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Winter Gardening: December Checklist Zones 1-3

With snow falling and temperatures dropping many of our garden to-dos in Zone 1 and Zone 2 are inside for now. Since you are likely taking shelter indoors, now is a great time to do some garden planning and reflecting. Gardeners in Zone 3 may be going outside to take care of a few chores but can also utilize this time inside.

December provides a restorative time for gardeners in Zone 1-3. It’s time to reflect on last season’s garden successes and disappointments, take care of garden tools and plan for the next year’s garden season.

While December is a leaner month for garden chores, there are still plenty of things that can be done within the depths of winter to help ensure robust gardens. Check out our winter gardening December checklist and make sure you don’t miss some essential steps, maintenance routines, and opportunities to dream big about next season’s garden.

Robin perched on a snowy shovel handle.

December Garden Planning

You can do plenty in USDA Grow Zone 1-3 when it comes to garden planning. When the days are cold and the landscape looks rather bleak, it’s a wonderful time to plan for next year’s crops and envision the lush landscape that you can create in your home garden. It’s time to look back at the delights and pitfalls of past seasons and forge forward with new ideas and enhancements for the coming year.

Garden Journal

This is an excellent time to start a gardening journal if you don’t have one already. Chart seed and plant varieties, their planting specifications, days to germinate and mature, and keep notes about what worked well and what didn’t. This chart will help you plan from year to year by knowing when to sow seeds, plant with optimal spacing, when you can expect blooms, and when to harvest your plantings.

If some of your crops were plagued by pests or disease, it is a great time to research companion plants and spacing provisions that can protect and boost your plants’ production.

Garden Planning

At this point in the year, seed catalogs should start popping up in your mailbox. This is an excellent time to sit back, get cozy, peruse the catalogs, and dream of what you’d like to plant in your spring and summer gardens. It’s time to embrace the possibilities for what you can grow within your garden space and decide if you need to carve out more garden beds or acquire new planters. Ordering seeds early can ensure that you get the seeds you seek before other gardeners snatch them up.

If you have friends or people in your community that are also passionate about gardening, you might look for or start your own seed swap. Often, whether through seed saving or an overflow of seeds in packets, you may have extra seeds. Add some diversity to your garden this year by swapping and sharing seeds with other gardeners. Embrace the opportunity to connect with other gardeners and try something new in the garden.

Take out your garden journal and dream a little. Sketch out some ideas or clip garden plan ideas out of magazines to give you visuals to aspire to. Perhaps there are even some indoor construction projects that you can do, like create a climbing structure or a raised bed to be added to your garden this spring.

Bucket full of vegetable scraps ready to be composted.

December Garden Maintenance in Zone 3

Fall and winter garden maintenance will make things easier once spring rolls around. Zones 1 and 2 are likely frozen over and covered in snow right now, so these tips mainly apply to gardeners in Zone 3. Here is a short list of tasks that will keep your garden happy throughout the winter months.

  • If you haven’t done so already, dump out any pots and store them in a garage or garden shed so that they don’t freeze and crack. You can also store them upside down if they need to be outside.
  • Cut back spent plants to about 6 inches and add non-diseased organic matter to your compost pile.
  • Cover your compost pile with a tarp or a couple of inches of straw before snowfall.
  • If a deep freeze has not yet set in, you can add compost to your gardens and plant cover crops. Both will help to enrich the soil and help combat erosion.

December Garden Tool Cleanup

While there isn’t much work you can do in December, this is the ideal time of the year to maintain your garden tools to keep them in the best working order and to eliminate any disease that might be present upon them. Not only does tool cleaning and maintenance ensure that you have what you need for garden work, but it also will keep your garden free from diseases that may have plagued your garden last season.

  1. Start by using steel wool or a metal grill brush to clean any debris off your garden tools.
  2. Wipe surfaces with a damp rag.
  3. Use coarse sandpaper to scuff away any signs of rust on metal surfaces.
  4. Dab vegetable oil onto a rag and wipe metal surfaces.
  5. Use a piece of sandpaper to slough away any rough or splintering spots on wooden handles.
  6. Wipe wooden handles down with a rag wet with linseed oil.

This is also a great time to take inventory of the tools you have and shop for new ones. Oftentimes, garden tools are cheaper or on sale in December, so stock up and grab a new sharp pair of shears or a shiny new trowel!

Composting

Everything is covered in snow right now, so if you didn’t save any items to compost such as grass clippings, leaves, or brush try and do so next year so that you can create a compost pile and continue to feed it throughout the winter months. Developing an ongoing composting system is one of the best things you can do for next year’s garden. Healthy gardens start with a robust and nutrient-rich soil structure. If you do not already have a compost pile, make a plan to start one in the spring!

