Winter arrives early in the mountains. Finish outdoor chores this month, and get tools ready for off-season storage.
Dress your garden for winter. Whether you're giving it an eye-catching or practical touch, the results will be a healthier garden and pretty winter scenery.
Fill a frost-proof pot with stems of evergreens, rose canes with hips, or berried shrub branches. Tuck in pinecones, ornamental grass stems, and interesting perennial flower heads to finish the arrangement. If soil is frozen, pour on hot water to thaw.
Try one of two options to prep your vegetable garden for winter -- and for planting next spring.
1. Turn soil in the vegetable garden with a hoe or tiller. Time the turning for just before a hard freeze to expose overwintering insects to killing temperatures. You can also use this as a chance to work a 2- to 3-inch layer of chopped leaves into soil. Leave the soil rough, with clumps in place. Winter freezing and thawing will break them down.
2. Plant a cover crop. First, work 2-3 inches of manure, chopped leaves, or compost into soil. Sow seeds of winter rye, hairy vetch, or white Dutch clover. In spring, turn the cover crop under before planting.
Test Garden Tip: Indoors, think color. Tuck a few bulbs into pots for forcing. Place pots where they'll receive 14-16 weeks of chill (41-48 degrees F), and you'll savor February blooms.
Keep feeders filled once birds start visiting them. Hang several different feeders to attract the greatest variety of birds. Stock each feeder to draw specific species.
Niger (thistle) and black oil sunflower seed draw seed-eating birds, like goldfinches, pine siskins, and grosbeaks.
Hang suet for insect-eaters, like woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Spray plants with a deer repellent to keep browsing to a minimum. You can also physically block deer from reaching plants by erecting hardware cloth barriers around young plants or wrapping plants with bird netting.
Test Garden Tip: Birds need fresh water in winter. Add a birdbath heater, or purchase a heated birdbath. If you have a water garden, keep water open with a stock tank heater or stone bubbler.
Until the ground freezes, it's vital to irrigate newly planted trees and shrubs. You also want to water evergreens until the ground freezes. If soil is dry when it freezes, trees can experience drought stress through winter. If the ground thaws during winter, water new plantings and established evergreens.
The sun's low angle in the sky produces a greater intensity, which can damage young trees (with trunks less than 4 inches across) or ones with thin bark, like fruit trees or maples. The southwest sides of trees are at greatest risk. Protect trunks by wrapping with a commercial tree wrap or painting with white latex.
After the ground freezes, mulch planting beds up to 3 inches deep. Mulch insulates soil, which can help prevent frost heave. As soil freezes and thaws, plants can literally be heaved out of soil. Coral bells, small bulbs, and iris frequently heave. Keep mulch away from tree trunks and below their root flair.
Test Garden Tip: If your garden hosts any diseased plants, pick up and destroy all fallen leaves and mulch beneath plants. Replace mulch with a fresh layer.
Test Garden Tip: Fuel your snow blower. Give it a test start to make sure it's ready for the season. Lay in a supply of plant- and surface-friendly ice melt. Store at least a small amount in an accessible place -- in the house or attached garage, not in a shed.
Drain hoses and store in a shed or garage. Remove watering wands, spray nozzles, and connections (quick connects, Y's, etc.). Drain, and store indoors.
Tuck underground parts of tender plants, like dahlia, gladiolus, or canna, into moist peat moss or sawdust. Store in a cool, dark place. Check roots monthly; toss any showing soft spots or rot.
Pull plant supports and stakes. If possible, store these items outdoors -- freezing temperatures should kill any overwintering pests and diseases.
Ideally, store frost-sensitive containers in a garage or shed. Empty and clean pots first. If indoor storage isn't an option, swaddle pots in bubble wrap, tuck into garbage bags, and store upside down in a protected location outdoors.
Test Garden Tip: Store used potting soil from container gardens in an uncovered trash can with some holes drilled into the base for drainage. When dumping container gardens, toss plant tops into the compost and dump soil into the can. Roots will compost over winter.