January 2017 Hints
Precipitation deficit. In 2016, Boston received only 75% of its normal precipitation: 32.6 inches versus a normal 43.8 inches. With the ground now frozen, that deficit is ‘locked in’ to the room systems of the plants, shrubs, and trees in your garden – unless you planned ahead and gave them additional water this fall so that it could be taken up by those same plants. And, while Boston is just the one site where the National Weather Service keeps accurate year-round rainfall measurements, it’s a valid benchmark much of New England which also suffered through a dry summer.
January is a great time for reading! This Christmas I received Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner, subtitled, ‘How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change’. In the book, he tells how his one-third acre near Philadelphia has been transformed into a wildlife habitat that has wonderful sites for humans to relax on his patio near flowers and colorful shrubs and trees while enjoying the birds and other attractive wildlife by working with nature rather than against it. For those of us who want Mother Nature to do more of the work, Weaner offers well written and practical advice.
Looking to dress up a low-light area of your home? Try any plant that can tolerate low-light sun and brighten homes with their beauty and interest. Calathea and anthurium both have bright flowers that add long-lasting color before fading. Another low light treasure are peace lilies (spathiphyllum) a plant with glossy foliage, long-lasting white ‘flowers’ and the ability to remove indoor toxins such as benzene and trichloroethylene from the air. You don’t need to be an expert to grow these plants that are forgiving of occasionally drying out and a reminder that winter will be replaced by spring.
Never give up. When rooting about in my basement for missing Christmas ornaments, I found a bag with several daffodil bulbs. The ground was frozen, meaning it was too late to plant them outside, but I was not ready to toss them into the compost heap. I planted the bulbs in a large pot, placing them much closer together than you would in the ground. For the month of January, they will sit in the cool basement to grow some roots into the potting soil. In early February they will go out into the colder part of my garage where they can get the 12 to 16 weeks of “chilling” required for bloom. After the ground has begun to thaw in the spring, I will put them on a porch and as soon as green tips appear, they will go out into the sun. With a bit of luck, the bulbs will bloom next April and I can plant them in the ground for future years after the flowers are gone.
Protect new plantings. If you haven’t chucked out your Christmas tree, use loppers or a saw to cut off the branches and place a light layer of those branches over shallow-rooted plants in your garden. The branches help to shade the plants preventing thawing of the soil around the plants and damage to the roots when it refreezes. Have an artificial tree? Your neighbor may be thrilled to share their fresh-cut one. Any evergreen branches from fallen trees, or that you used to decorate around your house will also help plantings survive our freeze and thaw cycles — the most dangerous part of winter for most plants.
Remove outdoor lights from trees and shrubs as soon as your holiday ends. The freezing temperatures and subsequent ice build-up are bad for the decorations and not good for the trees. You’ll find it is an easier job now than it will be in the spring when you will need to use extra caution not to damage swelling leaf and flower buds.
Get in those seed orders! Order your seeds now and don’t be disappointed when the company tells you in March that they have sold out of your favorites. A good rule is to order your old reliables, but always try a couple of new varieties. Next year they may your new “old” reliable.
Winter is for the birds. Birds need help too. Winter means little water is available so if you put out a heated bird bath that keeps fresh water available for drinking and bathing so will be very popular. If you also have out seeds and suet and maybe fresh fruit, you will have an unending show outside your window. And in the spring, your friends will eat the insects you not be so fond of having about
Previous January Hints
Effects of a Hot December. Did you take advantage of the warm weather to complete your autumn chores? Did you enjoy the unanticipated displays of cherry blossoms, forsythia and other unexpected flowers before the late arrival of cold weather? For most plants, the long, warm autumn did no lasting harm. There may be a few missing blossoms but, in general, the lingering warm weather allowed plants to soak up the water that they did not get during the dry summer or early fall. Once the ground freezes the trees and shrubs can no longer take up water while cold drying winds take moisture out of the leaves and needles of our evergreens. While spraying antidessicants on them can help, plants do best when they have been able to fill roots with moisture before winter settles in.
The greatest danger to your plants is not the cold but the warm days that can lead to the plants being pushed up out of the ground when it freezes again, exposing roots to killing temperatures. Once the ground freezes, you can help perennials and newly planted trees and shrubs better survive any winter thaws by topping them with a covering of leaves, straw or the branches from your Christmas tree.
