as well as plants that are borderline cold hardy (for us, zone 7 or higher). These are better planted in spring.


Give your ornamental planters a boost. Remove or trim back any ragged annuals. You can replace them with hardier fall plants.

Now is a good time to save some seeds for planting next year. Seeds from many annuals like Zinnia, Marigold, Cosmos, and Celosia are easy to save in a cool dry place. Just be aware that some hybrid varieties will not be identical when grown from seed.

Japanese Stiltgrass

Speaking of seeds – get after those weeds! Many weeds like Japanese stilt grass, yellow oxalis, pokeweed and various grasses are setting seeds. Getting rid of them now will help reduce populations next year. Also remove the flower heads of self-seeding annuals and perennials if you don’t want the seedlings.

There is still time to add cold hardy vegetable starts (lettuce, kale, broccoli, etc.) to the vegetable garden. If you are quick you can still seed in lettuce, radishes, kale and spinach.

Early Peony

While Peonies can live a very long time without dividing, now is the best time to divide them if you want to increase your plants.

Now is a good time to do soil tests. If pH needs to be adjusted, this is best done in fall to prepare for spring planting.

It’s also a good time to start a new planting bed by laying down cardboard and then layering woodchips, twigs, stems and fall leaves when they fall. By spring, the area should be ready for planting.

Think about bringing in any houseplants vacationing outside. They should come in before nights hit 50F. Inspect for pests (especially mice living in large pots – ask me how I know…). 

You can also bring in some herbs and place them in a cool, sunny spot in pots with good drainage.

Make a list of potential new plants to add to your landscape and have the list handy when fall plant shopping.  If you don’t have a specific plant in mind, make a list of the spaces you want to fill – including the amount of space, the light and moisture conditions and any height constraints. You can use this to help choose plants when shopping.

Keep swatting those lanternflies…

Mini and Dwarf Shrubs

Smaller is sometimes better

Article by A. Goldman

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in summer

There are many reasons to think about adding small shrubs to your landscape.  As many gardeners downsize or have mature plantings at their properties, it is wonderful to see new versions of old favorites being introduced.  Not everyone can devote enough real estate for a VW bug-sized shrub that may only bloom once a year but now you can get one that is only a fraction of its previous size. 

Replacing plantings of annuals with small shrubs can reduce maintenance and expense over time. Smaller shrubs can be tucked around existing trees and large shrubs to reduce the need to mulch. Small shrubs can even be planted in large containers to simplify annual planting and provide year round structure.

Here are a few suggestions for small shrubs. They are divided into mini shrubs which mature under two feet and dwarf shrubs  which are considerably smaller than the original but may still reach four feet or so.

Mini shrubs to consider:

  • Tiny Tuff Stuff Hydrangea: 18-24” re-blooming lace cap hydrangea
  • Lil Ditty Viburnum: 24” fragrant white flowers and fall color part shade tolerant
  • Yuki Cherry Blossom Deutzia: 1-2’ pink flowers, use as a groundcover
  • Double Play Gold Spirea: 24” golden foliage with hot pink flowers, deer resistant
  • Ground Hog Aronia: 14” native, white flowers and purple berries, tough plant
  • Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine: 1-2’ winter golden needles, hardy to Z2, rugged
  • Petite Knock Out Rose:  18” same vigorous growth and continuous blooming

Dwarf shrubs to add:

  • Sugartina Clethra:36”  Native, easy care, bee attractor, fragrant flowers
  • Red Rover Dogwood: 5’ Native, great fall color, red stems, pollinator and bird beneficial
  • Little Quickfire/Little Lime Hydrangea:  5-6’ tried and true, die hard hydrangeas
  • Ruby Slippers Oak Leaf Hydrangea: 3-4’ with a large flower inflorescence and nice fall color
  • Scent and Sensibility Lilac: 3’ wider than tall, fragrant, purple and re-blooming
  • Crimson Kisses Weigela: 3’ re-blooming red flowers with white, easy care
  • Winecraft Gold Smokebush:  6’ golden foliage, smaller and denser than regular smokebush

Take a look around your landscape to consider where you might tuck in some added interest with these smaller shrubs.  They are a great transition from larger shrub and trees and make a nice backdrop to perennials.  Consider adding a few to offer more cover for the birds and critters that call your garden home.  Smaller is better!

