Only Two Months Away

Valentine's Day along College Creek

Valentine’s Day along College Creek

Although it’s hard to imagine on this cold February day, with skies low and white; we are only two months away from our frost free date of April 15.

Two months:  eight weeks:  maybe 56 days.  April 15 is the published “frost free” in our part of Virginia, here in Zone 7b.  Mid-April is the earliest for us to move tender annuals and perennials back outside to start the summer garden.

The last few winters have been so mild, tomatoes and herbs have shown up at the big box stores by mid-March.  Most gardeners know that vegetable plants set outside before the weather settles can get stunted from the cold, but they are very hard to resist.

March 2012 in the back garden

March 2012 in the back garden

Our friends, the Pattons, over at the Homestead Garden Center, try to explain to eager gardeners each spring that one must wait until the weather warms to set out tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and Basil.  It seems many of us want to get ahead of the season and plant as early as we can.

It is important to wait until the soil warms up considerably before planting anything in the ground.  We also need to wait for the soil to dry some, after all of this winter rain and snow, before working with it to prepare beds for planting.  Working with garden soil when it’s too wet will compact it, which makes it hard for roots later in the season.  The soil will have a much different texture once it warms and dries out a bit.

Butterfly garden in March 2012, trimmed, weeded, and with a fresh topping of compost.

Butterfly garden in mid- March 2012, trimmed, weeded, and with a fresh topping of compost.

Last year, with a beautiful warm and early spring, I began planting pots and baskets way too early.  We got some late cold weather, and I had to haul all back inside the garage; more than once.  At least nothing got frost bitten, but I did try to rush the season.  It is so hard to be patient once we get a whiff of spring!

An early March planting of Rununculus and Alyssum, both able to stand up to cold, but not freezing temperatures.

An early March planting of Ranunculus and Alyssum, both able to stand up to cold, but not freezing temperatures.

There are things we can do to get a jump on the season, even when early spring still feels like winter.  Here are gardening tasks I’ll begin working on during the rest of February and into early March:

1.  It is time to look over the various pots, baskets, tools, soil, and seed starting equipment left from last season.  We can inventory, clean, organize, and make a shopping list of what we need to begin the gardening year.

Pansies will soon respond to wramer days and nights with renewed growth. Here with miniature daffodils.

Pansies will soon respond to wramer days and nights with renewed growth.   Here with miniature Daffodils.

2.  By now, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to grow this spring.  With no orders yet placed, it is time to get busy ordering seeds, tubers, and plugs.  Seed displays will show up soon in many stores, and always tempt.  This is a good time to look through any packets left from last season, and decide what needs to be purchased.

3.  Most seedlings started indoors need about 6 weeks before they are ready to acclimate to the out of doors.  That means we can begin planting them indoors most any time now.  It is important to have strong light for seedlings.  We either need good space near a window or a set up with lights so they grow stocky and compact.

Caladiums growing with cane Begonia.

Caladiums growing with cane Begonia.

4.  Caladium tubers can also be planted this month indoors.  I plant them in plastic shoe boxes.  Line the shoe box with paper towel to wick the moisture evenly through the soil, and add about 4″ of good potting mix.  Plant each tuber, eyes up, shallowly so it is just covered, and water in .  Space tubers at least 2″-3″ apart, depending on the size of the tuber, to allow for root growth.  Cover the box with the lid, and put it somewhere warm and out of the way.  Begin checking for growth after the first 2 weeks.

Once the Caladium leaves begin to grow, uncover the box and bring it into the light.   Plant individual Caladium plants into their permanent pots, or into the ground, once they have at least one leaf.  Caladiums do best if kept warm inside until late April or early May.  They grow best when nights stay above 65F.  Caladiums, ordered in bulk from growers in Florida, can be had for around a dollar a tuber.  Purchased at the garden center in leaf, they cost many times that.

5.  Although its too early to work the soil, one can spread a fresh layer of compost of top of established beds.

Rose of Sharon should be trimmed back now to remove last year's seed heads and twiggy growth.  Blooms come on new wood.

