1. Hand pruners, loppers, shears and chainsaws are a gardener’s best friends during the winter season. Always keep tools sharp to make pruning faster and safer. Clean, properly-made pruning cuts help plants recover well and keep diseases to a minimum. On woody plants, prune back to the branch collar. By leaving this area of quick-growing tissue intact, the collar can expand to close the wound. A bypass pruner is generally the best tool for this.
2. Take a closer look at mature shade trees during their dormant season. Look for dead wood and cracked branches in the canopy. Mushrooms found on the trunk of the tree and at the root flare are cause for concern, and may be reason to contact a certified arborist. Trees should be taken down when they become hazardous. Most homeowners underestimate the danger of climbing a tree with a chainsaw in hand; please leave tree work to skilled professionals when the work cannot be handled from ground level. Play it safe with trees as the branches can be quite heavy.
3. Keep chainsaws clean and in good working order if you are cutting firewood. Always wear personal protective equipment – hard hats, ear protection, leg chaps, safety glasses, and gloves – when operating these powerful machines. It is recommended that you not work alone and that you keep a cell phone handy just in case of an emergency. When storing chainsaws, either run the gas out of them first or add a stabilizer to the fuel mix.
4. Begin pruning mature, fruit-bearing trees. Prune and train young trees after the winter cold has passed, at bud swell time. Don’t prune spring flowering, ornamental shrubs and trees just yet. You will have time to prune them immediately after they bloom.
5. Where the soil isn’t frozen, planting season can continue for deciduous woody ornamentals. Large, field-grown trees and screen shrubs can be safely planted now, especially in the eastern region.
6. Compost, shredded leaves, and manures can be added to vegetable gardens to enhance the soil.
7. Gather supplies for starting vegetable seedlings indoors. The first order of business is to peruse catalogs and place seed orders. Look for disease-resistant or drought-tolerant varieties for starters. Use a sterile soilless mix or vermiculite instead of garden soil.
8. Since there is very little lawn care activity happening in January, take advantage of an unseasonably warm day to spot spray to eliminate broadleaf winter weeds like wild onions and chickweed. Sandy soils along the coast can dry out during the winter months. Irrigate yards overseeded with ryegrass as temperatures allow, to keep them healthy.
9. The presence of moles in your lawn may indicate a white grub problem, or it may be just a single, hungry mole searching desperately for food. Since moles are beneficial mammals, it’s probably best to allow nature to take its course. However, if the destructive behavior continues you can take action with a mole kill trap or try a castor oil-based repellent.
10. If your lawn mower or garden tractor was acting up last fall, get the jump on other homeowners and schedule that tune-up with your service dealer before the spring rush.
11. As the possibility of snowy weather and ice arrives, consider using organic products in lieu of deicing salts that can pollute streams and injure landscape plants. An application of sand or sawdust usually provides enough traction for safe walking. Landscape-friendly deicing salts are available and should be used on walks and steps during ice events.
12. Groom perennial beds by removing fallen leaves and cutting back old stalks. This cleanup reduces plant diseases and beautifies the landscape. This is especially important in mum beds and areas where tall-growing flowers are found. Repair trellises and store or replace temporary staking materials.
13. Compost all the mounds of leaves you have collected this fall and turn them into “black gold.” A bin full of leaves needs to be turned monthly and watered to maintain adequate moisture. The addition of “green material” or a nitrogen fertilizer will enhance the composting process.
14. Maintain the optimal mulch layer of 2- or 3-inch depth around landscape plants. Too much mulch can cause more trouble than too little. Pine needle mulch can be spread a bit thicker and is the best weed control in shrub borders.
15. Winter squashes can be stored for months in a dry, 50º room. To store, it is best to place them in a single layer not touching one another. Don’t forget to destroy old plants in the garden and turn out the root systems to expose nematodes and other soil insect to freezing temperatures.
16. Many tall-growing shrubs used for screening purposes can benefit from a ground cover planting placed to “hide their ankles.” Though there are many choices, dwarf selections like Japanese plum yew, Siberian cypress, sarcococca, dwarf gardenia, and Otto Luyken cherry laurel may serve you well. For sunny space, consider pink muhly grass and sergeant junipers. Traditional ground covers are also acceptable and run the gamut from liriope and sedges, to Vinca and St. John’s wort.
17. Coastal residents, especially in the southeastern counties, should be aware that there is an imminent threat to red bay laurels from to an exotic fungus discovered by forest pathologists. The vascular fungus is spread by the red bay ambrosia beetle that has now been found along the North Carolina coast. Residents who move firewood (like campers) can spread the pest. The Department of Agriculture and Forest Service personnel are monitoring the problem in affected counties.
18. A sunny, kitchen windowsill may provide the perfect space for some leafy, indoor culinary herbs. Herb growing kits are widely available at full service garden centers.
19. Veteran gardeners give serious thought to crop rotation – changing the type plant grown in a garden or farm field and moving plant families around a bit. Traditionally, a farmer plants crops like legumes that make nitrogen and then follows up the next season with crops, like corn or grain, that have a high nitrogen requirement. Crop rotation prevents disease and pest buildup and is a major strategy practiced by organic growers. Begin planning now to change things up in your garden.
20. Is there a community garden in your neighborhood? Would you like to organize one? Contact the American Community Gardening Association for help.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org