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Gardening year begins in winter with learning, planning and shopping

December 28, 2015
The gardening year begins in winter, with learning, planning, and shopping. Now is the time to prepare for a more beautiful garden in spring and all through the season.
Learn. Take a class at The Morton Arboretum to develop your skills, expand your knowledge, or understand the basics if you’re a beginner. Check out Landscape Gardening Basics to get started in the process of designing a home landscape. Sign up for a class to learn to Grow Vegetables from Seed. Or discover Go-To Perennials to make your garden pop this year.
The Sterling Morton Library is a fabulous place to spend a winter’s day, browsing among hundreds of books and magazines on plants and gardening. You’ll find books for every skill level, such as "Growing the Midwest Garden" by Ed Lyon; "Growing Seeds! Starting from Scratch" by Linda D. Harris; and "Essential Perennials: The Complete Reference to 2,700 Perennials" by Ruth Rogers Clausen. Using the library is free with Arboretum membership or paid admission, and members can check out many books. 
Plan. Now, with the leaves gone, is a perfect time to make a plan of your garden that you can use for this season and for years to come. It will help you understand your conditions and be realistic about what you can and can’t plant. Even a rough sketch can be a great help. 
Start with the size of your lot. You can use graph paper or one of many online garden planning apps, which you may be able to use with a smartphone. Buy or borrow a 25- or 100-foot tape measure and take lots of measurements: the size of the house, the width of pathways and driveways and how far apart they are, and the position of fixed objects such as water features, play sets, and raised beds.
On your plan, include the direction the sun comes from and which areas of your garden are in full sun, part sun, or shade. Note places that are exposed to wind or the spray of road salt. And note issues such as a place where there’s so much traffic grass won’t grow or a view you’d like to screen.
Mark each tree on the plan and use your tape measure to figure out how far its branches reach; that’s the area in which it will cast shade during the growing season when it has leaves. Many gardeners don’t notice how much trees have grown and how wide their shade has become.
Using your plan, you can decide on your gardening priorities for this season. Will you create a new bed? Start a vegetable garden? Plan some new shrubs for screening?
Shop. Experienced gardeners’ mailboxes fill with catalogs in January. For newbies, there are websites. It’s easy to get swept away and buy more seeds than you could ever start or order more perennials than you have space for, so use your garden plan to keep your shopping realistic. Make sure you only order plants that will fit your light and soil conditions and that you have the time and inclination to care for. 
If you’re a new vegetable gardener, start small. Order just a few seeds, or plan to purchase transplants (seedlings ready to plant out in the garden) in May. 
If you’re an old hand, don’t forget to rotate the position of vegetable crops to deter soil-borne diseases. Think hard about how many vegetables your family ate last year and how much work your perennial border required before you get carried away. 
Don’t spend all your garden money ordering from catalogs or websites. Plan to attend the Arbor Day Plant Sale at The Morton Arboretum April 29 through May 1. You find a wide selection of expertly chosen plants, many of them grown at the Arboretum and you’ll support our mission as the champion of trees.