Winter has arrived in New England and although the weather temperatures and precipitation fluctuate from south to north, it’s still certain that our outside garden work has come to a halt for 2020.

During the summer, the higher than usual temperatures and very limited rainfall challenged all of us who enjoy farming or gardening. Drought conditions required more attention to our annual and perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees than we might have been accustomed to providing.

Also, we had to keep an attentive eye out for new insects set upon eating up our favorites. If you thought the Emerald Ash Borer was a big threat to ash trees, the Eastern Larch Beetle has appeared in our area with a vengeance and in less than three years has devastated all the mature larch trees on our property. Fir Balsams, our favorite “Christmas Tree,” has also been doomed by insects and some reports suggest that a high percentage of native ash, larch, and balsams will be decimated in 4-5 years. Throw in the problems with invasive plants such as Wild Chervil, Japanese Knotweed, Hogweed, Wild Parsnip, Common and Japanese Barberry, honeysuckle, and with invasive exotic earthworms –including those Crazy Snake Works/Alabama Jumpers and the gardening challenge broadens. Be positive and try to learn as much as you can about insects and invasives that are causing harm to your gardens. Gardeners often can be heard commenting about weeds in their gardens but as the quality of your soil improves to a better pH balance, weeds, which often prefer poor soils, become less of a problem.

Having healthy soil is a great place to start but it requires other “helpers” too. When I bought the land for our flower farm in Marshfield, I was visited by a member of a federal agriculture program. The immediate recommendation even before a soil test was ordered was the need for a soil management plan. A simple soil survey of our 4 acres determined four distinct soil types, each with separate needs. The predominance of heavy clay soil in the middle portion of the acreage came with its list of special needs as did the alluvial soil piece that historically was overrun by springtime flooding, the sand and gravel piece that parallels the Winooski River, and the wet loam that absorbed underground water runoff from the mountains across Route 2.

Soil analysis is not expensive and worth requesting but it comes with a caveat—the cost in money and time to add the suggested amendments to bring the soil up to the appropriate level. It really can be a financial surprise and requires planning. With all the new gardeners in Vermont because of COVID-19, it’s difficult to find manure to amend the soil and that means manures from your local farms or processed and bagged manures from far away too. But planting green manures such as buckwheat, clovers, or winter ryegrass or by adding composted leaves are ways to start the process. It takes time to improve the soil but the results are always worth the effort.

There are abundant annual flowers that can be started from seeds if you are so inclined or purchased from your local greenhouse or nursery. If you visit our farm you’ll notice zinnias in all colors, the blues of Verbena bonariensis, mixed colors from single and double-flowered cosmos, different blues from ageratums, whites, creams, oranges, and yellows from marigolds with heights of 10-36 inches, six-foot-tall Rose Queen cleomes along the fence lines or 10-inch varieties included in our potted displays. There is amaranthus in lime-green, bronze, burgundy-red, and coral, calendulas in oranges, yellows, and straw colors, three-foot-tall dill, and sunflowers from four to 10 feet tall. The list of perennials flowers doesn’t end and when combined with annuals you’ll always have a smile when you tour your garden.

With winter upon us now, this is a great time to catch up on garden reading. Plants often have societies of gardeners interested in growing them. Annual memberships are typically in the $25 to $30/year range which includes newsletters and/or journals, meetings, lectures, and display garden tours. We belong to societies for daylilies, hostas, peonies, lilacs, and rock gardens which keep us current on the latest and the greatest of each plant. And above all, belonging to plant societies provides a world-wide friendship which is ever so dear when times are tough. Yes, recognize the reality of negativity but turn to your gardens and your gardening friends for warm and positive experiences. Dirty hands are a good thing! And don’t forget to get your kids, your neighbor’s kids, and your grandkids involved too. Kids love gardening and you’ll admire their positive thoughts and behaviors too!