A common question when starting a compost pile is, what can I compost? Organic food and natural green and brown items decompose together to create soil that is well-draining, high in nutrient content, and filled with beneficial microorganisms. A rule of thumb for compost is to have 30-parts of brown ingredients which are carbon producers to 1-part green ingredients which are nitrogen producers.

Brown Composting Materials

  • Paper
  • Pine needles
  • Straw
  • Vegetable stalks
  • Wood shavings
  • Dry leaves

Green Composting Materials

  • Eggshells
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Hair clippings
  • Alfalfa meal
  • Feathers
  • Coffee grounds

Indoor Composting

Indoor composting is a great option for gardeners who live in Zones 1 and 2 and even Zone 3 because it allows you to continue producing compost throughout the winter months even if you didn’t save enough compostable material from your yard or garden before the snow and ice arrived. There are 4 basic types of indoor composting:

  • Vermicomposting: Also known as ‘Worm Composting’ is a great alternative to an outdoor compost pile that still produces nutrient-rich organic material that can be added to your garden come spring. This method is inexpensive, easy to start, and effective as long as you don’t mind the worms.
  • Indoor Compost Bins: Similar to outdoor composting, indoor compost bins have ventilation holes in the lids and work by heating organic matter to speed up decomposition. You can make your own from a plastic bin, garbage can, bucket, or you can purchase one.
  • Anaerobic Bags: This method utilizes plastic garbage bags to produce anaerobic microbes. It’s highly economical and requires almost no set-up or prep, but may not smell so great.
  • Bokashi Method: An odorless Japanese method where you pickle or ferment your food waste. Bokashi requires a bit of advanced preparation but can produce compost almost twice as fast as other methods.
Group of yellow narcissus flower with root bulbs

Mulching Your Garden

Mulch plays a vital role in the garden beds during the growing season, but it is also essential to add mulch in the fall and winter months. Mulch insulates the soil and protects perennial plant root systems. Warmer soil also helps microorganisms to thrive and remain active even during the coldest of seasons.

Snow is an excellent insulator for your perennials and overwintering crops as well. Still, you cannot always count on a consistent snow layer all winter long, so protection can be sporadic. It is also likely that some of your spring and summer mulch has broken down. Replenish this mulch and implement a deep mulch method for the best protection. Apply several inches of mulch to the garden bed in late fall or early in winter before a deep freeze sets in. If you didn’t grab any items to mulch with, you may want to grab some mulch at your local garden center or nursury.

Indoor Planting and Growing

While you are hunkered down for winter and dreaming of next year’s gardens, there are still things that you can plant to keep you motivated for spring blooms and crop planting.

Indoor Winter Gardening

Beat those winter blues by forcing bulbs indoors. Watching these fragrant and beautiful bloomers emerge and flower brings a sense of hope and renewal to gardeners. Select a shallow dish or pretty bowl and place a layer of rocks or marbles and water in the bottom. Place narcissus bulbs root side down and watch and wait.

Another great bulb to plant indoors in the winter is the amaryllis. Nothing beats the large and vibrant blooms of this treasure of a plant. The amaryllis offers very little maintenance and a huge reward.

December is also a great time to get a jumpstart on some indoor seed starting for seeds that require a lengthy germination or maturation period. Or you can plant a box of assorted herbs or lettuce greens by sowing seeds and placing them in front of a window that receives a fair amount of sun.

Greenhouse Gardening

A greenhouse is an option for extending the growing season for those in Zone 1-3. With the intensity of the cold temperatures in this region, you will likely need to add heat and light to the greenhouse, which can be very costly. A cold frame alone usually isn’t enough to protect flowers and vegetables in this USDA grow zone.

In Zone 3, where winters are milder than Zones 1 and 2, there are a few things that you can do to boost your chances of successfully growing some winter garden vegetables that are worth trying. Deep mulching, heavier fabric row covers, and adding hoop houses within a greenhouse can help insulate crops further and boost heat retention if utilized before the soil in the greenhouse freezes. Another idea to add warmth is to create a compost pile inside of a greenhouse. As the organic material decomposes, it can boost temperatures slightly.

Outdoor Winter Garden Planting

If you’ve seen inspiring winter garden crops on social media, try not to get your hopes up too high. The ground in this climate is traditionally known for a deep freeze of the soil, which is not conducive to planting, growing, and harvesting vegetables and flowers from outdoor gardens in December.

Continue to set your sights on all of the things you can do on our garden checklist. Remember that with some planning, preparation, and a little creativity, you can bring your garden to an enhanced level for the upcoming growing season.

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Robin perched on a snowy shovel handle with text, "December Garden Checklist Zones 1-3"
Group of yellow narcissus flower with root bulbs with text, "What to do it December to Prepare for Spring Zone 3".

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