Nov 28

What’s a Gardener to Do in the Winter?

Blogger Michael Dahl shares his suggestion for wintertime activities with Gardening Jones.
Guest blogger Michael Dahl from Dissident Potato.

October harvests have passed, and I’ve stocked up on everything that will keep in my basement or can be stored in my chest freezer.  I spent many a weekend in November cleaning up and repairing my raised beds as well putting away rain barrels, pots, and lawn ornaments in the garage.  I’ve also evaluated the past season in my mind (several times) and on my blog (once or twice).

It is winter.  At least that’s what my gardening calendar says.  It’s time to start planning for next season.  I need extended planning — planned planning — to help me make it through the winter.  I can’t stand the dark afternoons, the scrunched shoulders, and the cold air that hurts the skin.  To keep me going I have a schedule — basically broken down by month — that disciplines me to think about the future when warmer and brighter days come again.


If they haven’t already arrived in the mail, plenty of seed catalogs will be dropped in my mailbox throughout December.  Let the dreaming begin!  For example, I love reading about how many varieties of tomatoes and squash Seed Savers Exchange members have and are ready to swap.  And, the beautiful pages of Baker Creek s The Whole Seed Catalog immerse me in cultures spanning the globe.

I spend the first half of December just dreaming.  "What would that squash variety look like in Raised Bed #1 or #2?”  "That beetroot looks interesting; would it taste interesting or yummy as well?"

The good catalogs give a bit of a seed history as well as where the seed originated.  The second half of December is my time to start weeding out the varieties not meant for Minnesota planting.  I also nix those I have no interest in.  And then, in the last week of December a sort of battle royal occurs.

Can I winnow down 20 lettuce varieties I want to a manageable list of 6 or 7 I have space for?  And, I can’t grow a dozen varieties of squash.  I don’t have that much space!  What will keep well?  What varieties will my wife enjoy?  What’s the one “of simple interest” variety I will allow myself next year?


I place my order for seeds on January 1st.  It’s a deadline to keep the broad-based dreaming contained.  I do, after all, have to map out what the actual garden will look like.

Plenty of January evenings and weekends are filled first with colored index cards and then with an online garden planning application mapping out what will go where.  First, I need to rotate crops.  Last year’s Raised Bed #1 crops are moving to #7 in 2016. Raised beds #6 and #7 crops are moving to #1 and #2.  Last year’s #5 and #6 will move to #3 and #4 and vice versa.  Then I plan how each of the beds will be arranged using trellising and companion planting concepts to optimize the space.  I also have to think about how the sunlight will hit the beds as well as the limited length of my arms.


February is all about two things:  (1) getting my basement shelves and supplies ready for growing seedlings; (2) taking stock of supplies and shopping for what needs replenishment.

Getting ready for seedlings simply means cleaning out seedling pots — scores are already cleaned up, but I left forty or so un-rinsed.  Tsk-tsk, Michael.  I then place the seedling trays under unlit grow lights and fill them with empty pots.  I plan for which shelves will be used for what seedlings.  That part isn’t really necessary; it’s just fun imagine-time for me.

Next, I assess what I need to begin growing seedlings and what must I have on hand for the early part of the season.  I know I want some more and bigger seedling pots.  An online, bulk order will be placed to check that task box off.  Other things — like healthy, organic seedling soil — will come from a local urban farm supply store.  That shopping trip will confirm for me that cool weather growing season is just around the corner.


I start my cabbage seedling the first weekend in March.  Tomatoes get started midway through the month.  Depending on the weather and the warmth of my raised beds — have plenty of sunny days warmed up the beds much quicker than the hard, compacted ground we all walk on? — I may even begin growing green leafy vegetables outside by late March.  It’s even possible I will mound some soil and begin drying out some cut up seed potatoes.

Everything is weather-dependent for outdoor planting in March.  If 10-day forecasts show freezing temps and snow, I just stew and wait.  If the future looks warm enough, I plant what can tolerate cool temps.  I do, however, hold on to enough seeds and seedlings so that if a snowstorm hits, I have ample supplies ready for a second planting.  (For example, a handful of cabbage seedlings may get set out as guinea pigs in March; a scattering of lettuces may find their way into to new metal beds I purchased last year.  However, if inclement weather hits and the guinea pigs fail — um, die — another batch will be ready for April planning.


April is no longer winter.  It’s cool spring.  Cool weather crops make it outside; warm weather seedlings (e.g. squash, peppers, eggplants, zucchini) fill my basement shelves.

No matter what, I’ve made it through the doldrums of winter with plenty of gardening activity.  This planning has allowed me to keep upbeat about the next season without turning any task into rushed drudgery crammed into a few, far-too-late weekends as spring descends.

I can’t say I enjoy winter.  But garden planning always makes it a ton more bearable.

This post was reprinted by permission of the author Michael Dahl.
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    • Avatar of gj
    • Cynthia on November 29, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    I would love to see this kind of post for the rest of your year. It would be a big help to have a simplified list like this to go by myself at first while I’m finding my own way.

    • Avatar of gj
    • gj on November 29, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    You got it Cynthia! We can post what we intend to do each month here in Zone 5/6 as a guideline.

    • Avatar of gj
    • Wilma Bonds on December 1, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    I would love to read your blog throughout the year.

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