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in fall

Beyond Milkweed

Bringing in the Butterflies

Many know the importance of supplying milkweed as a food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, but there are other plants you can add to your yard to support other butterfly species.

Zizia aurea in bloom

Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars will feast on Zizia aurea. This native perennial has cheerful unbrels of yellow flowers in spring and will grow in full sun or part shade. Eastern Black Swallowtail will also eat dill, parsley, fennel and carrots – if you are willing to share.

The Pearl Crescent relies on our native asters like Symphyotrichum cordifolium (blue wood aster), Symphyotrichum oblongifolium  (aromatic aster), Symphyotrichum laeve (smooth aster), or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (new england aster). Asters are beautiful flowering plants that also provide late season nectar for butterflies and bees. There are many lovely cultivars to choose from – one to fit almost any garden space.

Antennaria plantaginifolia in bloom

Antennaria plantaginifolia is a food source for the American Painted Lady butterfly . The caterpillars roll the plant’s leaves to make sheltered cocoons. This plant makes an attractive low growing ground cover in sunny, dry well drained places.

Woody plants contribute to butterfly survival too. The Spicebush Swallowtail depends on our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and native Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum). Wild cherry (Prunus serotina) supports Spring and Summer Azure caterpillars and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. If you grow our native Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) not only could you get tasty fruit, you might be lucky enough to see a Zebra Swallowtail.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Having a less than perfect lawn is also a big benefit to butterflies. The Great Spangled Fritillary relies on common violets. Leaving violets in your lawn (or having a patch as a groundcover) is vital to these beautiful butterflies. White clover supports a host of butterflies including the Orange Sulphur, the Gray Hairstreak, the Eastern Tailed Blue and the Clouded Sulphur. It is also a terrific source of nectar and pollen for bees and improves soil by sequestering nitrogen.  

Since some butterflies and moths winter over as caterpillars or chrysalises (and sometimes even as adults) in leaf litter and plant debris, try to wait till the weather warms in spring before doing too much clean up. Wherever possible, leave fallen leaves in place. This will protect hibernating butterflies (as well as other critters) and will provide you with free, nutritious garden mulch – its a win-win.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Tithonia rotundifolia

February Fun in the Garden

By A Goldman and C StClair

With days getting a bit longer, the urge to get outside and “do something” starts to grow. Here are a few tasks to consider tackling this month. But keep in mind, soggy, wet soils compact very easily. Avoid walking or driving on wet soil whenever possible.

Keep outdoor evergreens well-watered and even deciduous plants if they were planted late in the season.  Dry roots and drying winds will challenge evergreens to stay hydrated. Check for any deer browsing and net or apply repellent if evergreens are being chewed.

Keep an eye open for perennials that have heaved out of the soil due to freeze thaw cycles and gently push them back in place to prevent roots from drying out.

If you have bird baths, try to keep fresh and unfrozen water in them for not only birds but other animals that need a drink. 

On mild days, go outside and clean out your birdhouses for future residents.

Its hard to resist the desire to start garden clean up on those mild days that pop up here or there, but try not to disturb the gardens too much yet (except for maybe pulling out some of the evil Hairy Bittercress). There are valuable critters sleeping in the debris and they need days consistently above 50 F to wake up for the season.

Use downed branches to start or add to a brush pile for the critters that share your property.  These are great in far corners away from view and help with habitat.  For information on brush piles click here.

If the weather is nasty, there are indoor tasks to do as well.

Dust your indoor house plants.  They can photosynthesize much better without a layer of dust on their leaf surface. Be careful not to over water or fertilize.  They are not as energetic in the winter, quite like us!

Take some time to peruse catalogs and on-line plant sources. Dreaming about amazing new additions to the garden is half the fun. Before you place those orders, stop to consider and reassess where those plants will go in your landscape and if you will have time to plant/care for them.  Unusual items are worth the order but more “common” plants might be purchased at your local nursery in a larger size for the same cost.

Now is a good time to organize your records and get your plant tags ready for spring.  If you have records of plant purchases for the previous year, use that for making tags to place when weather is mild or when spring finally arrives.

