Photo by Guy L. Adams
Gardening by the Yard
By Tom Corbin
A Fairlington Gardener
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Late Winter Gardening Tips
(Posted February 5, 2008)
Winter, Yes!! But Begin Planning
The recent roller coaster temperatures have created quite a dilemma for gardeners. Do we think spring and begin early chores, or do we listen to "reason" telling us, "Hey, it's still winter…hold off!"
Remember the ground hog saw his shadow on February 2 indicating six more weeks of winter. Also remember that spring weather in our region usually does not really settle in until after Easter, March 23 this year, which gives us plenty of time to plan for the spring gardening season.
Your best bet is to look at the calendar which says it's still winter, but you can certainly use those warm days to begin some of the earliest garden chores.
Begin Garden Chores
Don't be alarmed by the emerging spring bulb foliage. Tulips, daffodils, and other spring blooming bulbs are equipped to survive freezing weather. You probably have already noticed that snowdrops (and other very early small flowering bulbs) have been in bloom for some time now. Having a clump or two of snowdrops (galanthus) near your door or in a warm spot in your patio gives a boost to our spirits at this time. Snowdrops are the only spring bulb which like to transplanted when in leaf. Yes, you can dig up a clump and transplant it after flowering rather than depend on planting bulbs in the fall. The only problem is finding a source of the "green" plants.
If you want to try planting snowdrops "in the green", one source is The Temple Nursery in Trumansburg, NY - no web site or phone number, just an address: The Temple Nursery/ PO Box 591/ Trumansburg, NY 14886. $3.00 will get you a catalogue.
Bulbs are sent "in the green" after flowering. They must be planted within two days upon receipt. Comparing spring planting of "growing" snowdrops versus fall planting of dormant bulbs might make for an interesting experiment.
Manage Your Early Blooms
I expect that we will see some early blooming daffodils soon, especially in protected spots. Again, these are hardy plants and will survive freezing temperatures, but if a long cold spell is predicted, consider cutting some of the flowers to enjoy inside rather than risk their freezing outside.
If you planted pansies and violas last fall, you have found that they have held up during the cold snaps and rebloom during warm spells. As weather permits, trim back dead blooms and any damaged parts of the plants. They also benefit from some fertilizer now which will boost flowers when the weather warms up.
Nurseries will soon have pots of pansies. Plant them outside if the soil is not too wet, and don't forget to ask nursery personnel if the plants have been "hardened off" (weaned from warm green house temperatures to survive outside).
In addition to pansies, early spring bulbs, camellias, hardy cyclamen, and Mahonia, hellebores should be coming into bloom now, adding a spectacular addition to the late winter garden. It's a good idea to trim off the winter-damaged leaves to allow the emerging buds and flowers to show. If the leaves are still green and relatively unscathed, leave some to accent the flower stalks. Hellebores have been bred extensively to give a variety of colors and flower shapes; double flowering specimens and a yellow variety are just two new cultivars. Again, check out nursery stock early to obtain the choicest varieties. Hellebores like shade, have evergreen leaves, and actually seed themselves if undisturbed and not heavily mulched.
As weather permits, cut back liriope and ornamental grasses before new growth begins. Replace any plants that have heaved out of the ground from the freezing/ thawing process. Cut back perennial stalks if you did not do this last fall. Remove any compacted leaves and gently loosen the mulch as temperatures and soil conditions allow. Remove any dead wood from shrubs. Prune roses in late February before new growth begins. Always prune roses back to a developing bud.
Working some fertilizer into the soil around emerging bulbs and perennials (again as the weather permits and if the soil is not too wet) gives plants a nice boost.
Prune early spring flowering shrubs - forsythia, flowering quince, winter jasmine, honeysuckle, spirea, etc. - after flowering. If you have large spring-flowering shrubs, you can cut some stems now and "force" them inside for an attractive flower arrangement. Forsythia and pussy willow are the easiest shrubs to force inside. Soak the cut stems and place in a vase (change the water frequently) in low light until the buds expand and show color. Then bring them into bright light to flower. Add some tulips and, voila!, a spring inside garden!
Speaking of forsythia - don't you hate the sheared treatment that so many folks apply to this normally graceful shrub? This is particularly true in Fairlington where we seem to want to "cube", "square", or "round" every shrub! Cutting some of the stems back to ground level enables the shrub to produce new graceful growth which is the signature of this shrub. Keep it in bounds, but let it grow naturally into its vase-shaped self - giving your early garden a brilliant yellow specimen in the spring.
Many Fairlington residents ask why their hydrangeas don't bloom or bloom sparingly. This is more than likely due to (1) improper pruning, or (2) winter kill. Don't prune hydrangeas (except to remove dead wood) in the spring; they set their flower buds in the fall so pruning now eliminates them. Some times early spring freezing spells can damage the emerging buds. Wait until the weather settles to see how much damage there is and then prune back to the new growth. The auxiliary buds will flower. Some new hydrangea varieties (endless summer cultivars) bloom on new wood; check these out so you will have repeat flowering all summer!
Summer flowering shrubs that can be pruned now include crape myrtles, spireas, and buddleia (butterfly bush).
With the lengthening hours of sunlight, houseplants need some attention. Begin to water more frequently now and to apply some fertilizer. Prune them back to encourage new, bushy growth. If your houseplants, particularly your tropicals, look a little dusty, give them a shower in the tub! This will brighten the leaves and also give a boost of humidity to them; however, don't try this with African violets or other plants with fuzzy leaves. Use a soft brush, such as a paint or baby brush to gently eliminate dust.
With the exception of ordering bulbs or a hard to find plant, I don't advocate purchasing plants from catalogues; however, some plant catalogues are wonderful educational sources.
Ken Druse, noted horticulturalist, has partnered with Wayside Gardens this year to produce a spectacular collectors' publication which you may order at firstname.lastname@example.org . They have included detailed descriptions and growing requirements not only of plants new for 2008 but also many of the old standbys.
Another fun and valuable gardening resource is P. Allen Smith's web site: http://www.pallensmith.com
Even though the winter garden has its own interest and beauty, we look forward to - anticipate - the spring garden! And anticipation may be one of the best reasons to garden!