Complete your acquisitions for flower and vegetable beds and get newly purchased plants into the ground promptly - the solstice is barely four weeks away, when nights start getting longer, shortening veggie growing time. Wait until direct sun has passed the planting area. If hot sun is forecast for the following days, shade small plants for a couple of days (newspaper tent, upside-down clay pot, bushel basket). Water well.
Assemble materials for sowing seeds indoors, washing reused items well (hot water, a cup of bleach per gallon-and-a-half of rinse water). Check packets for timing, and count back from Mother's Day - six weeks is common, meaning sow around April Fool's Day
Sow seeds of petunias, tender geraniums, impatiens and begonias indoors. Warmth is essential - 75 degrees day and night is recommended. Good light is necessary, too. A system of fluorescent lights that can be moved up and down is best. Try to keep the tops of the seedlings 3 inches from the lights; as they grow, raise the lights. (Alternate strategy: Place the seedlings on a stack of bricks or cigar boxes; as they grow, remove a layer at a time.)
Make plans, even sketches, of fabulous plantings to be accomplished come spring - a drift of groundcover azaleas here, deftly placed vertical accents of verbascum there. But resist the catalogs' order blanks unless you're going to grow pansies, petunias, tender geraniums, begonias, leeks, cabbage or broccoli from seed. They should be sown indoors in February. For almost everything else, you have plenty of time to get realistic - and study more catalogs.
Be glad the huge snowstorm brought "dry" snow and lots of wind. Except for plantings on the leeward side of buildings, there was minimal accumulation on evergreens and negligible loss of limb. When snow does weigh down branches, use this method for removal: Starting with the lower branches, jostle them sideways, never downward, which risks breakage.
Plant any perennials and nursery stock still malingering in pots - please! If this isn't possible, protect them from winter by sinking the pots in a sheltered area. The top of the soil in the pot should be slightly higher than the surrounding soil, which must be well drained (add sand as necessary).
Get the grand cleanup into high gear. Depending on the weather (and your free time), this can last into December, so figure out what tasks take priority. A partial list: Pull spent plants from the vegetable garden and add to the compost (discard diseased ones); cut back (or pull) annuals; rake, rake, rake; clean, oil, and store tools.
Michael Mills gardens in Northwest Philadelphia, concentrating on ornamentals and shade planting. He is a board member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, is involved with exhibits at the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, and regularly contributes plants to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's plant dividend program for members.
His column appears Fridays in Home & Design, alternating between questions-and-answers and "It's time to . . . ," a compendium of what garden tasks are appropriate for the season.