Planning Your 2020 Garden

By A. Goldman

Anticipation is a gardener’s motto and thinking about the possibilities for next year’s garden is what eases the long winter months.  We may not be able to physically be out in the garden, but mentally we are! 

Winter allows a more leisurely approach to assessing and considering changes and can help avoid planting something in haste during the season just to get it in the ground. 

If you took pictures of your garden throughout the season, now is the time to revisit them to consider additions, changes, removal or repeating of certain plants.  Get a notebook out and make some notes before the thought or idea evaporates.

If you have a section of your garden you are not happy with but don’t quite know why, try converting the photograph to black and white. Sometimes the problem is too many plants of similar size, shape or texture. It’s much easier to identify this without the distraction of color.

When the weather allows, stroll around your property admiring nature that is visible now that you may not have normally noticed. 

If you do not see any birds or other wildlife then plan to add a feeder, a bird bath and more evergreens for winter protection. 

If winter winds bring down branches consider creating a brush pile in a remote location for critter habitat instead of disposing of them. 

Winter is also a great time to assess where to prune rubbing or crossing branches and dead wood as they are more noticeable without foliage. These branches can be added to your new brush pile critter habitat too.

If you have outdoor planters that contain woody plants, consider where those plants could make an impact in your landscape come spring.  Also plan for any plants that didn’t quite make it into the garden from end of season sales. You can also make note of plants that need dividing and where those divisions can be placed. Come spring, you’ll be ready for action.

In the winter and early spring when you are reading gardening magazines and garden blogs about all the new plant introductions, make some notes of things that would work in your landscape.  You’ll appreciate those notes when spring 2020 plant shopping starts and you encounter all the new introductions.  Your notes will allow you to make better choices, clear the “should I buy this” brain fog – and hopefully save you money too!

Spotted lanternfly on tree
Photo courtesy of Penn State Extension

A very important subject to think about for 2020 is how to deal with the onslaught of spotted lantern fly on your property.  This is a very serious threat to many tree species and the trees will need help to cope and survive.

Here are some resources for spotted lanternfly to help you plan your strategy.

Some Seed Sources

Now that winter is here – it’s seed catalog time! On a cold, snowy day there is nothing more fun than perusing seed catalogs and imagining how glorious your garden will be next year.

We thought we’d share some of our favorite seed vendors so you can check them out. In no particular order…

Johnny’s Selected Seeds – A great seed source for vegetables, herbs, cutting flowers and some annual bedding plants.  This site is also a treasure trove of information to help with successful seed starting. They have calculators to help with timing your starts and succession planting, information on cultivar choice based on growing conditions, and detailed germination information. Their Growers Library is well worth a look.  Although much of it is written for small market growers, it is also invaluable to home gardeners.

Select Seeds – This family owned business has an emphasis on heirloom flower seeds but also offers herbs and vegetables as well as some more recent introductions of annuals, biennials and perennials. The images and descriptions are useful and heirloom seed varieties are clearly marked. They have now added some live plants to their offering.

Prairie Moon Nursery – This company offers plants and seeds native to North America. Although they are located in the Midwest, most of their offerings are also native to the mid-Atlantic. They provide information on how to germinate native plant seeds (which can be tricky). I also like their Native Plant-Insect Interactions Chart as a reference.

Burpee Seed Company – Burpee has been growing, hybridizing and selling seeds since 1881. The company is local – you can visit their display gardens and research facility (Fordhook Farm in Doylestown) on open days. Burpee has a large variety of vegetable and flower seeds. Its always interesting to find out what is new for the coming year and they have cultivars unique only to them. Seed prices can be higher than other places though.

Geo Seed – This seed company is really targeted at professional and market growers but they do sell to home gardeners. They have a large selection of annual and perennial seeds at reasonable prices. Since they are more of a commercial supplier their catalog has limited information and no pictures so you may need to do research on the different varieties. You can view their catalog on line but they do not have on-line ordering. But, if you know what you want are fine with getting a larger amount of seed they are a great resource.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds – A nice collection of annuals, perennials, vines and vegetables at decent prices. A good source for bedding plant seeds.