photograph by Kevin Burke/Getty Images

It’s easy to assume that winter is a time when you can let your garden go, but though the tasks are different than the ones we perform in warmer weather, there’s still plenty of work to be done in December. Cyndi Crossan Lauderdale, a Horticulture Agent at the Wilson County Extension office, outlines some important reminders to make sure our gardens are ready for the chilly weather.

1. Deadheads are for the birds.
While it is important to remove seed heads from plants that are diseased, Lauderdale likes to leave most of the foliage on her perennial plants so that birds and other animals can enjoy the seeds throughout the fall and winter. Leaving them on also protects the plants, because for plants with hollow stems, if you cut off the heads the stems will “fill with water and can freeze thus killing the plant,” she says. Leave your garden critters a winter feast of these tasty tidbits by only cutting back what is necessary to protect them from disease.

2. Prune roses, blueberries, and evergreens.
Of all the plants in your garden, roses are probably the most vulnerable to disease — especially the virus called rose rosette, which causes a bushy growth of red, thick leaves that eventually kills the plant. To protect your roses, Lauderdale recommends that you “cut [the] plant in half and remove all fallen leaves.” If you have any plants infected by rose rosette, act quickly to remove and destroy them. When it comes to your blueberry bushes, what you are looking for is a thin, narrow base, Lauderdale explains. Cut out the old wood and remove crossover and low angled canes. December is also a good time to prune evergreens —  but avoid pruning plants that flower in the spring, because if you do it now you will be cutting off the buds and preventing them from blooming.

3. Blanket them in mulch.
While many people think of mulch mainly as a way to keep moisture from escaping in the hot summer sun, it is also an important tool for protecting your plants from the winter cold — particularly those “marginally winter-hardy plants,” Lauderdale explains, that need a little extra warmth.

4. Give your lawn some love.
“Cool-season grasses like tall fescue need to be mowed at 3-4 inches tall,” Lauderdale says. If you fertilize, ideally do that around Thanksgiving, and then again at Valentine’s Day.

5. Don’t skip your veggies.
Don’t neglect your winter vegetable garden! Remove any diseased leaves or caterpillars — in addition to keeping up with your harvest. “If you don’t have a winter vegetable garden, then remove all summer vegetable plants and mulch or plant a winter crop,” Lauderdale says. Basically, don’t ignore this part of your garden just because you aren’t getting produce from it during the winter.

6. Take care of your tools.
This time of year, give your pruners and other garden tools a good cleaning. Lauderdale recommends a 9:1 bleach solution to get the job done. You should also take the opportunity to oil any motor parts and sharpen blades on lawn mowers, pruners, and shovels.

7. Plan ahead for spring planting.
Every gardener knows that there’s always work to be done preparing for the next season.“December is a great time to read seed catalogs to pick vegetable seeds,” Lauderdale says. Start your planning now so you’ll be ready when the warmer weather comes.

8. Deck the halls.
What to do with all the cuttings left after pruning your evergreens? Use the fragrant, freshly cut greenery to decorate your home! There’s nothing like fresh pine, boxwood, or holly branches in a wreath or a centerpiece to put you in a festive mood.

Have more questions?
Contact Cyndi Crossan Lauderdale, NC State Extension, Wilson County Horticulture Agent: (252) 237-0113 or


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Shaw was a fall 2019 editorial intern.