Chores for the winter gardener
By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Thu., Jan. 23, 2014
January and February always seem like such long, dark months. While it is too cold to tarry long outdoors most days, there are still a few horticultural activities to pursue, making this wintry period more tolerable.
Since the snow seems to be here one day and gone the next, take a quick stroll through your perennial beds when snow-free, and see if any of the plants you set in the ground last fall are being heaved up. I found a bunch of mums with root balls pushed up through the mulch. If the soil is not frozen, they can be pushed back into the ground. If that is not possible, put some mulch, crunchy leaves, or evergreen boughs over them. Most plants would prefer to be covered with a soft blanket of snow over the winter to prevent being exposed to the temperature extremes they have been experiencing. If you recall a couple of weeks ago, it went from 50 degrees one day to 2 degrees the next!
Do try to avoid using de-icing salt in icy areas near prized plants or where runoff will contaminate permanently planted beds. Look for calcium- or magnesium-based products or use kitty litter or sand.
Note any particularly attractive plants in the landscape this time of year. You may want to add them to your yard to provide greater winter interest. My neighbor has this gorgeous golden Hinoki false cypress that just shines in the sunlight.
Keep off lawns if the grass blades are frozen. Are the leaves of your rhododendrons curled up tight? Not to worry, as this is a normal response during cold weather. You can spray them with an anti-desiccant to reduce water loss if you have not already done so.
Check any vegetables or bulbs in storage for rotting or desiccation. If your storage area is too dry for tuberous begonias, dahlias and other tender bulbs that you stored in sawdust or peat moss, you may have to moisten them on occasion. I check mine a couple of times a month and just bring a watering can with me, moistening whichever bulbs seem to need it. Gladioli corms get stored in an old grapefruit bag and will not need moistening over the winter months if kept below 50 degrees F.
Start perusing the steadily-arriving seed and plant catalogs. Using printed or online catalog information, begin planning your vegetable garden and do your best to select disease- and insect-resistant varieties when they are available.
Think about which color schemes you would like to use for annual plantings. Even if you just put in a few annuals for color or pot up some containers for the patio or front steps, consider the color of your house, what other plants might be blooming and your favorite shades.
Be sure to check any leftover seeds before ordering new ones. If stored properly, a number of seeds will be viable for several years. I purchase “Sun Gold” tomato seeds and “Sheepnose” sweet peppers, for instance, only every third year. Since I grow just two “Sun Golds” and four “Sheepnose” each year, there is no reason to purchase a new packet of seed each year. On the other hand, seeds like parsnips, peas and onions are fairly short-lived, and I do buy new packets annually to ensure good germination.
Start seeds of slow-developing geraniums, pansies and impatiens now. Because of impatiens’ downy mildew, it is hard to decide if these colorful, workhorse annuals should be planted or not.
Pot up amaryllis bulbs if you have not already done so. These lovely flowers are worth the small effort they require.
Check any bulbs that you might have potted up for forcing last fall. It is probably time to start bringing them into cool, bright rooms. Some local garden centers sell pre-chilled hyacinth bulbs that can be forced in water. There may be a few heady paperwhite bulbs, too.
If nothing is blooming at your house this time of year, treat yourself to a bouquet of fragrant cut flowers – a herald to the wonderful gardening season that lies ahead!