With temperatures now consistently dipping into the teens, my time spent outdoors tending to my winter garden is becoming less frequent. That leaves more time than ever to turn my attention to indoor garden-related activities.
A recent paper-shredding project was a good example. As I patiently fed stacks of paper into my shredder to prepare them for the compost pile, I pondered some of the many projects that can be done through the colder months to make your garden more productive next spring, and to make you a little smarter in the process:
• Shred paper for compost. One of the best (and most overlooked) opportunities we have as gardeners for an unlimited source of composting ingredients comes into our house everyday. Paper: printed emails, old homework, junk mail, bills and more. It's also one of the fastest ways to bulk up your pile while providing a valuable carbon source. No need to fear today's inks. They're mostly vegetable based and free from the heavy metals of decades ago. However, if you want to play it safe, separate out the glossy colored circulars for the recycle bin. One word of advice: Invest in a decent machine that holds more volume and can easily shred a small stack all at the same time. It's a huge timesaver.
• Make notes. In a recent episode of my TV show, we filmed with the very talented gardener and author Margaret Roach. One of her most popular tips was to design your garden from inside the house. The views looking out are your best cues on how to lay out a garden to be appreciated all year, especially from the most commonly viewed places. Winter provides the best time to design for all seasons as you observe the most important components: the bones and structure of the garden. Note what is lacking with particular focus on form, height, texture, visual balance and appropriate proportions between evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs.
• Take pictures. Documenting your garden through the seasons is a powerful design tool and a great way to archive the transformation over time. Taking pictures in winter allows you to always be mindful of your garden's structure throughout the year. It's the foundation and essential elements of every good design. Having an easy way to refer back to those pictures any time of year will prove invaluable when that stroke of genius hits.
• Work on tools. Gather up your favorite hand pruners, shovels and more for that all-important maintenance. I admit: It's not a project I look forward to, but once I'm into it, I never regret it. Steel wool removes rust and shines up metal; my trusty file sharpens the edges of my pruners and spades. Fine sandpaper and linseed oil smooths and coats the hardwood of my favorite long-handled tools. Lastly, a light spray of machine oil over metal protects the exposed areas from rust and keeps it looking good. In short order, I've restored my favorite tools to good-as-new for the busy year ahead.
• Read. I love those cozy times by the fire on days or nights when there's no need to feel guilty for not being more productive. Pick a subject you want to understand better, such as pruning, botany, saving seeds or organic gardening. There is no shortage of material on any subject. Also consider books written from the perspective of other gardeners -- their experiences and wisdom on gardening and life. I always learn new things and thoroughly enjoy walking in the shoes of other passionate gardeners around the world.
Some of my favorite books in recent times include: "Organic Manifesto" by Maria Rodale, "The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening and Life" by Margaret Roach, "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer" by Novella Carpenter, and "French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France" by Richard Goodman.
• Spend time with seed catalogs. The week after Christmas, your mailbox will start filling up with the latest seed catalogs. I'm impressed with the timeliness and consistency of their arrival. If there were ever a perfect time to get someone to look at a seed catalog, this week would be it. That said, it can be overwhelming. Just one catalog is loaded with more information than you can use in a season, let alone the dozens that show up at my house.
Even if you don't have any intentions of planting seeds in the seasons ahead, these catalogs are packed with useful information. From the most basic growing guidelines for everything under the sun, many offer great tips for growing success, the history of the plant variety, unique traits and qualities about that variety and more. If nothing else, your plant knowledge will greatly expand simply by keeping a catalog or two within reach and picking it up every now and then to explore what's inside.
• Order seeds now. If you do happen to take the likely next step of ordering seeds, do so early. Many suppliers have limited quantities, and the newest or most popular varieties typically sell out early. Moreover, seed catalogs offer far greater variety than nearly any brick-and-mortar store. If your preference is for certified organic, heirloom or non-GMO seeds, it's even more important that you invest the time in getting to know seed companies through their catalogs and online. It won't take long to find quality niche companies that cater to your tastes and preferences.
• Start seeds indoors. On the subject of seeds, starting them indoors can give you a big jump on the season and a great activity to do when not much else is going on. In addition, it's perhaps the best activity I know of for involving and engaging children in developing a love (or at least curiosity) for gardening. It's an inexpensive and simple process to get started. It's rewarding from the start, but perhaps one of the biggest prizes comes at the end of the season when you enjoy those flavorful homegrown tomatoes or gaze upon the flowers throughout your garden, started from seed months earlier.
• Take classes. It shouldn't come as a surprise when you realize that many classes and garden shows take place when they're not competing for your time outdoors. How rewarding it is to enjoy the company of fellow gardeners as you attend classes offered by your local independent garden centers, botanical gardens, extension service and community centers. When time permits, I don't miss an opportunity to attend or even teach such classes. Learning more about one of your favorite subjects, in the company of people who share your interest, while having fun -- it doesn't get much better.
• Expand your palette. Challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Why not strive for a garden with four-season interest? Beyond the fundamental importance of strong bones and good structure, add plants and trees in the ground and in containers that provide just the right pop in places where needed. When you do, it can take a drab, nondescript winter garden to new heights. Winter blooming annuals, such as pansies, flowering winter perennials like hellebores and camellia shrubs are just a few of many options for adding living color to your winter landscape.
With this list, I hope you now have a few things to keep you busy while building some resistance to cabin fever. Before long, spring will be here and you'll be out in the garden again, planting those seeds you started and at least a little bit wiser.
• Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author.