The Gardener’s Winter Work

It’s time to prepare for spring

January and February are an excellent time

for gardeners to reflect, study, and plan for the next season. They are the perfect months to evaluate every aspect of the garden from the inside out. Plus, you can study how the garden looks from inside the house during winter. Where do you spend the most time in the house during the winter? Do you have a beautiful view out to the garden? If so, how can it be improved? If not, how can it be created? A pretty view makes waiting for spring a little easier.

As your first chore every January, after the hustle and bustle of the holidays, get your gardening “infrastructure” in working order. The only way to get really organized is to start at the beginning. Take everything out of every cabinet, take everything off every shelf, empty every box, and take down anything that is hanging on the walls. Clean the cabinet shelves and counter tops. Evaluate every item as you begin to put the tools and supplies back into the cabinets.

Ask yourself if the tool is useful. If so, is it in good working order? If it needs sharpening or oiling, put it in a pile to take to the sharpener or do it yourself. Always have a can of WD-40 or silicone spray close by to give all the tool joints a little lubrication. Do you need eight pairs of loppers? Probably not. Choose the two or three that are the most comfortable and useful, then give the others away. Go through this procedure with all tools, rakes, brooms, and other equipment. Pare down to the best and forget the rest!

Think about installing a pegboard system to hang tools rather than having them all jumbled in a corner. If you go to the trouble to install the pegboard, make sure to hang the tools in an attractive and convenient way. Make the garage a place where you want to be. Group all like tools together so you can grab the right ones when the time comes to work in the garden.

Another task is to assess all of the liquids and fertilizers that have accumulated over the years. If any have expired, dispose of those items properly to provide more room to store the products that are still fresh. Store fertilizers in an upper cabinet or shelf so that they do not get wet and ruined. Make a list of anything needed to add to your gardening inventory.

Also look at devices such as liquid fertilizer sprayers, hoses, and buckets. If any leak, throw them away. Nothing is more exasperating than attaching a liquid fertilizer sprayer to the end of the hose and having it spray everywhere when the water is turned on.

For the last bit of indoor advice, look up. How is the lighting in the garage or shed? Replace or clean any bulbs that need it. Get rid of the cobwebs. Sweep the floor. Your storage areas will be the envy of your neighborhood gardening friends.

Go outside and evaluate some things not often considered. Where are your water spigots? Are they in convenient places? Are they installed at the right height so that you can easily attach a hose? If not, raise them or lower them and add more where needed. Ideally have a spigot on each side of the house so that you don’t have to drag a hose from one side of the garden to the other all the while smashing plants along the way. Consider installing wall-mounted hose holders near the water spigots to raise the hoses off the ground when not in use. The hoses will stay cleaner and will be less likely to kink and get into a tangled mess.

If hoses are already tangled and you would like them to be neater and easier to use, follow these simple steps. On a warm, sunny day, stretch out the hose so that is it basking in the sunshine. When it has gotten warm and pliable, reel it in manageable circles for storage or coil it in a hose storage pot or on a wall-mounted hose holder.

Next, take time to study the trees. Do any large branches need to be pruned? Do you see any dead branches that could cause damage if they fall? If you have oak trees, could they be pruned to be more sculptural and allow more dappled light? Should any trees be removed to create new garden areas or to allow more sun into the house or different areas of the garden?

Consider contacting a certified arborist, such as Chris Freeman with Sox and Freeman Tree Company, to advise you. The winter provides a great time to evaluate trees when they are in their dormant stage. Trees are one of the largest and best assets in a garden, so invest in the time and expense to take care of them and keep them healthy. And always make sure to hire a tree company that carries liability insurance and is bonded.

Evaluate the shrubbery in the garden during this cold weather season. Has any shrubbery outgrown its space? If so, do hard pruning. Do any shrubs need replacing? Time to plant a large shrub so that it can acclimate and start growing in the spring when the temperatures begin to rise.

How is your irrigation? Does the controller or timer need to be serviced or replaced? Sometimes as shrubs and perennials grow, the spray heads that water them need to be raised to accommodate the growth. Drip lines can get clogged or break during the cold months of the winter. Take care of all of these repairs. In fact, why not sign up for an irrigation class at Lowe’s or Home Depot to learn how to do it yourself?