Rose of Sharon should be trimmed back now to remove last year’s seed heads and twiggy growth. Blooms come on new wood.

6.  It is also time to tackle winter pruning.  Once we have several days in the 40s, and several nights in a row that don’t freeze, I’ll oil my pruning shears and head out to work on the Rose of Sharon, Crepe Myrtle, roses, vines, and fruit trees.  I will still wait to cut back the Lantana until after the first of March.  With our very cold winter, it is hard to know whether many survived, but I’m going to give them a better chance by waiting a while before cutting them back.

7.  I want to trim back the Hellebores.  All of the leaves left from last season need to come off so the new growth and flowers can shine.  Those old leaves are poisonous, so it is important to wear gloves when trimming them back.  They can be recycled as a mulch in areas plagued by voles.  As they break down in the soil, the poisonous compounds will settle in the soil as well.

Hellebores

Hellebores

8.  Winter has been very hard on my pots this year.  Many Violas look hopelessly ratty, where they have frozen repeatedly, and browned in the sun when the soil was frozen.  I need to do a lot of cutting back and cleaning up to make the pots look presentable, and replace  a few of the Violas with fresh ones.  Bulbs are beginning to poke up through the soil, and I want the pots to look good as they begin to bloom.

9.  Pots of summer flowers stored over winter in the garage are getting leggy.  It is time to cut them back, and pot up the cuttings so they can root before I want to set them outside in mid-April.  Scented Geraniums, Begonias, Fuschia, and Coleus will all grow easily from cuttings.

Tuberous Begonias may be started in plastic boxes in the same way as Caladium tubers are started.  Started by late February, they are ready top plant outside in late April.  Blooming here in June.

Tuberous Begonias may be started in plastic boxes in the same way as Caladium tubers are started. Started by late February, they are ready to plant outside in late April. Blooming here in June.

10.  It is nearly time to plant cold hardy herbs and spring vegetables.  Parsley is one of the earliest herbs we can plant out doors.  It can stand up to snow and freezing nights fairly well.  We can also plant seeds for peas, sweet peas, spinach, and a few other vegetables within the next few weeks.

Parsley can grow outside all winter long in our area, and is the first herb to plant in spring.

Parsley can grow outside all winter long in our area, and is the first herb to plant in spring.  Growing here with chives and Violas

11.  We need to do a spring clean up of leaves which have fallen or blown into the garden this winter.  They lurk on the patio, in borders, and on the lawn.  One dry day in the 60s I’ll head out with a rake and leaf blower to tidy up.  I reverse the blower to suck the leaves up and mulch them.  The mulch then gets added to the soil under shrubs.

12.  It is finally time for our first spring trip to the Homestead Garden Center to see what has come in.  Joel Patton has been growing a crop of English Primroses in his greenhouses, and they are already available along with  overwintered Violas.  I hope to find Ranunculus, and an early selection of perennial starts.  We found great deals on perennials and ferns in little 2″ pots last spring.   Early spring is the second best time to plant trees and shrubs so they can establish their roots before the heat comes in May.   It must be a long and lonely winter for those in the nursery trade, and we look forward to a visit one day soon…. when it’s not snowing.

At the moment, the rain has turned back to snow outside my window, and the temperature is plunging back down towards another night in the 20s.  It feels quite wintery here today.  But we know that it can all change overnight.  As the jet stream returns to its usual northern route and the clouds blow out to sea, the sunshine and warmth will return one day very  soon.

I plan to be ready to greet spring when it finally settles back into the garden.

March 25-28 013

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2010-2014

I order Caladium tubers from Caladiums For Less, and am delighted with their product and service.

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Winter Pruning

december 15 2013 Santas 008

When winter days turn warmish and dry in the afternoon, many of us like to get outside and do some small thing in the garden.

This is the perfect time to begin pruning hardwood trees and shrubs to shape them up for the coming season.  Why prune at all?

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

– Improve the plant’s shape and general appearance

-Control the plant’s size

-Improve the plant’s health

-Increase the plant’s vigor and bloom in the coming season

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm.  Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm. Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.  Much of the new, twiggy growth needs to go so energy is channeled into growing a new structure for this tree.

