Winter is an excellent time for reflection on the past year's growing season and any gardening successes or failures to account for next year.
In this season of multitudes of seed-catalog mailings, I have found it to be an ideal time to set gardening goals for the coming year during the down time associated with the shortest and coldest days of the year.
I have always found it motivational to first focus on what I can accomplish prior to leaf out and the coming growing season. One of the primary activities that can be done in the dead of winter is pruning.
Woody vegetation is dormant this time of year, making it an ideal time for pruning trees and shrubs around your garden space and yard. So, it is an excellent time to improve the ground clearance on a tree that's always in the way while mowing, encroaching too close to your roof or shading other plants.
Shrubs can be pruned back to maintain the desired size and shape. Many shrubs benefit greatly from a rejuvenation pruning that removes a third of the oldest and largest stems, leaving younger, healthier stems to thrive. Be sure to study up on your particular species of shrub to ensure pruning techniques will be beneficial.
Take care to ensure you are making proper pruning cuts that are right at the area of tissue known as the branch collar. If you leave too much tissue, the tree cannot easily grow over the wound and seal out pathogens; if you cut too close to the trunk, you will remove some of the branch collar tissue that reacts to grow over the wound.
The International Society of Arboriculture has some excellent pruning guides available for free attreesaregood.org.
Winter time is a great time to plan out your vegetable garden. Take time this winter to measure your garden space and create a rough drawing with actual dimensions. It doesn't have to be fancy; it just needs to visually convey the dimensions you measured for planning purposes.
We all know that crop rotation is very important for control of pathogens and maintaining soil health. When flipping through the seed catalogs and trying to decide which varieties of what to buy, it really helps to have a working drawing of your garden.
I save my sketches from past years to plan crop rotations and spacing each year. In addition, it's just fun to look at past garden layouts and see the dirt stains and chicken-scratched notes from actually being out in the garden during layout and planting. It is also a great reminder of favorite varieties that may have been overlooked in this year's seed catalogs.
Preseason planning and sketching has also helped me better plan for fall garden crops, by either leaving some space fallow in spring, cover cropping an area or planting something that matures early, leaving space for a second crop in fall.
Winter is also a superb time to take inventory of landscaped areas. I have found it useful to develop a working drawing of these areas as well, especially when planning some updates or improvements.
You can use your drawing to decide how many new plants may be needed and where to place them. I am certainly guilty of bringing home a new tree or shrub that has no planned planting location and stressing it out in a pot for a month while I figure out how to make space.
This year, you can hit the garden centers with your plan in hand to make well-thought-out purchases and get new plants in the ground in time to benefit from spring rains.
Since spring is an excellent time to divide perennials, some winter planning can really help the process. Nothing is worse than digging up too many perennials and potentially wasting some the free plant stock you have grown over the years. Although those extra perennials do make a nice gift to some of your neighbors that have space.
This year, as you are considering when spring may arrive, think about garden planning and what you can accomplish before the growing season begins. Nothing feels better than hitting the ground running this growing season with annual pruning completed and a well-developed garden plan in hand.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.