Seed Catalogs and Other Temptations. The catalogs began arriving at my house by Thanksgiving – the earliest ever. Now they have become a torrent. As you settle into a winter hibernation, those catalogs provide a chance to dream and plan for next year. The growing season is easier if you begin now. Look back at your notes from last season (you did keep up your journal didn’t you?) and use that as a start. Were there flowers that you tried that should be regulars? Did the new variety of corn or tomato live up to the hype, or are you looking for heirloom squash that doesn’t produce by the bushel? Whether it is ‘old reliables’ or new possibilities, you are more likely to get what you want if you order seeds and plants early. And you are much more likely to be happy with the results if you do some research now.
Stop, Look and Learn Before You Shop. Want a tree to block the view of a neighbor’s hot tub? How much sun do you have and how much does your first tree choice need? How fast does it grow, and how tall or big around will it get? And how long will that take? This is a good month to do some armchair research toward next spring’s purchases. Look at the breeder’s notes, but also look at the information offered by those who are not trying to sell it to you. Go on websites that end with .edu — indicating that education, not sales is their business. I prefer university sites such as UMass, URI and UNH plus Cornell. Their climate is our climate and the professors and students are dealing with our problems and plant material. Look at articles written by respected writers such as Michael Dirr and Bill Cullina on trees, Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy on environmentally appropriate plantings, Edward Smith and Barbara Damrosch on vegetable gardening. There are many more, but you are looking for unbiased, sound advice so it is a good idea to stay away from the .coms and other commercial sites. Of course, once you have found the perfect tree, shrub or perennial, look to the nursery sites for availability.
House Plants No matter how carefully we plan gardens for “winter interest”, we cannot get our fingers in the soil or soak in the scent and feel of the garden for several months. So we have house plants. Whether you grow philodendrons or orchids, cactus or hibiscus, remember they need help to get through the winter — even indoors.
With much lower light levels than they had during summer (even at the same window) they need less water and no food. For most house plants you can throw out the schedule and water only when the soil feels dry a couple of inches down. And do not feed them until spring. They cannot grow successfully until there’s more light available. Cacti and succulents generally need no watering at all during the winter unless you see signs of wilting. Remember to give each plant a quarter turn every week—whether you are watering it or not–to keep it from leaning to the light.
January is the time for gardeners to spend on reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
Many wonderful books have come out in the last year. Catch up on one or two during your indoor days. My favorite this year was “The Living Landscape” byRick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Superb photos matched by insightful writing on how to create or recreate a garden that provides beauty and comfort for the homeowner, a place for the vital wildlife (micro and up) and a chance to make your corner of the world one that aids the environment instead of damaging it.
Don’t even think about put a trowel in the ground until you have read one book on soil. “Improving Your Soil” by Keith Reid isn’t a title that promises an exciting read, but for the gardener it’s a must read. Along with old favorite “Teeming with Microbes”, you will be reminded that there is no great garden without great soil. It’s the bacteria, fungi, worms and other creatures we aren’t always thankful for that make our soil great—if we’ll lay off the chemicals and let them.
Finally, if you always admire the flower arrangements at the Flower Show part of the Boston Flower and Garden show, but don’t think you can arrange 12 roses in a vase, take a look at Judith Blacklock’s “Flower Arranging, a Complete Guide for Beginners” She describes tools, techniques and how to keep flowers alive for more than a few days. Her designs may seem intimidating, but her explanations make them possible for anyone.
Now for your writing. I am encouraging everyone to start a garden journal — again. If a pretty hardcover book will get you going, find one. If you prefer to work online, type away. If you are like me and take your notebook into the garden and don’t care if your hands are dirty, use a spiral bound notebook from Staples. Start today and don’t stop. If all you have to say is that it is too cold to go outside today, put that down. Next time the temperature dips well below freezing you might note that the leaves on your rhododendron have curled into tight ‘cigarettes’. Note that. Keep writing until it becomes as habitual as brushing your teeth.