Many small trees, like Crepe Myrtle and Rose of Sharon, produce lots of chaotic, twiggy growth during the summer season.  With the leaves gone, we can take a moment to examine each one and determine what to leave and what to prune.

Before pruning any flowering shrub, please make sure you know whether it blooms on old wood left from the previous season, or on new wood.  Shrubs like Forsythia, Azalea, Hydrangea, and Lilacs set buds for the coming spring blooms during the previous autumn.  Any late winter pruning removes the branches set to bloom in the coming spring.  A hard pruning will sacrifice that season’s bloom.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

An unpruned shrub is a confusing mass of little twigs and larger branches.  Before making the first cut, take a few moments to study the plant.  Look for its structure; the  main skeleton which gives it shape and form.  If you are new to pruning, take photos of the plant and spend some time studying them on your computer before making any pruning cuts.  As you examine the plant you’ll begin to see what should be left behind to support the new season’s growth.

Here are the general things to consider before beginning to prune any woody plant:

Size:  Is this plant at its mature size?  If a plant is still growing into itself, you want to help it develop a strong structural skeleton of branches.  Consider whether you want one main trunk with side  branches, a main trunk which forks and bushes out into several main branches as it gets taller, or whether you want a clump of main stems which branch out into a large canopy of branches.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood.  These English shrub roses don't require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood. These English shrub roses don’t require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Any time you cut the tip off of a branch, you will activate the buds lower on the branch so they grow into new lateral branches.  If you cut the tip off of a main vertical stem, two, three, or more new man stems will grow from the buds below that cut in the coming year.  A “fork” will develop, multiplying your one main stem into several.  The canopy will grow broader.

Crepe Myrtle will "sucker" with new vertical growth around the main stem.  Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk.  Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

Crepe Myrtle will “sucker” with new vertical growth around the main stem. Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk. Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

If you want to keep a clumping shrub, like Crepe Myrtle, to a single trunk; remove the new smaller vertical growth coming from the base.  If you want a ‘ clump”, remove all but the strongest few vertical stems.

If grazing deer attack your garden, as they do mine, remember to “limb up” trees as they grow so the lowest limbs are too high for the deer to reach.
This is especially important if you have any fruit trees, so tasty leaves and fruits are out of reach.  If you don’t do it, deer are attracted to graze in your garden and will do the pruning for you…

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March.  These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March. These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Density:  Most shrubs and small trees need light to penetrate through the canopy to the interior of the shrub.  Keeping the branch structure somewhat open will increase flowering and improve the plant’s health.  Air circulation allows the plant to dry faster after a rain, reducing fungal disease.  An open structure allows strong winds to pass right through, limiting damage in storms.

Remove branches growing towards the plant’s interior.  Keep all lateral branches growing outward towards the periphery.

Where branches cross, select one to keep and one to remove.  Don’t leave branches touching one another, or crossing in the interior of the shrub.

January 1 2014 Parkway 005

Very old, and damaged trees and shrubs might need heavy pruning. All damage and dead wood should be removed, then the remaining branches thinned. In extreme cases rejuvenate by cutting the tree down to a stump. New growth will come from the stump in most cases.

Where many tiny twiggy branches have grown, especially on a vertical stem, remove all but a few strong ones placed where you want new branches.  If the shrub is small, and these twiggy branches are close to the ground, you can safely remove them all.  Remove up to a third of the wood on most small trees and shrubs.

If a shrub must be pruned to keep it smaller than its natural size to fit its spot in the garden, keep in mind that every cut stimulates new growth.   Cut the main vertical stems shorter than you want the plant to be by mid-summer, since the pruning cut will stimulate new vertical growth.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning.  Its buds are set in autumn and should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom.  Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning. Its buds are set in autumn and so it should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom. Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

It is better to remove a branch all the way back to a main stem than it is to “head it back” part way, unless you intend to stimulate new lateral branches.  If you prune off the tip, all of the buds below the tip are activated to give new branches.

