January Garden To-Do List for USDA Zones 3-8

january garden calendar

how to get ready for an ice storm

In cold climate regions, January is a time of deep rest. After the holidays end, it’s like our body exhales and realizes that the deep of winter has finally arrived. Instead of dreading it – lean into it. Enjoy it. It’s the perfect time to curl up with a warm blanket, read a new permaculture book, look through seed catalogues, and start planning the garden for next year in sketch books. Not to mention, it’s a great time to review the January Garden To-Do List. However, if you are in USDA Zones 9-11, we have a separate (specific) list for you. CLICK HERE for the warm climate to-do list.

It’s a great time to watch a few permaculture documentaries, catch up on our Patreon classes (if you are a subscriber), take an online course, or even look into local permaculture events in your area. For many of us in cooler climates, the winter can get a little depressing if we just hide away in our caves. So, be sure to get out and connect in your local community and spend nice days outside enjoying the changing of the seasons.

But when the slightly warmer days pop up, be sure to get out into the garden, because there are definitely things that can be done in the food forest and garden in the deep of winter.

January Garden To-Do List for USDA Zones 3-8 

In the Garden & Greenhouse

  • Continue to cover the soil with organic matter. You can use chopped up leaves (i.e. picked up with the lawn mower), straw, compost, etc. Better yet, use layers of each!
  • Continue to plant garlic and spring bulbs. CLICK HERE for a list of what you can plant between snows.
  • Take soil samples on warmer days and have them tested at your local extension office. Personally, I don’t use their “fertilizer” recommendations (because it’s rarely organic), so instead I see what nutrients are lower and improve in those areas. Honestly, in 99% of cases the regenerative answer is almost always COMPOST and more organic matter. By adding compost, you automatically improve NPK and build soil structure.
  • Check seeds that are cold stratifying outside or in the refrigerator (chestnut, paw paw, acorns, etc.)
  • Apply winter soil probiotic and microbial spray to compost piles (I use a product called BioAg, which is produced in Kansas City, MO). I always have this on hand to spray on the soil or trees / shrubs during warmer spells in the winter months. I shoot for every other month, because it will prevent many of the pests and diseases that can come in warmer months. Be proactive!
  • Sort through your seed inventory and reorganize when possible.
  • Look through seed catalogues for what you want to plant this year. Use heirloom seeds when possible, because these have not been modified or hybridized since before WW1. Often, heirloom varieties produce a healthier fruit and have much better flavor. One of my favorite websites is rareseeds.com for veggies and an Etsy Store called Seed the Stars for some tropical edibles that can be grown as annuals in cold climates..

In the Food Forest

  • Wait to prune until the end of January or early February. Let the trees rest for now. Most fruit trees should be pruned during a cold / dry period. The colder temps make the sap stop flowing, and the dry weather helps prevent immediate fungal or bacterial infections. When you prune, take no more than 1/4 of the tree off in a given year, and NEVER apply a wood sealer. Let the tree heal on its own.
  • Watch for rabbit or pest damage and protect trees accordingly.
  • Check for deer damage (eating branches, buck rubs, etc.) weekly. Save some deer bones from hunting season to make bone sauce for deer repellant (recipe coming soon). Pack the snow around the base of tree trunks to pack down vole and rodent tunnels.
  • Order organic orchard supplies for the coming season – be sure to look for holiday sales! Include seaweed extract, BioAg, neem oil, Basic H (for all foliar applications), and fish emulsion.
  • Finish any winter mulching (wait for compost until spring, so you don’t add too much nitrogen now).
  • Water compost piles during dry periods.

In the Shed

  • Check mouse traps frequently. Add cotton balls with peppermint oil to deter rodents.
  • Repair garden tools. Sand down wooden handles and reseal them (I like a good Danish oil or non-yellowing varnish).
  • Sharpen all tools (pruners, cutters, shovels, etc.)
  • Look for online sales for any equipment that need to be replaced.

In the Chicken Coop

december chicken care
  • Feed extra protein (meal worms, black oiled sunflower seeds, bugs, etc.) to help them during their recovery season.
  • Do NOT use supplemental lighting to increase egg production. Chickens need this off season to let their bodies rest. Let them have a natural rhythm of rest too.
  • Add a small amount of corn or millet to their diet to help with caloric intake in the winter months. This helps keep them warm naturally. NEVER use heat lamps in a coop or run.
  • Purchase suet blocks (>5% protein) as you see them on sale. The fat content helps birds stay warm for the winter. (click here for more tips on keeping birds warm)
  • Rotate straw and bedding in the coop to keep things clean and sanitary.
  • Keep water unthawed
    • Use an electric water heater (OR)
    • Use two watering containers and bring them in at night / rotate them
    • Note: The salt water bottle in the container does NOT work outside of 1-2 degrees below freezing and only for a short time. This can work as an addition, but should not be your primary means of keeping water unthawed.
  • Feed spent pumpkin and squash (from fall decor) to chickens. It helps boost their immune systems and can be a preventative for worms. NOTE: Pumpkin seeds are NOT a proven treatment for worms, but a great as part of your preventative maintenance regime. You may need to break them open for the birds to get at the inner meat of the pumpkins.
  • Give healthy protein / omega 3 treats: One cheep way to do this is to go to a local pet store and get feeder fish (cheep minnows). Put them into a shallow tray (with a bit of water) and watch the birds catch them! You can also purchase live crickets from pet stores and feel them fresh veggies for a day or two. Feed several per day to your birds for a healthy winter treat.