And now the arithmetic! It’s time to plan gardens for the coming season. Is it time to add new shrubs to replace overgrown old ones — or to get rid of invasive plants like burning bush? Before you decide you what you will buy or how many, check the dimensions of the area and learn how large the plant you are considering will grow. Mature rhododendrons in our yard, range from 30 inches tall and 30 inches wide to 15 feet wide and 12 feet tall despite frequent pruning. Some ‘dwarf’ trees are dwarfs only compared to the ‘mother’ tree’s 80 or 100 foot height. Know before you plant.
What are you planning in your vegetable garden? Did you have enough lettuce seed for your fall crop? Did you have much more zucchini than you could even give away? Make up your list of seeds from catalogs based on what your family can use. And redesigned your garden to make the most of it. I have 600 square feet and plant four different squash plants to keep myself, Neal and our neighbors in zucchini. Have a small garden? You may need only one plant and can use the space for something else.
Finally, go visit a garden. On a sunny day, come see Bressingham Garden, designed to be appreciated throughout the year. You’ll see tree bark, brightly colored or beautifully textured that is hidden by foliage in the summer. Stands of seed heads feed the winter birds and give you another way to appreciate perennials.
Other sites offer a step into the tropics. At the Lyman Estate in Waltham, the greenhouses are open daily and filled with orchids, bougainvillea and a host of other blooming beauties. In February, century old camellias will burst into bloom. On the campus of Wellesley College, a series of greenhouses take you through the desert and then room after room of the unusual and the unique. At Tower Hill Botanical Garden in West Bolyston, two magnificent spaces called the Orangerie and the Limonaia provide spaces to sit and breathe in warm air, the welcome scent of rich soil and the chance to imagine that it is next summer.
And plan ahead for the Boston Flower and Garden Show (March 11-15) and the Rhode Island Flower and Garden Show (February 19-22) where fantasy gardens and wonderful floral designs offer relief from the New England winter.
Yo-Yo Weather: The first weeks of January 2014 have been horrific ones for gardens, with sub-zero temperatures across much of the eastern U.S. For an extended look at how this month’s weather may affect your garden, read this article, ‘Yo-Yo Weather: The Arctic Plunge of 2014 and Your Garden.
Garden Journal. Call it a journal or a diary or your notes, use a wire-bound notebook or a fancy journal, but start keeping track of your garden today. What’s to record at this time of year? Start with the daily weather, add what you see out the window (birds at the feeder, storm damage from snow, winds, ice or snow plow).
Next, make note of any areas where an evergreen or woody plant with interesting bark would improve winter interest. As the season goes forward, report on the changes in the garden: buds swelling or plants pushing up the first greenery, for example. Come spring, add notes on areas where you might add new plants. Keep track of soil temperature if you are anxious to start a vegetable garden early.
We all have our own way of doing it, but it helps us remember what we wanted to do, when spring, summer and fall arrive, celebrate our successes and analyze our failures. Start today: it’s cold or wet or sunny, and there’s a redheaded woodpecker outside your window.
Protecting your plants. Since early November the weather has been on a roller coaster; below zero temperatures followed by 40’s and 50’s. Snow followed by rain, then rain followed by snow. Our New Year’s snow is a great insulator if it survives the next round of warmer weather. For plants hardy in our zone, cold temperatures are not a problem, but cold periods followed by warm-ups are.
The plants face two threats. Frozen ground suddenly thawed will thrust upward, pushing plant roots out of the ground, leaving them exposed in the next cold spell. Prolonged warm spells can convince a plant to start its spring growth. In each case, the result when the cold returns is damage or even death.
If you covered your garden beds with a layer of chopped leaves or other mulch in the fall, they are protected from the worst effects of the changing weather. It is not too late to give your plants a better chance by covering them (even over snow) with branches from your Christmas tree. Keeping sun off the bare plants will reduce the effect of weather fluctuations and increase the odds of their survival.
Order your seeds. Whether you are a vegetable gardener or a flower gardener, now is the time to pore over the catalogs and chose the plants you will grow this year. Even if you buy locally, the catalogs can help you put together a list. For rare, hard to find, or new varieties; catalogs may be the only choice. But if you use catalogs from other parts of the country, remember to double-check that anything you plan to grow will be happy in our climate. I buy nearly all my seeds from New England and New York based companies that share our climate.