Appearance:  Remove any branch or stem which is obviously dead.  Cut back any broken or damaged branches to an inch or so below the damage.  Remove or head back any branch which ruins the silhouette of the plant, or conflicts with the general lines and shape you have established.

“Dead head” seed heads left from last year’s flowers.  Remember that when you cut back a branch, you stimulate growth of new wood, and therefore new spots where flowers will emerge.

Butterfly bush, Buddhleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub's size and get abundant bloom.  This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub’s size and get abundant bloom. This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

A fine point:  Examine a branch before making the pruning cut.  Notice the tiny buds along the branch.  Choose the bud you want to stimulate to grow and make the pruning cut just above it.

January 9 pruning 007

Notice three new stems are left in addition to the original trunk of this Crepe Myrtle tree, cut off when the tree was crushed in June. I could remove all of these, but left them to form a clump to eventually hide the damage. Notice how little wood is left after pruning. All of the plant’s energy will pour into these branches in spring, and the tree will grow by several feet in the coming season.

Notice the buds are positioned all around the circumference of the branch.  Some point inwards, others outwards.  Choose a bud growing in the direction you wish the dominant new branch to grow, and cut just above this bud.  Make a diagonal, angled cut just a millimeter or so above the chosen bud.

Your newly pruned plant will look very clean and open when you are finished.  Remember this is just the plant’s skeleton.  Spring will clothe these branches not only in leaves, but also in new wood.  The shrub will fill out very quickly through spring and early summer.  Vigorous new growth is a hormonal response to pruning.  A pruned plant will actually grow larger and more vigorous in the following season.

Exceptions to the rules:

Some shrubs, such as Butterfly Bush, want to be cut back nearly to the ground.  Use heavy pruners or a small saw to cut the entire plant back to only a foot or two tall.  This is called “coppicing,” and this form of pruning is used to rejuvenate many species of shrub and tree.  New growth from the remaining trunk will be fresh and vigorous.  Butterfly Bush often grows too large for its space, and flower production declines when it is left unpruned or is pruned too lightly.  Do this in late winter, but after the worst of the freezing weather is over.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn.  Winter pruning removes the spring flowers.  If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn. Winter pruning removes the spring flowers. If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Roses are often coppiced.  Tea roses respond well to hard winter pruning, giving more blossoms on the newly grown wood.  Climbing roses and
English shrub roses shouldn’t be pruned so hard.  Shaping, removing dead or damaged wood and crossed branches are all that is required.  An old, thick rose may be rejuvenated by pruning up to a third of the older stems back to just above the bud union.  Younger plants don’t require such drastic treatment.

Spring blooming shrubs, like Forsythia, should be pruned in late spring, after they bloom.  If you do tidy up a Forsythia with light pruning in late winter, bring the pruned branches inside in a vase of water and enjoy them indoors as cut flowers.  I’ve had these forced branches eventually form roots, and have planted them outside where they grew into new shrubs.  All woody spring blooming shrubs can be forced to bloom early indoors in this way.  If you have fruit trees to prune, you might want to bring some of the branches indoors, in a vase of water, to enjoy their early blossoms.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Tools:  There are many brands and styles of hand pruners on the market.  Choose pruners which feel comfortable in your hand, have a sharp blade, and are sturdy enough to trim the shrubs you need to prune.

Keep the pruners cleaned by disinfecting the blade from time to time, and keep them sharp.  Ragged or torn cuts allow disease to enter a stem.  Make sure your pruners make clean, sharp cuts.  Use loppers or a pruning saw for larger branches.

Gather your cut branches on a tarp on in a large bag and remove them from the garden.  There are many traditional uses for larger branches.  Some may be used to build trellises, small fences, stakes, or may be used in building a raised bed.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all.  Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month.  These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all. Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month. These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Use or dispose of all your trimmings.  Just leaving them lying about on the ground encourages disease and insects.

Pruning can be done a little at a time over the next two months in Zone 7b.  Further north, it pays to wait until February or March so plants aren’t stimulated to grow too soon.  Further south, pruning is an ongoing task in the garden.  Winter allows us to see the bones of our gardens, and the structure of our plants.  It is a good time to shape, refine, and lay the ground work for the garden we will enjoy this coming spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife.  However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife. However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Preparing For the Cold

January 4 ice 079We are experiencing unusually cold weather here in the United States.  Although much of the country prepares for temperatures at or below zero each year, many of us living near the coasts rarely see temperatures fall into the teens, let alone anything colder than that.

