Some tips for gardening in cold season

Randy Drinkard Contributing columnist

January 3, 2014

We don’t normally think about our landscapes and gardens very much during the winter months, but here are a few helpful plant tips that you may wish to consider on these cold season days:

• Avoid heavy traffic and playing on dormant lawns now, as dry turf is easily broken and the crowns of turf plants may be severely damaged or killed. This damage may show up next spring and summer as thin or poorly growing turf areas.

• Flower and vegetable garden seeds stored under warm, moist conditions deteriorate rapidly, and sometimes actually rot. Be sure to keep your seed stored in a cool, dry location, like a cellar or basement. If you can’t do this, it will be best to buy fresh seed each season. And speaking of ordering seed, now is a good time to check through your seed catalogs and place your orders before varieties sell out.

• Save your plastic mesh bags in which oranges usually come because they make ideal storage bags for air-drying bulbs, herbs, onions and gourds. Check any bulbs, tubers or corms that you currently have in storage and discard any that are soft or diseased.

• Examine the limb structure of your shade trees and remove any dead, diseased and/or storm-damaged branches now before they fall and cause damage to any plants or passers-by below.

• While you are traveling about each day, keep an eye open for plants with interesting winter form or color that you may wish to incorporate into your own landscape.

• If feeding birds is one of your favorite hobbies, order vines, shrubs and trees that provide cover and small fruits for your feathered friends. Consider planting species such as crabapple, hawthorn, dogwood, holly, cotoneaster and pyracantha that can help lure and feed hungry birds.

• Clip and bring branches of forsythia, pussy willow, quince, spirea and dogwood indoors for forcing blooms inside the home. Make long, slanted cuts when collecting branches and place the stems in a vase of water as soon as possible. These plants should bloom in two to three weeks.

• Water newly-planted shrubs and trees in the landscape when the soil becomes dry if no rain occurs for more than two weeks. Pay particular attention to evergreen shrubs and trees as their leaves transpire water whenever air temperatures rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Design a flower bed for the shady spots in your landscape. Plan to use shade-tolerant plants such as astilbe, begonia, bleeding hearts, browallia, coleus, ferns, helleborus, hosta and impatiens. Several good shade-tolerant groundcovers include: ajuga, hypericum, English ivy, liriope, mondo grass, pachysandra, vinca and winter creeper.

• During cold snaps, invert large flowerpots over semi-hardy perennials such as dusty miller for protection from low temperatures and wind.

• Check houseplants often to be sure they are receiving enough light and water. Most indoor plants prefer a well-lit location like a south or west-facing window. Don’t place houseplants near a heat vent, on top of the TV, next to a door, etc. as hot and cold air are hard on them. When watering, use your own built-in water meter. Stick your finger 1 inch into the potting soil and if the soil feels dry at that level, then it’s time to water. Check to be sure that water drains completely through the soil ball from top to bottom and exits through the drainage holes.

• When fertilizing houseplants during winter months, use only about half the rate recommended. Houseplants grow less rapidly during cooler months, so they don’t need as much fertilizer now. The ideal temperature should be around 70 degrees in the daytime and 60 degrees at night.

• Reposition stepping stones in your lawn that have heaved up or sunk below the grass level. Carefully lift them up, spread sand in the low areas and then replace them. A bed of sand under stepping stones will aid in drainage and decrease sinking and heaving next year.

• Turn or rototill your vegetable garden to expose weed seeds, nematodes and insects that are over-wintering in the soil to the elements. Exposing insects and weed seeds to cold air and drying winds will help reduce their numbers in your garden.

• Take hardwood cuttings of forsythia, spirea, Japanese quince, mock-orange, Viburnum and other deciduous shrubs. Tie bundles of deciduous cuttings together, and bury in sand in a cold frame. Remove in early spring, and plant in a nursery bed.

• Continue to turn your compost pile, adding leaves and yard debris.

Randy Drinkard is a retired technical writer for The UGA Center for Urban Agriculture and ANR Agent for Troup Cooperative Extension. The Troup County Extension office is located at 114 Church St. in LaGrange and may be reached at 706-883-1675, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.