While many leftover seeds from last year will grow this year, some – such as onions, corn, parsnips – do not store well. If you are not certain, put ten seeds from a packet in a wet paper towel. Keep it moist and warm and check to see how many sprout. If it’s fewer than seven, buy new.
Resolve to add houseplants. Many house plants do more than decorate our homes. Every day, they remove pollutants from the air, making the air better to breathe; something that is particularly important now when we are spending more time indoors.
Peace lily (spathiphyllum) is the one plant to have if you have only one. It is easily grown and highly effective at cleaning air of benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, trichloroethylene and even carbon monoxide. (We have one in almost every room of the house.) Others that rank highly taking out many pollutants include snake plant (sanseveria), spider plant, areca palms and philodendron.
Remember your houseplants are more effective if given a monthly shower in the sink to keep the leaves clean. Wiping the leaves of large plants with a damp cloth will also help to keep your plant a healthy and attractive addition to your home.
Keep your Christmas tree around. Temperatures have dropped into the danger zone for plants that are not securely tucked away for winter, but your Christmas tree can help those tender plants through the season. Cut the branches off your tree and use them to mulch flower beds or around the base of new shrubs. At this time of year, the goal of mulch (including the snow covering your garden) is to keep the soil cold and prevent roots from being heaved out into the air by freeze-and-thaw cycles. Plants in sunny areas may need your help the most. Young trees can also benefit from a gentle wrapping with burlap to prevent the sun from heating and splitting the bark on the trunk.
Start your year off clean, Use these non-gardening days to clean all your tools and prepare them for spring gardening. Wash all tools to remove dirt and any lingering chemicals or even hidden insects from 2012 gardening. Sharpen your pruners, loppers, shovels, spades and mower blades. Don’t know how to sharpen? Go to your favorite nursery where the staff can show you how, or check online for detailed videos that show you how to sharpen any blade. Here’s one that is short and to the point. When you have finished, use a clean rag and oil to put a thincoating on each blade. If your tools, like mine, live in an unheated garage or tool shed, this will prevent moisture from rusting the metal.
Start your year off green. Do you have leftover chemicals – pesticides, herbicides or fungicides hanging around your garage, garden shed or basement? These are dangerous poisons and must be disposed of properly. Contact your local Department of Sanitation or Public Works for the next chemical disposal day. And this year, pledge not to use lawn and garden chemicals unless absolutely necessary.
How do you avoid those chemicals? For starters, remember that healthy grass will crowd out most weeds. By contrast, repeated applications of lawn products kill the very valuable organisms that live in the soil and help grass to grow by providing nutrients naturally. Often soil organisms even kill off “bad bugs”. Many ‘problems’ are not truly problems. Crabgrass can grow only in sunny locations. Dandelions can easily be popped out of the ground with a Cape Cod weeder, or even an old screwdriver. Proper mulching prevents most weeds from growing in flower beds. Mildew on plants can be treated with a spray solution of baking soda and water.
Most insects are beneficial or benign – don’t kill your friends. As for the remaining two percent, a strong spray from a hose, hand picking or soap solutions will take care of most of them. Attract birds that feed on insects by providing shelter and water (trees, shrubs and a clean bird bath.) Don’t create more problems than the insects did by killing off the good with the bad.
Try a little tenderness (or humidity). The one thing houseplants suffer from the most during the winter is the dryness of our homes. While keeping plants grouped together is helpful, the best way to raise the humidity level is to set the plants on trays of pebbles. Keep water in the tray just below the top of the pebbles so the plants will enjoy the humidity without the risk of being accidentally overwatered.
Finally, houseplants should never be placed where they touch the window. On many winter nights, the glass is cold enough to damage the foliage.
January 2012 Horticultural Hints
Think Snow! Gardeners should join skiers now in praying for snow. The bare ground leaves our perennials (and any newly planted trees and shrubs) vulnerable to the freeze and thaw cycle. Without a blanket of snow to keep the ground cold, every warm day that follows a cold night includes the possibility of pushing plant roots up and out of the soil, exposing them to drying winds and freezing temperatures the following night. Cold weather doesn’t kill hardy perennials: warm days in winter can. Your Christmas tree is a great source of branches to shade perennial roots from the sun. You can also provide protection to plants with a layer of mulch, compost or chopped leaves.
