January Garden To-do List

It's dark, it's cold, but that doesn't mean you can't work in the garden!

Credit: Flickr / FearOfFours

It’s dark, it’s cold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work in the garden!

GardenWise Online provides you with a to-do list to get you started on your garden for the new year.


Start creating your garden for 2012. Beds should run north-south for best exposure; a little planning for what you will grow and where increases yields and you won’t be running around in May shoe-horning plants willy-nilly! To get the most out of your space, think about how much zucchini you will use and what vegetables and fruits you and your family actually eat. How much time will you spend growing food? A few things for you to ponder:

  • Eggplant and peppers may be best left to Okanagan gardeners! In coastal zones, try a few in well-fed containers on a hot deck, but do not expect a bumper crop.
  • Space-saving pole beans produce for three or four months and take up only vertical space. Scarlet runners have a strong beany taste and produce for even longer than regular pole beans. They taste best harvested young and their blossoms are beautiful.
  • Try squash in bush or “compact” forms rather than sprawling ones in your vegetable garden. If you have the space and the inclination, dare to grow the rambling types in your front yard in large pots, grow bags or direct-sow. Let them scramble all over and don’t forget to take some photographs!
  • Kale makes good use of garden space, lasting over winter in some zones. If you like the taste of spinach without the thinning, try ‘Perpetual Spinach’, a biennial chard which tastes like spinach. Unlike spinach, leaves may be harvested a few at a time over a long period.
  • Carrots admittedly can be finicky and attract carrot rust fly (their larvae tunnel through the roots) – see our January issue for tips on top carrots. If you are a beginning gardener you might feel less frustrated growing these reliable, low-maintenance but high-yielding crops: potatoes, summer/winter squash, kale, chard, lettuce, arugula and mache, and Asian greens like pac choi, mizuna and tatsoi.
  • Resolve to stake tomatoes this year to save space and aid ripening. On the coast, choose smaller tomatoes over large ones, which rarely ripen in our “iffy” weather. ‘Sungold F1’, good old ‘Sweet 100’ or ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Green Grape’ are a few good picks. If you plan well, you can enjoy home-grown tomatoes late June through October.


In the fourth week of January start seed for fibrous begonia, coleus, cleome, petunia, primula, snapdragon. They need good air circulation and temperatures of about 18 to 20°C (64 to 68°F) in the daytime, cooler at night. Pansies prefer a cooler germination temperature of 12 to 15°C (54 to 59°F). Keep your eyes on perennials you are overwintering in a cool greenhouse. Don’t let them dry out.


Turn your compost. If you don’t already have a winged metal compost turner, try to find one – ask at your local garden centre. This handy tool will save you a lot of work and you won’t hurt your back trying to turn heavy compost with a fork. Keep layering, adding leaves from your nearby stash. Avoid the “dump and run” method of adding veggie wastes. Take that extra moment to add a layer of leaves (or shredded paper). You’ll have useable compost quicker and will be far less lightly to attract rodents. When cooking, peel potatoes, fruit and trim veggies directly onto a sheet of newspaper. Roll it up like a cabbage roll and place it directly into your compost – instant carbon/nitrogen layering. This also saves you washing a cutting board or bowl. Speaking of compost, go easy. Don’t put more than 5 cm (2 in) of fresh organic material onto your existing garden per year; 2.5 cm (1 in) if it’s animal manure. Too much organic matter uses up soil’s available nitrogen to aid its own decomposition. This causes slow/stunted plant growth and poor yields.


When weather allows, prune grapes, fruit trees, berries and summer-and fall-blooming deciduous shrubs. If you practice dormant-oil spraying, now is the time if you’re on the coast; a little later in cooler zones. It is vital that leaves have not begun to unfurl, that they are still in tight bud – otherwise you’ll do more harm than good. Beware of using rancid or old oil which may burn. You can hire someone to do this if you’re unsure of how and why. If it snows heavily, keep an eye on trees and large shrubs, removing excess snow load periodically. Trees have an amazing capacity for holding snow, but too much can make them brittle and more vulnerable to breakage.


Your garden may seem dead, but buds of promise are everywhere. An overabundance of herbaceous perennials (they die back in winter) might need some balancing with evergreens. Visit your nursery centre to see what leafy evergreens or shrubs look good now – or other great places to check plants out are VanDusen or UBC botanical gardens. When sweetbox (Sarcococca) blooms (pictured above, covered in frost), you will most likely smell its sweetness before you can see it. This trouble-free shrub thrives in any soil conditions, in sun, part sun or low light, and is hardy in most zones in B.C. It’s likely available at your local nursery centre, too.


Remove ice from birdbaths – clean feathers keep birdies warm. Add water if necessary. Birds welcome supplementary feeding now as seeds and other food sources are becoming scarce. Show some TLC to your faithful garden tools: clean spades, hand tools, with emery cloth, applying a thin coat of linseed oil to protect from rust. Try an overnight vinegar bath for rusty tools. Money is well spent on good-quality tools; the best are steel with hardwood handles, made to last for many lifetimes. Low-priced tools with plastic handles don’t last and aren’t such a pleasure to use. Sharpen hand mowers while at rest. Hand mowing is a great (and free) source of large-muscle exercise. It lowers decibel levels in your neighbourhood and doesn’t pollute. Did you know that unless you drive more than 155 kph, a gas mower produces more pollution per hour than a car? It’s particularly unhealthy for the lawnmower operator. More information. The University of Minnesota just recently opened its online plant information database to the public. Previously accessible only to subscribers, it’s one of the world’s largest collections of information and images for plant enthusiasts and scholars. The site offers links to more than 2,000 North American seed and nursery farms, 300,000+ citations regarding plants in science/garden magazines and books, and links to expert-selected websites. It’s a great way to increase your plant knowledge. Lastly – see what seasonal food is available at the newly-forming organic food “buying club” in your neighbourhood: Neighbours Organic Weekly keeps food dollars closer to your community and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions. Visit the website to find out more.