This time of year, the Garden Hotline phones are quieter, so we are reflecting and preparing for a new year of encouraging gardeners. 

We decided that, even though most gardeners, except for the most hardy, are not out working among their slumbering plants, that we would inspire you all with the gift of advice. 

Here are several of our staff members with their advice.

Sheri Hinshaw

As a great gardening gift for the new year, if your gardener has a favorite pair of pruners, replacement blades are always a great idea!

Gardening gloves — no matter how many I have, I can always use more. Atlas nitrile is my favorite.

Seed-sowing tool — I always thought this was (as Alton Brown says) a uni-tasker, a waste of plastic. But, gosh, I really liked mine for starting seeds indoors. I spent less time thinning and actually got more plants per pot than usual.

A Hori-Hori knife — every gardener should have a hori-hori.

Julie Kintzi

This is the best time to dream of next year, as well as prepare the beds so you are ready to dive in, starting as early as February. 

Sit somewhere warm, and study which plants and seeds you want for next year. Also, take this time to study what didn’t work and what you can do differently next year (or call the Hotline). And research what you are curious about (Worm bin next year? Grow peppers?). 

Order seeds for early spring and summer now so that you will have plenty of time in the spring to prepare beds and plant. Seeds on the rack can often be gone by mid-spring. 

I also love to order most of my perennial edibles this time of year. Call the Garden Hotline for suggestions on seed and edible-plant companies. 

Or I wait until February to buy bare-root plants at local nurseries. Bare-root plants are easier to plant, tend get a better “root-hold” when planted this early and cost less than potted plants. 

And mulch your entire garden while there are fewer leaves to work around. A composted, fine mulch helps in so many ways by adding organic matter and insulating your plants year-round. 

Get a jump on spring so that you can enjoy admiring your garden and shopping at plant sales!

Sue Hartman

Winter is a great time to give your hand tools some tender, loving care. Why spend good money on a quality tool and let it get rusty? 

Some tips to keep your tools in top form:

• Wash your tools with hot, soapy water — Soak in bucket of soapy water for an hour to loosen the dirt, if necessary. 

Use a wire or hard bristle brush to clean off the caked-on dirt. A toothbrush brush can come in handy for cleaning hard-to-reach spots. 

• Use steel wool or a stiff wire brush to remove the rust — Gently rub the rusted metal surface using a small, circular motion, then rinse. Steel wool can be rough on your hands, so you might want to wear a pair of gloves. 

Badly pitted steel surfaces may require more work. An electric drill with a wire-brush attachment can work well for this purpose. 

Wear safety glasses to keep your eyes protected from flying rust particles or wire bristles.

Thoroughly dry your tools with a soft, clean towel or rag after cleaning. 

• Don’t forget to clean the wooden handles — Wipe off the soil, and wipe the wood with a cloth moistened with boiled linseed soil.

• To keep your tools rust free, keep a towel nearby and wipe off the soil every time after using. Use water to clean them when they are heavily soiled. 

Store your tools in a dry place and off the ground — not outside in the rain!

Falaah Jones

I enjoy growing vegetables, especially chard and dinosaur kale, which keep giving for months on end. I also rely on perennial edibles such as rhubarb and figs that have virtually no pests — not counting raccoons and birds that try to beat you to the fig crop. 

But raising chickens in my backyard gives me the most pleasure. I give my hens names and have mini-conversations with them (I don’t want to appear too kooky!), gather eggs (enough to share), spread chicken manure (lots of nitrogen), let them forage under my fruit trees and raspberry bushes (great pest control) and feed them weeds and kitchen scraps. 

They are virtual machines with unique personalities!

Laura Matter

I appreciate winter in the Northwest for the beauty and peace of our forested and wetland urban spaces and, in particular, for appreciating the native plants and animals that inhabit them. 

This is a great time of year to take walks in one of the wonderful parks and natural areas we are so fortunate to have in Seattle. Besides the pleasure of walking in the open air and, when we are so endowed, out in the winter sunshine, visiting these areas allows us to tune into the kinds of plants we can add to our own gardens. 

Recreating a mini-natural space in your own garden helps to create corridors that native wildlife can move through. Did you know that wildlife that can assist you with pest-management duties? They are certain to cheer you up with their visits to your garden. 

Some of my favorites: Discovery Park in Magnolia, Union Bay Natural Area near the Center for Urban Horticulture in North Seattle, Schmitz Park in West Seattle, Magnuson Park in Sand Point and Seward Park in Southeast Seattle. Information on these sites can be found on the Seattle Parks and Recreation website: 

Grab a plant guide and a bird guide, a camera and some good walking shoes, and take a look at what our city has to offer! 

If you complete all of these suggestions, not only will you enjoy the outdoors during our cooler season, you will be well prepared and energized, too, and you may even find yourselves with chickens in 2012!

LAURA MATTER is the program coordinator for Seattle Tilth’s Garden Hotline (