The only good news in the December weather was the heavy rains have ensured the evergreens a good supply of water as they sunbathe their way into winter.
When we get snow, be careful removing it from walks and driveways. Never throw snow on shrubs or the branches of trees. Gently brush snow off laden branches to help the plant return to its natural form. Try to shovel your way out of the house. Footsteps or tire tracks in even light fluffy snow will create patches of ice where the snow is compacted. Getting rid of ice is more difficult and even more dangerous to your plants. Remember that ice salts do not work instantly. Use minimum amounts of ice melting salts and wait to see if the resulting melt allows you to shovel up the remainder. And don’t apply salts when it is too cold for them to work. Calcium chloride is only useful to 15 degrees. The newer ice melts stop working at 5 degrees. Salts will damage both the leaves and needles of plants it lands on, (think about all the dying pines along Routes 128 and 495) and the roots as it seeps into the ground. Where possible use alternatives such as sand or cat litter that will disappear into the garden or lawn in the spring.
Winter moths dancing around your lights in December are not a happy sight—you are probably facing an infestation of winter moth caterpillars in the spring. When they hatch in early Spring – anytime between late March and mid April – the small green caterpillars will tunnel into the leaf buds of oaks, maples, fruit trees and many others. They leave the tree weakened, requiring it to produce a second set of leaves. Most trees can survive one or even two years of this, but eventually the repeated stress will kill them. You can spray small trees now with dormant oil (on days when the temperature is above 45 and no hard frost predicted that night) to smother the egg masses. When the caterpillars hatch a biological product based on spinosad is the best control. For large trees, call an arborist, particularly if your trees suffered last year.
Spray your plants to save them. Winter is cruel to our plants. Harsh winds dry the leaves of the evergreens and hungry deer, rabbits and other varmints will eat almost anything they find. On warm dry days, you can spray evergreens with an anti-dessicant such as Wilt-pruf that helps the leaves and needles retain moisture. A monthly spraying on another warm day with an animal repellent may prevent leaves and flower buds from disappearing into the stomachs of browsers.
Cyclamen Rescue. First, not all holiday gift plants will be long-lived houseplants. Poinsettas take the patience of Job to re-bloom, amaryllis need at least a year to repeat their glory. But cyclamen can be perennial pleasers. We have one plant that has been with us now for 15 years. It may look ragged at times, but it blooms faithfully every winter.
The cyclamen that came into your home was raised in a greenhouse. It was given carefully controlled daily doses of water and fertilizer. Temperatures are adjusted to encourage the optimum growth and artificial lights provide for optimum light for blooming. Then we bring them into our homes where the air is painfully dry from central heating, the light on the table where reside or the mantel they decorate is not likely to be what they have grown used to. So don’t be surprised when your beautiful specimen suddenly has yellow leaves and drooping flowers, and don’t throw it out. Cut off dead and dying leaves, it had more than it can possibly support in its new home. Place it in the coolest room in the house, even the basement if it can sit next to a window. Cut back watering to once a week. The dying should stop in a couple of weeks and then you may see new leaves or even flower buds. Return it to hot rooms for only short periods of time. In the spring, set it outside in a well shaded location (ours summer under rhododendrons) and return it to the house in the fall. You may well be celebrating Christmas 2012 with it in a place of honor again.
Blankets Christmas brought a snowstorm that provided a lovely blanket on our gardens for a week, but then the new year brought the first thaw. The protection provided by a covering of snow is important to keep shallow rooted plants from heaving during frost and thaw cycles. If you had a cut Christmas tree this year, cut off all the large branches, then use them to create a light covering over perennial beds. Greens you used to decorate around your home, even wreaths, can be placed over gardens, right on top of the snow or bare ground, to protect the plants underneath . And if you have any mulch left over from last year, place that over the garden at a depth of 2 inches. You will not only protect plants for the winter, but save yourself some work in the spring. Remove greens in the spring when bulbs begin to show.
Dedicated recyclers may want to burn their Christmas tree in the fireplace, but it’s better to have it chipped for a mulch to go on your garden.
Houseplants Most of our houseplants are still resting through the short days of winter. Water (with room temperature water) only if the soil feels dry or the plant droops. Houseplants that were received as gifts have come to you from greenhouses and are in shock. Where is the high humidity, the bright lights, the perfect watering, they enjoyed in their old home? If they are losing a few leaves, or even more than a few, don’t despair. They are adjusting to their new environment and may well recover to be a long-lasting delight. I have a 14- year old cyclamen that came indoors in October with one leaf (after a summer under a rhodie) and now has a dozen plus leaves and an equal number of flowers.
Keep humidity high by clustering plants together, misting or placing pots on pebbles which hold water. [Make certain the pots stay above the water level to prevent root rot.] Central heating means bone dry air that promotes insects such as spider mites and cultural problems. And the dry air is not good for you either.
Composting Don’t forget to keep an open path to your compost bin. While kitchen scraps (and dead floral arrangements) can be kept in the house or garage during the coldest and snowiest periods, adding them to your compost bin now will lead to the pleasant surprise of a bin full of quantity of compost in the spring. Don’t have a compost bin? Make a resolution to start one at the first sign of spring. MHS will be selling closed bins that discourage scavengers.
New Plants The catalogs and magazines are filled with glowing descriptions of new plants. Sad experience has taught me to forego most of these. Too often plants are released before they have been proven in field tests or exposed to the ‘real’ growing conditions of New England.
We have all purchased the exciting new plant, promised to be hardy to zone 5, that died the very first winter in zone 6. Or the hybrid that reverted to its old form after one year. I have vowed to stick with plants that have proven themselves with time. The sole exception: annuals since my investment is smaller and my expectations are for just one the season. But beware, one lovely yellow grass promised to grow to 30 inches, but barely made it to 12, leaving my containers looking flat.
If you’d like to check out some of the new annuals that may be offered in 2012, stop by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society gardens this year and look for the All-American trial garden (right across from the Education Building) from June through September. Not only will you see some plants guaranteed to get you excited, you will also see some failures, because that’s how life in the garden goes.
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That first big storm the week before Christmas, and the one that seems to have started New Year’s Day and never stopped, should be reminders that snow removal in New England requires a plan that keeps plants and shrubs in mind. Whether you shovel your own or pay a contractor, there needs to be an understanding of where the snow goes – and where it doesn’t. Too much snow, particularly when compacted by a plow, damages trees and shrubs. Salt included in the snow can cause damage to many of the plants, including the ones underground right now.
Here are some other thoughts about dealing with snow: First, because salt damages plants, keep the use of salts on walkways and driveways to an absolute minimum. Often, you can make surfaces safe with sand, kitty litter and sawdust, none of which affect plants. Second, even though there may be snow on the ground, steer clear of areas with plants and perennials underneath as walking on them now will damage them. The same advice goes for grassy areas as well: you can inadvertently compact soil, depriving roots of oxygen. Take your winter walks on paths.
Christmas trees aren’t just for the holidays. They can brighten our spirits all winter. Placed upright, out of strong winds, they provide shelter for birds. Cut apart for their branches, they can be used to protect plants in beds from frost/thaw cycles. The cold is never as bad for plants as the midwinter thaws which can expose roots to the next cold wave.
Look out your window and enjoy your garden in winter. If the view isn’t everything you hoped, start making notes now in order to know what you want to add come planting time. Come to Elm Bank in Wellesley for a walk through the MHS gardens. There, you will find many wonderful plants that provide multiple seasons of interest.
Houseplants need special care now. Use lukewarm water when watering—tap water can be very cold at this time of year, and most indoor plants have tropical origins. Water sparingly and don’t use fertilizer for at least another month. If your plants are starting to lean toward the window, give the pot a quarter turn each week to even out their vertical growth. Remember not to allow plants to touch cold panes of glass or to close plants behind draperies when you are buttoning up your home for the night.
A January bath will improve houseplant health. Use a plastic bag to cover the soil and place the plant in a sink or tub and spray gently with tepid water. By removing dust and any household pollutants, you’ll do your plants a world of good as well as improve their appearance. Wiping each leaf with a clean cloth can serve the same purpose but is much more time consuming.
Finally, spend a day with the seed catalogs. Even if you prefer to buy most of your plants at the nursery, catalogs can provide wonderful insights into plants of interest and introduce you to new cultivars.