With days skating rapidly toward the new year, we're all fixated on calendars. Dividing the light-dark spells into orderly units has obsessed humans since pre-history. We find ourselves slicing...

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With days skating rapidly toward the new year, we’re all fixated on calendars. Dividing the light-dark spells into orderly units has obsessed humans since pre-history. We find ourselves slicing our work into chunks that fit the Gregorian calendar, and wonder about our plants: What month shall I do this, or that, or those?

Here’s one method for choosing what your plants need at what time: Observe the rhythm of plant growth. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that plants (and insects) fail to read the calendar; instead, they respond to temperature and light. We veer into confusion when we try to make a rather artificial human construct — the calendar — dictate to these living but nonhuman elements, plants. Every garden’s different, but the plants respond alike.

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To understand how garden chores relate directly to our familiar calendar, look at plants, weather and the stage of plant growth in your Western Washington garden. Tasks on garden calendars — such as The Seattle Times’ annual planting calendar, which will appear on Jan. 2 — always are allocated according to the plants’ stage of growth, and this can vary by several weeks depending on weather conditions.

Here’s a guide to the stages:

• Dormancy:

Winter, when most plants slow their visible growth.

• Late dormancy:

January-February, early March, as growth begins.

• Active growth:

Spring and summer, with bloom and fruit developing.

• Entering dormancy:

Late August-October.

And here’s a look at what plants are doing now — and in the stage coming up next. (We’ll address the later stages in the spring.)




Conifers and evergreen trees shine during the quiet dormancy of deciduous trees and shrubs. You might notice needles falling and dropping on pines and other conifers — this is normal, often a feature of late summer and fall. Shake branches to release needles; rake them off lawns.

Deciduous trees and shrubs shed their leaves and reveal their branch structures. Prune these and conifers now.

Schefflera, rubber trees and figs go dormant as light levels drop, so you can reduce fertilizer and water to these and other foliage houseplants.

Dormancy presents the best conditions for moving plants. The roots will continue to grow slowly through winter, and rainfall helps the plants settle into their new spots. Primarily, plants do not require fertilizer or water now (even though we have ample rainfall).

Thinking about dormancy and watching plants go into their annual change will help you understand which tasks fit best into this period.

Late dormancy

January-February, early March

Timing on this stage depends on weather conditions. It’s usually late January through February, but it can come earlier if January’s unusually warm. Or, if an Arctic blast hits in early February, progress will slow.

As plants begin to emerge toward spring, pruning, weeding and planning all fit into late dormancy.

Watch tree branches for color changes that signal spring’s on the way — willows turn golden-yellow, dogwood and maple branches pick up a rosy tint long before leaves emerge.

Snowdrops and the earliest crocus will poke up; they’re not troubled by temperature extremes, although I keep a bit of mulch handy to drop over them if temperatures drop into the teens.

Plant and transplant while dormancy’s still in place.

If you’re still getting accustomed to thinking of tasks according to stages of plant growth, take some photos of your garden on Jan. 1 and tuck them into a journal. Come spring, you’ll be amazed to look at the Jan. 1 photo next to one taken on June 1. And the calendar will assume new usefulness as we keep plant records based on their stage of growth.

Garden expert Mary Robson, retired area horticulture agent for Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension, shares gardening tips every Wednesday. Her e-mail is marysophia@earthlink.net.