Though we’ve had a warmer-than-normal winter so far, February and March may still provide some surprises. In the meantime, here are few a winter gardening tips to help you fill the time until spring arrives.
1. Not many landscape plants benefit from fertilization when the ground is cold. Plants growing in coastal counties using cold frames, high tunnels, and raised beds are the exception. Liquid plant fertilizers and organic products can be used as needed for growing vegetable plants.
2. As plants from flowering blubs begin to emerge, they will absorb nutrients. This is a good time to apply a bulb-boosting fertilizer or compost to bulb beds. Some gardeners use 10-10-10 fertilizer at one pound of fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area. Research conducted at North Carolina State University found that bulb plants absorb most of their nitrogen and nutrients during the period of root development and as the new foliage is emerging in late winter.
3. Cool-season lawns will benefit from an application of turfgrass fertilizer by mid-March. Ideal timing for fertilizing tall fescue and bluegrass lawns corresponds to Valentine’s Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. It helps if you can time an application with a rainfall or irrigation application soon after.
4. Take the time to attend a gardening talk or seminar offered by your closest cooperative extension office, botanical garden or arboretum. These programs provide two important ingredients for becoming a successful gardener – cutting edge technical information and networking opportunities for finding resources and meeting knowledgeable people. Many public gardens are strapped for labor due to funding cutbacks, so this may be a good year to volunteer at a public garden of your choice.
Early vegetables can be planted as winter comes to an end. Cool-season crops like broccoli, kale, onions, lettuce, and cabbage, go in first.
5. It’s time to complete your seed orders for the upcoming growing season. Late orders will delay getting your seedlings ready during the best window for planting. With the convenience of online mail orders, you can get a quicker response from suppliers.
6. It’s also time to prune brambles and fruit crops. Warm winter afternoons provide the ideal opportunity to train and prune fruit trees. Start by removing diseased twigs and dispose of these away from the backyard garden. Rake up fallen fruit and bury the mummies. In towns where it is allowed, burn diseased twigs instead of composting them. If you need advice on how to prune small fruits or fruit trees, pick up a free horticulture publication at the cooperative extension office. Most can also be found online at www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort and searching for consumer horticulture publications.
7. Begin pruning overgrown evergreen hedges and summer-flowering shrubs (not spring-flowering, however) like panicle hydrangeas, roses, and sasanqua camellias. Try to prune back to a side twig or healthy bud, and cut back evergreen hedges to the point where you want full regrowth. Rejuvenate old, deciduous plants occasionally by pruning back to within a foot or so of the ground. Fertilize them after pruning and irrigate them during the next growing season.
Winterize mowers and power equipment by running out the gas or using a fuel stabilizer in the tank.
8. Winter weeds can get ahead of you if you’re not careful. Don’t allow them to bloom in lawn or garden before you kill them. They set seed once they flower and their progeny will return the next season to aggravate you. Preemergent herbicides are a good alternative to hand-weeding for lawn care. However, since herb and vegetable gardens are grown for eating, most gardeners prefer to use a weeding tool and their hands for weed eradication.
9. Keep pruning equipment sharpened for safety and efficacy. Use the right tool for the job. Sometimes a chainsaw is needed for pruning large hedges or fruit trees. You may want to employ the services of a commercial landscape or tree service to be on the safe side if you need to work off the ground. In any case, use personal protective equipment, including gloves, hard hat, safety glasses, and chaps when pruning. If you’re working alone with a chainsaw, keep in contact with someone in case there’s a mishap.
10. Houseplants suffer from low humidity during the winter months as home heaters dry out the air. Increase humidity by placing pots on pebble-filled saucers or misting daily. Using scissors, trim the burned tips and leaf margins to groom them. Water as needed to prevent the potting soil from getting excessively dry. Use a baby wipe to clean the top and backside of leaves.
11. Wildflower seeds can be sown on top of the ground in borders and beds that will be naturalized. There are numerous plant species that germinate well from seeds, including black-eyed Susan, larkspur, garden phlox, coneflower, dames rocket, columbine, and annual poppy.
12. Mature trees may benefit from fertilization every five years. Slow-release fertilizer spikes with 15-6-6 or similar composition can be dropped into shallow holes positioned in the drip zone area.
13. Evergreen shrubs that grow by forming woody stalks, like nandina, blueberry, and mahonia, should be thinned periodically as they mature. Remove the oldest stalks by pruning them back to within several inches above ground level. New stalks will form and plant density will improve. Over time, repeat the process as necessary.
Planting and other landscaping installations are a high priority. Plant container-grown shrubs using bark soil conditioner and leaf compost, especially where heavy clay or sandy soils are present.
14. Coastal gardeners can start dividing established herbaceous perennials and herb plantings. Ornamental grasses can be cut back as the new growth begins near their root base. A pair of lopping shears or sharp machete does the trick. Always wear gloves and safety glasses when working with maiden grass to protect against the razor-like leaf blades.
15. This time of year, your feathered friends will appreciate a little extra attention to water and food. Bird seed and suet feeders provide the energy songbirds need to survive the elements and find nesting sites.
16. As buds swell on spring-flowering trees and shrubs, cut some sprigs to force inside for winter cheer. Forsythia, first breath of spring, flowering quince, daphne, and kerria are favorites for a natural centerpiece.
17. Fruit trees can be sprayed with horticultural oil to eliminate overwintering insects, especially scales. Wait for an afternoon when the temperature is above 50º.
For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at email@example.com
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