Plan Now For Spring

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Don’t wait until spring arrives to get ready for gardening. There’s much that can be done during the winter to give your garden a head start on the season, including designing new beds, ordering new plants, starting seeds and forcing bulbs, and even pruning and shaping shrubs ahead of the new growth. 

During the winter months, there are two types of gardeners: Those who are fortunate to garden outside, and those who are fortunate to plan to garden outside. These long months following the holidays may seem claustrophobic for gardeners who are eager to get out and dig, but it’s a good time to slow down, tap your resources, and plan your strategy. You might even want to visit your local garden center and talk to the experts who can help guide you through the planning process. If you organize now, plan in hand, you’ll know just what you need to make your garden the best it can be.

Starting indoors.

If you’re stuck inside during the winter, you might as well put pencil to paper and organize your thoughts—and your future garden. (If you’re iPad proficient, there are hundreds of apps that will help, too.)

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Make a simple sketch of your current garden, along with a list of the plants you’ve already got. What are your favorites? How did they fare? Should they be divided, pruned, removed? Should you transplant a few? (Here’s a hint for next year: This is easily done while the garden’s abloom, so you’ll be ready for the following planting season. Don’t forget to take photos!)
  2. Think about your ideal garden. Do you favor a certain style? Do you want a whole new approach, or do you want to add to what you’ve got? Did you make a resolution to eat more fresh greens? Are there special plants you’d love to have?
  3. Remember all those garden books you bought? Pull them out and review what you liked and didn’t like; what’s possible in your microclimate and what’s not; what’s required for, say, a pollinator-friendly garden or a vegetable bed.
  4. Set aside some time to review the seed and nursery catalogs that fill your mailbox and your inbox this time of year. If you’re starting over, make a list of the plants you’ll need—or those you crave. If you’re filling in an existing garden, do the same. Add these to the list of plants already in your garden, and you’re ready to order just the right number of new selections.
  5. Have any leftover seed packets? If you didn’t use all of last season’s seeds, start a few now and see if they’re still viable. Simply wrap a dozen seeds in a damp paper towel, and keep them warm and moist. Check after a week or so; if more than half have begun to sprout, save the rest and sow them this spring. If less than half show signs of life, it’s best to begin fresh.
  6. What about those bulbs? Didn’t have time to get them all in the ground last fall? It’s worth trying to start them now. Gather some small pots—peat pots work best—and “plant” the bulbs one by one. Or find a shallow container, such as a nursery flat, an old baking pan, or even the lid to a cardboard box, and plant bulbs in a layer of garden soil. Locate a sheltered spot outside and cover the bulbs with mulch or leaves. Make sure the cover is deep enough to deter curious squirrels. Bulbs should be ready to plant when the ground’s soft enough to dig.  

Venturing outdoors.

If the weather permits, it’s a good idea to check on your garden. Winter can be a challenge for even the hardiest of plants. When snow cover is insufficient, frigid temperatures can take a toll on groundcovers, perennials, and grasses. When snow cover is plentiful, hungry rodents may burrow beneath the drifts to find tempting bark. And as the snow melts, it’s not unusual to discover that the bark of small trees and shrubs has been nibbled or gnawed. Larger animals may cause winter damage by stripping bark and buds from branches.

Frigid winter winds can desiccate plants, and salts used to melt sidewalk or roadway ice can burn both needled and broad-leaved evergreens.

Winter care sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But it needn’t be. There are easy steps to take to ensure your plants survive—and thrive—through the winter.   

  1. If it’s safe to do so, venture out to the garden and brush away accumulated snow to inspect the trunks and lower branches of trees and shrubs. Inexpensive tree wrap—it comes in a wide, paperlike roll—will help to protect tender bark. It’s best applied in fall and removed in spring, but small trunks can be wrapped now.
  2. Several areas of the country have experienced ice storms, and even mature evergreens and shrubs can suffer the effects. If ice is weighing down branches, it’s best not to try to remove it until it begins to melt. Cracking the ice can also crack the branches it coats, snapping them and further damaging the plant.
  3. Low-growing evergreen branches often become laden with heavy snow, virtually adhering them to the ground. It’s generally safe lighten the burden by gently sweeping the snow with a broom. (Don’t use a shovel or other sharp implement; this can nick or slice the bark, leaving wounds that may invite pathogens.) Once most of the snow has been removed, relieve the stress by supporting the branches from beneath or allowing them to rest atop drifts if the snow is deep.
  4. Do you have leftover fresh holiday greens—or even your Christmas tree? Branches can be used as a natural protective mulch, distributed around trees and over perennial beds.

Bringing the outside in—a bonus!

Flowering trees and shrubs may require selective pruning before spring, and if you’re able to get outside to help shape those plants, save the branches you remove. Bring them indoors and force them into bloom for a welcome spring preview.

It’s safest to prune when the temps rise above freezing—and you don’t want to be outside when it’s colder, do you? Always use proper pruning procedures, and take care to select branches whose removal won’t jeopardize the natural shape of the plant. Cuts longer than 12 inches respond best to forcing.

Soak the branches in tepid water for several hours—overnight is convenient—and then score the ends to remove any callus that may have formed. This will allow water to flow freely up the branch.

Place the branches upright in a bucket or vase filled with several inches of water, and store them in a relatively cool room out of direct sunlight. Be sure to change the water frequently. Within a few weeks, you’ll see that the buds are starting to swell. 

Nonflowering branches can be forced, too, and the emerging foliage adds a natural companion to delicate spring blooms.

A lot can be involved in preparing your yard for the spring, consult a landscape professional to ensure you're ready for the seasons ahead.


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