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Posted on Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 6:06 a.m.

Garden Faerie: 10 things a gardener can do during the dead of winter

By Monica Milla


Winter seed sowing is a great way to keep one's hands in the soil over the winter and to grow hardy seedlings ready to plant out in spring.

Monica Milla | Contributor

Ah, yes. Michigan. If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change. For many gardeners, winter is way too long. I personally like the down time and find lots of activities to keep me busy.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like winter. A lot. I like snow — shoveling it, playing in it, even riding my bike in it. I also welcome the break from gardening activities, at least until March, anyway.

Here are some of the things I do in the winter.

I don't put away Christmas lights in January; I switch up the colors. I have a strand of red and white lights for Valentine's Day, will have a green strand for March and a purple one for April. I really love the festive look, and I crave light on winter evenings.

I sow cat grass indoors. Cats crave the greens, and it's fun having something grow inside. Wheat and oat grass seeds don't need much light to germinate.

I winter sow, a way to start seeds (in mini containers) outside, which, with little care, will sprout as hardened off seedlings on their natural schedule in spring (yes, it really works). I'll be writing more about winter seed sowing in the coming weeks.

I attend garden talks, lectures and conferences. Michigan Gardener magazine is a great source for events around the state, and I also search events for key words such as garden, gardening, plants, perennials, etc. I also post gardening events on my Garden Faerie facebook page.

I look at seed catalogs, online and print versions, and decide what I'm going to add to the garden. My favorite seed sources include swapping with friends, D. Landreth Seed, Botanical Interests, Renee's Garden Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Select Seeds, Seeds of Change and Monticello.

I attend seed swaps. A great way to get more seeds and pass your extra along. Project Grow and Growing Hope also host some.

I take stock of what I did in the garden last year, what worked, what didn't and what I will do differently the coming year.

I plan what new things I want to do in the garden this coming season, such as what plants to divide and move, what I'd like to add, what new patches of grass I'll convert to beds, etc.

I get caught up reading all the gardening magazines I haven't had time tp pick up since last spring.

I make things, like rain barrels, trellises, garden art, etc.

I shovel lots and lots of snow and am thankful my plants have a nice blanket of insulation that will melt into free water.

Apparently, some people also enjoy taking care of houseplants in winter. I do care for mine, but I admit I'm a bit of a houseplant "hata."

What do you do to get through winter? Leave a comment and let us know.

Monica Milla, the Garden Faerie, is a master gardener volunteer, garden speaker, garden coach and author of "Fun with Winter Seed Sowing."


Monica Milla

Fri, Jan 21, 2011 : 2:25 p.m.

Hi Neal, I just joined the orchid society after not yet having killed he orchid you donated in November! She does have some brown spots, though, any idea why? That orchid show sounds like a ton of fun; maybe I'll go next year. This weekend I have a seed swap and a baby shower to attend. Colleen, are you sowing the cat grass with your kids? It should be easy for even the younger ones to handle and since it sprouts so quickly, it does seem like a great garden project with kids!

Colleen Vanderlinden

Fri, Jan 21, 2011 : 2:14 p.m.

I do winter sowing, too. I spend time catching up on magazines and garden books, dreaming over seed catalogs, whining about the snow, planning my gardens, and whining about more snow :-) We're going to sow some cat grass today. Thanks for the reminder!


Thu, Jan 20, 2011 : 10:43 p.m.

The link for the Grand Valley Orchid Show this weekend was deleted. I'll try once more: The URL for this orchid show is <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Jan 20, 2011 : 10:40 p.m.

Winter is orchid show season. I just sent 4 blooming plants from my greenhouse via some close friends to the big Orchid Show sponsored by the Grand Valley Orchid Society and being held this weekend at Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. See for more information about this show, which is set in one of the most beautiful horticultural venues in the state. You will see thousand of orchid blooms there and be able to buy some to bring home..--Neal Foster, Ann Arbor Orchid Society

Monica Milla

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 4:23 p.m.

KJMClark, yes, pruning is excellent to do when shrubs are dormant (for shrubs that haven't already set flower buds, that is). I tend to wait until March or so. I tend to use tools so much I sharpen throughout the season, but this downtime is excellent for getting tools cleaned and sharpened. Rork, good for you for tackling invasives. I have a lot of buckthrown and prefer to cut in fall--I do paint Roundup on the stumps and the theory is with energy going back into the roots in fall, the Roundup is transported more directly to the roots than in spring, when energy is going from the roots to the plants. But any time is a good time to cut back invasives. Josh T, I also compost throughout winter... I have mostly greens and keep them in a wheelie bin next to my patio door. In spring, I wheel it to my bigger compost bin, which has shredded eaves from fall and hey presto, decomposing starts!

Josh T

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 3:01 p.m.

I build my compost bin up all throughout winter. When the warmth comes i'll have a full bin ready to start breaking down!

Rork Kuick

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 3:01 p.m.

I do harm to invasive woody plants like honeysuckle and autumn olive. Perhaps not the most effective time, but letting them have a bad day is always good. I also prune some trees, and saw up some of the dead ones. I have time now. I'm still harvesting vegetables on occasion (leeks and potatoes). I go exploring public lands - it's easier to learn new terrain in winter thanks to improved visibility and the ability to walk on water. Some places are ridiculously hard to visit except now. I get sweaty and meet cool plant folks volunteering (mostly for the DNR) doing land stewardship work, which in winter is mostly killing invasive woody plants. See The crown jewels of our county need help.


Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 12:59 p.m.

Winter is also one of the best times to prune trees, shrubs and vines. It's a great time to assess the state of your garden tools, and repair, sharpen, replace, etc. Frost-seeding is a pretty common organic agriculture technique. It's similar to the winter sowing you describe, but as far as I know is only used for clovers. I suppose the birds will be happy to eat any grains put down before spring. I'll have to get some more covers and try starting seeds that way. Thanks!

Monica Milla

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 12:55 p.m.

Hi Jan, I also speak and teach, but apparently public speaking is many people's #1 fear, so I left it out, lol.


Wed, Jan 19, 2011 : 12:35 p.m.

Thanks for sharing what you do in winter when outdoor gardening is not available to us! As I patiently await spring time, I do many of the same things including reading your articles! I also teach an awesome leadership program available in SE Michigan's middle and high schools called Reaching Higher. Presenting garden tips and techniques to groups is also a passion of mine all year round! May all your gardens grow, Jan Bills @TWOwomenANDaHOE