University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

According to the National Weather Service, January is generally the coldest month of the year in northern New England.  Although it may not seem like we are getting as much snow as we did in the past, it's not uncommon this time of the year to have heavy snow storms and temperatures below zero.

We can avoid the elements by staying indoors.  But shrubs and ornamental plants need protection from inclement weather.   You can protect evergreens and other shrubs by erecting wooden tepees over the plants to keep off snow.  Or gently sweep off accumulations after each snowfall using a broom in an upward motion to remove snow.

If snow cover is poor, you might need to replenish the layer of straw that you used to mulch your strawberry patch and perennials in the fall.  Or cut boughs from your discarded Christmas tree to cover these plants.

Protect trees and shrubs located along roadways and driveways from excess road salt, which results in stunted and yellowed foliage, premature autumn leaf coloration, and twig dieback.  To protect plants, erect a screen of burlap between plants and the pavement.

To make walks and driveways safe, use sand, sawdust, or kitty litter for a more environmentally friendly alternative to salt for melting snow and ice.  When shoveling snow from walkways and drives, be careful not to pile it near plants or where melting snow will drain.  After the snow melts, use fresh water to flush the area around the roots that was exposed to salt.

Because you will be spending more time inside than out this month, you may want to make your living space more enjoyable by adding greenery in the form of houseplants or herbs.  If you introduce new plants into your household, be sure to keep them separate from your other plants until you've inspected them to make sure that they aren't bringing in any unwelcome pests.

Or plant an amaryllis bulb.  You will find a range of colors at your local full-service garden center or garden service center.  These are usually sold in pre-potted kits.  Jumpstart the flowering process by placing the bulb in a well-lighted area.  Water well initially, but go easy on the water in subsequent waterings until the plant shows signs of growth.  If you pot them in January, you should have blooms by Valentine's Day or shortly thereafter.

You can also improve your environment--and the health of your plants--by increasing the humidity level.  Place houseplants on shallow trays covered with pebbles.  Add water to the trays until it just touches the bottom of each pot.  If you use a wood stove, keep a pot of water on the top of the stove to add moisture to the air.  Or use a room humidifier.  Make sure it
is the right size for the room.  Too big and too much humidity may cause mold and ruin furnishings.  Too small, and it won't do much good.

If winter arrived before you had time to properly put away your gardening supplies and equipment, deal with it now instead of waiting until spring.  Clean and oil tools, hang up rakes and hoes, and wash your gardening gloves.  If you have terra cotta pots that are discolored by an ugly crust or mold on the surface, soak the pots in a solution of one cup white vinegar and one cup chlorine bleach to one gallon of warm water.  More heavily crusted pots will need to be soaked for several hours before scrubbing with a steel wool pad.

Take an inventory of your fertilizer, garden sprays and products, seeds, and other supplies to see what you will need to buy.  This is also a good time to check your seed starting supplies and make a list of what you will require to start vegetable and flower plants indoors for planting outside this spring.

Because you will be inside so much this month, this would be a good time to weed through your gardening magazines to decide which ones to keep or which articles to clip.  Recycle what you don't want by passing them along to a gardening friend or dropping them off at your local library, if it offers a magazine exchange as many do nowadays.

Set aside a few hours a week during this "down time" from the garden to expand your knowledge of gardening, either by borrowing books from the library on garden design, new plants, or other topics of horticultural interest or by signing up for a class.  Many town recreational departments or community centers offer winter workshops on a number of topics from seed
starting to propagating houseplants and developing a home landscape plan.

Or register to become a Master Gardener and receive training on a variety of horticultural topics including flower and vegetable gardening, insect pests and plant diseases, trees and shrubs, and landscape design, among other areas.  Most universities offer Master Gardener courses.  In Vermont, weekly classes begin in February and run through May.  To register, visit
the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension Master Gardener Website at or contact Nancy Hulett, program coordinator, at (802) 656-9562 or

January is also a good time to surf the Web to read more about gardening topics of interest.  You might want to start at my Web Site, Perry's Perennial Pages (, which has links to many other gardening sites.  You also can sign up for my on-line perennials course and other courses I offer each semester through UVM's Continuing
Education Division. Click the link under "For the Home Gardener" for information.

Host an indoor garden party, inviting other gardeners to your home for a seed swap or to plan seed orders together. Or watch a garden video or favorite home and garden show, then try some of the indoor gardening projects demonstrated.

Another option is to start a garden book club with friends.  You can either all read the same book for discussion, or each read a different one to introduce to the group.

Other activities for January: check stored produce for signs of wilt or rot; order some of the 2003 All-America Selections Award winners for your garden; take a winter walk, cross-country ski, or snowshoe to stay in shape for the gardening season; feed the birds.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles