We are in the middle of a frigid cold spell (a little redundant?) with a promise of milder temps at the end of the week. Even with the upcoming mild weather I know it’s too soon to do any serious gardening. But the pull to be outside is irresistible. So, I took a brief walk in the snow-covered landscape. Let me tell you what I saw and let’s talk about what to do in your winter garden.
Rabbit and deer tracks are all over. They are looking for what to eat, especially the rabbits. Now that we have some snow cover, they can easily reach the elevated buds of a variety of flowering plants. One year, they ate all the buds of our azaleas. So I am determined to prevent that. But they are voracious eaters so I need to trap and extradite the varmints, which is tomorrow’s agenda. Right now, that should be easy…a little bit of fresh lettuce or spinach in a Hav-A-Heart trap should work. Then it’s off to a local wooded area (over a large body of water) for all their future meals.
OPEN THE GARDEN SHED
Then it’s a visit to the garden shed. In a frigid winter mice usually take refuge there so getting them to go somewhere else will be the first order of business. A surefire way to make a shed less appealing is to spray deer repellent throughout the area, especially under the mower housing. I have already lost one mower to a mouse nest in the engine compartment.
SPRAY DEER REPELLENT ELSEWHERE
The deer are another issue altogether. In frigid winter temps, you can’t use a liquid deer repellent. Milorganite to the rescue. I have some that I can scatter around susceptible plants in the short term. Deer avoid this granular, organic fertilizer (SMELLY!). It’s easy to spread and takes no time at all. But we know what too much fertilizer will do to hydrangeas, so when the temps are above freezing later this week, I will spray the plants with Deer Defeat, a highly effective non-toxic (also smelly) deer repellent.
Above freezing temps are the ideal time to apply your favorite animal repellent. Take advantage of the nice weather (when the windows are still closed) to liberally apply whatever you use to keep those varmints away. It might be a long time before you get this opportunity and they get hungrier by the minute.
SHOP FOR NEW HYDRANGEAS AND COMPANION PLANTS
Remember that post I did a while back on hydrangea companion plants? It turned out to be one of my most popular posts last year. Maybe now is the time to go back and re-read it to see if you want to add any of those plants in 2024. What’s better than garden dreams?
DRAG OUT THOSE GARDEN NOTES AND PHOTOS FROM 2023
I hope you took the time last season to record what happened to your hydrangeas. Now is the time to review those notes and photos so you can make some decisions about which ones to replace, move, cut back, etc. Maybe you need to install some soaker hoses to keep them hydrated when your summer drought conditions return. You know that always happens. Or maybe your climbing hydrangea needs a new trellis. Look around – I’m sure you’ll see things you didn’t last year.
REPAIR, CLEAN, AND SHARPEN YOUR TOOLS
Cleaning your tools is easy. Use a brush to get rid of loose dirt and debris. Then soak the work end in a bucket of warm soapy water and sponge off any residue. Finish them off with a sterilizing soak or spray of isopropyl alcohol (the kind you buy in the drugstore). You can also use sterilizing wipes. We have a lot of Covid experience with that product, right?
Sharpening tools is next on the list. This applies to shovels (so you can dig more easily) as well as pruners and other cutting tools.
Finish off your tool work with a light oiling to prevent rust. You can use an oil-soaked rag or paper towel for this. No need to use anything toxic. I find cooking oil to be just fine for this job. A spray product is usually helpful for the hard-to-reach places like hinges. Disinfecting and oiling now will be some of the best work you do to prepare for the season.
It’s too soon to do any mulching in cold climates. That will only hold the cold in which is not your objective. But if you are in a warmer climate, you could start to address your mulch situation. Weed seeds germinate when the soil temp reaches about 55 degrees (when the forsythias bloom), so pre-empting that germination process by covering the soil will pay dividends in the growing season.
WEEDING AND GROOMING
Weeding is the garden job that never ends. Even a slight thaw will reveal the dreaded garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a Connecticut invasive plant. With workable soil I should be able to pull it out. It’s about the only green growth I see so it’s easy to spot and remove. Maybe you’ve got a thug in your garden that you can give the heave-ho while you enjoy your walkabout.
The hellebore foliage has been suffering with the cold temps, ice, and snow. The plants look pretty ratty so cutting the foliage back now before the flowers emerge might be yet another small activity to do on milder days. When I wait too long and the flowers start to push up, I inadvertently cut a flower stalk or two by accident. So cutting the foliage back now keeps me from making that mistake. The other early spring bloomer is epimedium. You can get rid of all that foliage now before those flowers emerge. Foliage will regenerate later on after the flowers have gone by.
PRUNING AND PLANTING
If you are in an area with no deep dormant season, you could start pruning your hydrangeas. Remember to only go after the ones that flower on new wood (arborescens and paniculatas). All other hydrangeas flower on old wood so cutting them now will potentially remove this year’s flower buds. Cold climate gardeners can do the same but I would suggest you wait until Mother Nature has taken her best shot over the next 90 days.
In warm areas, you could also start planting now, whether it be hydrangeas or other plants. Just be sure you keep an eye on the weather for unexpected late season cold snaps. They could ruin your best plans.
ENJOY THE DOWN TIME
You might just want to enjoy the downtime that a dormant season provides. There will be time enough to get out in the garden before you know it. Meanwhile, find a flower show or two to attend. The displays and education sessions are always worthwhile, especially when you are with your “tribe.”
UPCOMING PUBLIC SPEAKING DATES
Speaking of flower shows, I have a few public dates to share with you where I’ll be speaking and selling signed copies of my best-selling hydrangea book:
February 18, Southeastern Connecticut Home Show at Mohegan Sun Convention Center, Uncasville CT: “SAFE SOLUTIONS TO GARDENS & LANDSCAPES” – 12:15 – 1:00 p.m. (entrance fee for the show)
February 22, Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, Hartford, CT.: I’ll be at the Connecticut Gardener (a terrific magazine) booth and available to answer your hydrangea questions (entrance fee for the show).
February 23, Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, Hartford, CT.: I’ll be at the University of Connecticut booth from 10.30-1 p.m. with other Master Gardeners. We’ll be available to answer your gardening questions (entrance fee for the show).
TELL/BRING YOUR FRIENDS – I WOULD LOVE TO MEET YOU!
Thanks for reading.
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