January Garden To-Do List for USDA Zones 3-8 Continued…

Around the House & Perennial Beds

  • Continue to plant spring bulbs every time the soil thaws. This can be done all winter. Click here for some of our favorite bulbs to plant in the winter.
  • Pay attention to windows and address any drafts immediately. Older winters should have plastic over them (purchased at a local hardware store), which will help save $$ on heat bills. Pull blinds to keep heat inside at night and open them during the day to let natural light inside.
  • Water house plants carefully.
    • Only water them when you can put your finger in the soil and it feels dry up to your first knuckle (about 1″ deep). If the soil feels or looks damp – do NOT water.
    • Water in the sink until water runs out of the bottom, so you know the full root ball is saturated. Let it drain for a few minutes before returning to a sunny spot near a window.
    • Rotate plants every view days for even light distribution.
  • Mid-Winter Banana Fertilizer for Houseplants: Soak 3 banana peels in a large jar of water for 3 days (make sure they stay submerged). Remove the banana peels and add 1 cup of the mineral rich banana water to one gallon of water. Use this ONCE this month to give your house plants a mid-winter boost.

Winter Ideas for Kids

  • Bird feeding is the perfect kids activity this month! My favorite bird-nerd store is Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU), which is found nationwide. They are not only knowledgeable, but often give free feeders to schools and libraries. Not to mention, the quality of their feed is far superior to box stores.
  • Customize your feeds with different seeds for different birds. Each feed needs a different style feeder, but you can learn more about this by taking your kiddos to WBU.
  • Nyger and Sunflower Chips: For finches, vireos, and smaller birds
  • Safflower: Great to keep squirrels away, but cardinals and bluejays love this seed (especially in a hopper feeder)
  • Shelled Peanuts: For bluejays and woodpeckers
  • Black-oiled Sunflower Seeds: Everyone loves these! A must have for the feeder. Woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches, titmouse, etc.
  • White Millet: Indigo or painted buntings
  • Suet: Woodpeckers (ladder back, downy, hairy, red headed, etc.)

Time to Plan

During these winter months while the fruit trees and gardens are dormant, it’s the perfect time to plan for the spring. If you are interested in a personalized permaculture consultation for your property, we do both in-person visits to your site AND virtual consultations (for those out of our geographical area). CLICK HERE to learn more.

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How to Create a Food Forest in the Midwest – Part 1

Why a Food Forest?

In a culture that encourages us to have more money, bigger toys, larger savings, new cloths, and an endless supply of technological gadgets, we should be stepping back and asking, “why?”  Do we really need one more gadget?  Do we need another nick-knack?  Do we need the latest cell phone or computer?  Do we actually need the new shirt or pair of shoes or could we just simply wear the ones we already have?  We have been trained by a consumer-based culture that more is better.

The reality is that most of these items we are collecting have a short shelf-life.  Even our savings accounts, retirement funds, and inheritances we will fade in a relatively short time.  Maybe they will last a few years, a few decades, or if we are are extremely wealthy they might last a generation or two.  In the context of a century… our stuff will be gone in a heartbeat.  But, what if we could pass on a legacy that would last 50-100 years or more?  What if our legacy could provide food, shelter, and play areas for your children or grandchildren?  What if our legacy provide pollination for wildlife, shelter for birds and animals, and purified the air?  What if we could leave a legacy that actually provided a source of LIFE?

In my humble opinion, one of the most practical ways to accomplish a legacy of this caliber is to plant a midwest food forest.  In permaculture, we use this phrase to describe a forest of edible and restorative plants working in harmony with one another.

Food Forest Design

What is a Food Forest?

Generally speaking, every forest is jam packed with edible fruit trees, nuts, berries, and fungi.  Over hundreds of years, natural succession helps establish these systems and create a healthy and balanced growing environment.  Using permaculture, we are essentially designing a system that works in tandem with nature to speed up the process.  Instead of productive abundance taking 100 years to be established, we can design it to take only a handful of years.  A food forest uses intelligent design to restore and remediate land that would otherwise take centuries to return to a normal state.  Instead of working against nature to maintain a mono crop, perfectly green lawn, or a patterned landscape of tropical annuals, we use perennial species that will last foe year.  This is especially useful in areas that have suburban forests, because in most cities our forested areas are only 50-70 years old (at best).  Historically speaking, many wooded areas were harvested between 1940-1975 for lumber and then either naturally regrew or were replanted.  Even the city land behind my house in Kansas City, MO is a fairly young forest and only has a handful of old growth oak trees that are older than 100 years.

