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Winter Gardening: January Garden Checklist Zones 4-5

The list of gardening and maintenance tasks that need to be done in January dramatically depends on your location and hardiness zone. In Zone 4 and Zone 5, the last frost of the year will come in April or early May, and the new year has likely brought some winter snow and frozen ground.

While it isn’t traditional outdoor planting time just yet, there is still much that can be accomplished during this slower season to ensure that this year’s garden is the best one yet. Check out our robust checklist for ideas on what you should be doing this month to help your garden for the upcoming growing season.

Check out our Monthly Organic Gardening Guide By Zone and make sure you don’t miss some essential steps for extending your growing season, performing maintenance routines, and seizing the opportunities to dream big about next season’s garden.

Organic Vegetable Seeds in Glass Container

January Garden Planning

January is the perfect time for gardeners in Zone 4 and 5 to start fresh. Think of your garden beds as blank canvases and envision the lush landscape you can create. It’s a whole new year, after all, and that means that the possibilities are endless for your home gardens.

Review of Last Years Garden

If you are like many people, organization is a goal for any new year. Start the new year off by initiating a gardening journal if you don’t have one already. Use the journal to keep track of the perennial favorites that you expect to return this year and consider both ‘tried and true annuals’ that have performed well for you, as well as some new varieties to try.

Sketch out a master garden design plan. Consider crop rotation in your design plans as well to keep your soil nice and healthy. Include information on what was successful in the garden and what could use some tweaking.

Chart the seed and plant varieties for your grow zone. Take a note of their planting requirements, germination, and maturity periods, and keep notes about what worked well and what did not. This chart will help you plan from year to year with knowing when to sow seeds, how to plant with optimal spacing, when you can expect blooms, and when to harvest your plants.

Garden Planning

January is an important month for gardeners in Zone 4 and Zone 5. Not only are gardeners squirreling away ideas for upcoming gardens, but they are also stocking up on supplies. If seed catalogs didn’t pop up in your mailbox last month, then January is going to reward you with pages and pages of lush and beautiful plants and blooms to whet your appetite for gardening! Flip through those vibrant pages, check out what’s new, and decide what you’d like to add to your upcoming gardens.

Embrace the possibilities for this year’s gardens and decide if you need more planting space. Consider adding more planters, raised beds, and think about incorporating vertical gardening techniques. Order your seeds this month so that you can ensure that your selections can be fulfilled before other gardeners snatch them up. Some varieties sell out fast.

If you haven’t done so already, investigate if your town has a local garden club or a community garden. This is a great way to meet people in your community who share your passion for gardening. Many others might be looking to swap seeds and exchange ideas. Sharing seeds with others can help you add diversity to your garden and might encourage you to try something new.

Do some of your new seed selections and acquisitions included climbing varieties that need support? January is an excellent month for constructing essential climbing structures and DIY trellises, so you are ready to go to place them in the garden beds when the time is right for planting.

Gardener mulching with pine bark juniper plants in the yard.

Garden Maintenance

If you live in Zone 4 or 5, you are in the heart of winter, so you are in the clear for labor-intensive outdoor garden tasks in the backyard garden. The odds are high that snow is insulating your garden beds as your perennials rest.

If there is no snow on the ground, peruse your gardens and add mulch to the garden focussing on areas where mulch has been depleted. Check for frost heaves and if the ground is soft enough, gently press raised areas down with your boot. If you had a Christmas tree or any fresh greenery as décor, you can snip off the branches and lay them down scatter them around the bases of rose bushes or on perennial garden beds.

As you are assessing what things look like outdoors, don’t forget about the wildlife. Fill up some bird feeders or hang some suet and watch the array of birds that flock to the feast. Attracting these colorful friends to the feeders will provide entertainment and joy as you await the milder days to come.

Garden Tools

January is an excellent time to take stock of all your garden tools while you have the time to do so. Sort through your tools and assess what you have and what new tools you’d like to acquire. You’ll be glad you did once planting season arrives.

It is also a time to make any necessary repairs, tighten hardware, clean tools, sharpen blades, and oil up moving parts. 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.

It is also a prime time to clean and organize your stock of seed-starting materials. Ensure that you have plenty of seed starting mix, grow trays, warming mats, grow lights, and organize your stock of seed packets. Make a note of what you have and what you need to order from those treasured seed catalogs.

Spring will be here before you know it, so think ahead and stock up on some row covers and hoop houses, which will help extend the growing season in colder climates where future frosts threaten tender crops. Organize any gardening gifts you may have received and think of some ideas for how you will incorporate them into your garden, and carve out a place to store them.

Seed sprouting indoors and microgreens growing in small glass jar.

Composting in Winter

One of the best things you can do for your garden is to create a compost system. After all, healthy gardens begin with a nutrient-rich soil structure. If you have already started a compost pile, continue to feed it throughout the month of January by adding kitchen scraps, pine needles, and fully cooled wood ash to the pile.

Indoor Planting and Growing

It may be winter, but it’s the perfect time to get a head start on some indoor seed-starting for those seeds that have lengthy germination and maturation periods. If you love your greens, sow seeds in an indoor planter and place them in a sunny spot for a lovely winter harvest opportunity indoors.

By the end of the month, you can begin to germinate herbaceous plants like parsley, thyme, tarragon, geraniums, and sage. You can also start your annuals and perennials that have long maturation periods. Get a jump start on some winter garden vegetables such as chives, leeks, and onions when you plant them indoors. You may have more successful germination if you incorporate grow lights and warming pads into your processes throughout the month of January.

Winter Greenhouse Gardening and Cold-Frames

If you have structures in place like cold frames or a greenhouse, it is possible that you can grow cool season crops like kale, cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli, and more, even during the coldest months of the year. Gardening requires a great deal of trial and error, so try some winter gardening if you are up for the challenge. You may be surprised by how successful it can be. If you do not have a cold frame available now, use these quieter January days to build one to use later this winter and early spring.


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Grape hyacinths in the spring surrounded by snow with text, "January garden checklist zones 4 and 5"
Jar of microgreens growing with seedlings in the background.

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