Take advantage of the warm, sunny days that we are lucky enough to have during January and February in the Columbia area to start double digging a garden plot. Dig down one spade deep and put that soil in a pile. Then go back and double dig the garden; dig down another spade deep and add that to the pile. Turn all of this soil back into the garden plot, adding compost as you go. The soil should be light, airy and free of any large dirt clods. Use a heavy garden rake to level the garden to make sure it has no low spots.

You can add a light layer of pine straw to make the garden plot look neat and tidy until you are ready to plant. Watch the sun exposure in the garden. Prune or remove any over-hanging limbs to let in as much sun as possible. If you plan to grow any trailing or climbing vegetables, such as beans, go ahead and build the supports you will need. These can be made of twine and posts or you can buy pre-made trellis forms. Be creative and make your vegetable garden pretty and productive. If the garden is in a prominent spot, consider adding boxwoods in the corners to give the space structure all year long. Check the irrigation in this spot. Drip irrigation is the most efficient when watering vegetables.

If you are fortunate enough to have space inside your house to germinate seeds, now is the time to prepare. Invest in seed trays that are easy to use. Buy quality, lightweight rooting soil, and choose seeds that you want to try in the garden. Consider some different varieties of heirloom vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplant. The heirloom varieties are hardier, easier to grow, and are delicious. Our last average frost date in the Midlands is March 15, so plants should be ready to go in the ground by then. Monitor the weather forecast and cover any tender vegetables if frost threatens. Sow seeds directly in the ground after March 15. Try new varieties. Keep records of what thrives and what you like so that you can repeat the process next year.

Definition of space in the garden is one of the most important factors to achieve pleasing landscape design. Planting beds should be defined with a strong trench edge or border. Grass should be edged, and hardscape areas look better if they are defined by brick or stone borders.

Consider adding a soldier course of brick to the edge of your driveway or walkways to define the edge and to help hold the mulch or pine straw in place. Give all of the planting beds a new, neat edge by installing high-quality steel edging or by digging a trench edge. If soil and mulch has “bled” out of the beds onto the sidewalk or driveway, shovel it back in to the planting bed. Make sure that you can see the edges of the hardscape and the edges of the planting beds.

February should be declared the month of the rose in the Midlands. If you did not give your roses a good pruning in the fall, now is the time to do it. Pruning roses promotes more blooms. Make sure your pruning nippers are very sharp and clean. Every time you make a cut, make it right above a bud. Imagine that a new stem will come from that cut and will produce a flower on the end. Prune the bush at different heights so that it is full from the bottom to the top. Also prune any crossing canes on the bush.

Now is also time to prepare the bed for planting new roses and for grooming the bed around existing roses. Rake out any existing mulch. Scratch around the bottom of the bush, and add a few cups of mushroom compost. Work the compost into the soil and water in gently. If planting a new rose bush, prepare the soil well. Double dig the hole at least twice as wide as the root ball of the rose bush. Add organic matter in the hole and all the soil back into the hole. Mix the soil and compost together. Make a slight cone in the middle of the hole with the soil. If planting bare root roses, spread the roots over this cone and add the remaining soil. Gently pat the soil around the roots and water in slowly. Make sure the water drains well away from the roots so that the plant does not rot. Mulch the area with a light layer of pine straw or hardwood mulch.

At the end of February, rake out all of the planting beds and get rid of the old pine straw or mulch. I give my beds a few weeks to breathe. Also you can weed more easily  and fertilize when all of the mulch has been removed. Try to level the beds at this time so that water does not puddle near the plants and drown them. Broadcast a light treatment of a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 around the trunks of all trees and shrubs. Slowly water in the fertilizer to help keep it in place. Remove any weeds that escaped this past fall’s weeding. Add mulch or pine straw to aid in water retention and make the garden look clean and neat.

Now that you have completed all of these chores in January and February, relax and wait for your garden to come back to life. Nothing is more exciting than seeing the first hosta leaf emerge from the ground or the flower buds of the dogwoods and cherry trees start to burst. January and February are a slower time in the garden, but enjoy these months and look forward to an exciting spring.


What’s blooming in January and February

Camellia japonica, daphne, lowering apricot, quince, saucer magnolia, tea olive, pansies, violas, iris, narcissus, scilla, and winter honeysuckle.