Food forest summary

A note on removal of invasive species:

Most of the forests in the Midwestern city areas are in similar shape and are nearly all facing the invasive honeysuckle bush invasion.  Amur honeysuckle, or Lonicera maackii, was introduced to gardens in New York in the late 1800’s and by 1924 was already labeled as “weedy species”.  Since then, it has spread throughout the east coast and midwest and it’s shrub-like structure shades out low growing species in younger forests.  It’s red berries are generally ingested by bird species and the seed spread in their stool to other areas.  Removing this species is often the first step for Midwesterners starting a food forest.

Once the invasive species has been removed, the land is ready for replanting and reforestation.

Invasive Amur Honeysuckle

How to Plant the Food Forest – Part 1

1 – Land Preparation:  In our recent project, we had a great deal of invasive honeysuckle to remove, which was obviously very time consuming.  Digging it up is the most effective way, but you can also use a chain saw and cut it off at the ground. When you cut it, you will have to use chemicals to kill the root or it will simply grow back.  Obviously, I prefer NOT using herbicides, but there are some natural alternatives that contain orange oil, agricultural grade vinegar (15-30%), and epsom salts.

It’s imperative to properly rid the area of the invasive species, because skipping this step will allow the old species to return and choke out all of your design work. When removing undergrowth species, I prefer to do it in early spring so it’s warm enough to work and you don’t have to worry about ticks or fighting through the leaf growth.  If you are fortunate enough to have goats, they will take care of the leaves and branches, but you’ll still need to dig out the root or it will grow back quickly.

The second step in preparing the land is to examine your soil and structure.  This is your time to consider amendments.  You can bring in compost from a local company, collect fallen leaves from your fall clean-up, add bone or blood meal, or sulphur for acid loving areas.  Before adding anything to the soil itself, make sure you are testing and observing your site.  Get to know the land you are working with and begin with the end in mind.  Know the type of soil your plants will prefer, so you can create the right environment for them.

midwest food forest
Cleared plot for a newly planted food forest in Kansas City, MO

2 – Plan out your design:  For every project, I generally need about 10-15 hours of preparation and research before I even begin planting.  Winter months are a great time to do this, because we often are not outside as much.  Research species according to your soil type (acidity, organic matter, etc.) and carefully consider how much water will be retained in that area.  Factor in sun exposure both in it’s current state, but also imagine the area once the plants have reached their mature sizes.  How might this change your design?

Once I have the basic questions answered, I can then start looking at individual species and seeing what looks good together on paper.  I will go through 3-5 different designs and purposely make myself change out some of the species in order to think outside of the box.  Here are a few factors to consider:

  • What is my top story tree?  Will it produce nut or fruit? Will that impact my soil acidity over time?  How tall will my center piece trees get?  Will that impact my shade?
  • Do my understory trees or shrubs have compatible soil requirements?
  • How it my spacing? What will this look like in 3 years?  In 10 years?
  • Do I have at least 4 layers in my food forest?
  • Have I including at least one nitrogen fixing plant in my system (legume, locust tree, clover, etc.)?
  • Is there multi-seasonal interest for the eye?  For nature?
  • Have I considered season-long pollination?
  • Do the plants that I have selected require a male and female plant for fruiting?
  • Do my colors and leaf textures work well together?

Finalizing Your Midwest Food Forest Design

Once you have created a few different drawings of your layout, I would recommend sitting on it for a few days and then coming back to it later.  Run the ideas by a friend and get their feedback.  When I was initially planning my layout, I incorporated too many alkaline loving plants next to my blue berries, which do best with slightly acidic soils.  I was so focused on the fruit and berries that I liked, and the way they would look together, that I missed a pretty big piece of the puzzle.  The result would have been an environment where likely neither would have thrived, so I was relieved to have the insight from another permaculture eye.

Before planting, plant on spending at least 10 hours of researching and planning out your design.  As you plan, research various species, their growing zones, and read the reviews of others online.  Often plants will say they will work in certain zones, but after a few years of consumer reviews, they change the rating on the species.  For this reason, I tend to stay away from varieties that have not been tested in my region or ones that I am unable to find adequate reviews.

Personally, I like to order plants from places with one zone colder climate, so I know they can take the various types of weather we experience in the Midwest (KCMO).

The second part of this article will be available next week, including a few options in planting species for a wood-edge (sun/shade) area with clay soil structure.  In the upcoming article you’ll learn how to amend the soil, perform bio-remediation for areas that may have had pollutants, and how to space the plants appropriately.  The next article will include pictures of a newly planted food forest and close up pictures of the various species used in it’s design.