And when it does get cold here, it normally comes in short bursts.  After a day or so, we have sunshine and a thaw.  We began our day this morning with a gentle rain, overcast skies, and a high around 60 F.  January 4 ice 045

We don’t know exactly how cold it will be here by morning, but our schools have already cancelled classes out of concern for the children traveling in the expected unusually cold weather.

Many families living in coastal Virginia don’t have wardrobe for the cold, and don’t want to bundle up!  I vividly remember snowy winter days when I had 12 year olds show up for school wearing shorts and T shirts; without coats, hats, or even a hoodie to protect them as they changed classes from one portable classroom to the next.

Here you see our beautiful Ginger Lilies, reduced to mulch by winter freezes.  They are protecting both their own rhizomes, and the roots of roses and other perennials.

Here you see our beautiful Ginger Lilies, reduced to mulch by winter freezes. They are protecting both their own rhizomes, and the roots of roses and other perennials.

Now some of us have the same casual attitude towards winterizing our gardens.  So often our winters are mild here.   Although the USDA indicates that it can get down to 5 F in Zone 7b, we rarely experience that degree of cold.    We don’t routinely bundle up our tender plants in wire cages stuffed full of straw or leaves.  We don’t spread heavy mulches over perennial beds after a hard freeze because we know that encourages the mice and voles to nest among the perennial roots.

Our forecasters indicate we may set a record tomorrow for the lowest high temperature ever recorded for January 7.  Our previous record was 28 F, but we may not get that warm here tomorrow.  There isn’t a lot of agreement on what our low will be, but guestimates weigh in around 12F by early morning.

So what can we do to help our plants through a frigid spot like this?

If we have leaves or straw, we can still spread those over tender perennial and shrub roots.  Our tomato cages can come out of storage and shelter small shrubs, like hydrangeas, which might not be able to take the icy winds.  Drape the cages with heavy plastic, a tarp, or even shade cloth to break the wind and provide some insulation.  Just as we add layers when it is cold, we can do what we can to add layers of protection for our garden.

We will leave all Christmas lights burning until the temperatures warm above freezing again.  They small heat they generate will help the plants survive the cold.

We will leave all Christmas lights burning until the temperatures warm above freezing again. The small heat they generate will help the plants survive the cold.

All pots with marginal plants, like the olive and pomegranate trees, have come indoors.  I’ve moved the remaining  pots up against the walls of the house and out of the wind.  The house provides tremendous shelter.  I’ve lowered my remaining hanging baskets to a protected spot between the pots, and emptied all containers with standing water from the morning’s rain. Since water expands when it freezes, any standing water can damage pots, saucers, and masonry as it freezes.

We’ve covered our outdoor spigots with Styrofoam  spigot covers from the hardware store, and made sure all of the foundation vents are covered.  Finally, my partner has gone over everything outside numerous times, and has left lights burning in all of the areas around water pipes, and for the plants spending the winter  in the garage.   We are also leaving all of our outdoor Christmas lights on until the air warms back up in a few days.  The little bit of heat they give might make the difference for the plants near them.

I've brought this, and other pots of Violas up close to the house, out of the wind, to survive the extremely cold weather blowing in tonight.

I’ve brought this, and other pots of Violas up close to the house, out of the wind, to survive the extremely cold weather blowing in tonight.

The only thing left to do is move a few Begonias away from windows and out of the drafts they cause when it is very cold out.

And, most of all, for those of you fortunate enough to have larger acreage, don’t forget all of your equipment, such as lawn mowers, tillers, tractors, etc.  that you think will be fine; because they are made for “outdoor use.”

Just like cars and trucks, they need to be winterized and protected.  Check oil and coolant levels, provide what shelter from the wind you can, and start them to let them run before the temperatures drop below freezing.  Otherwise, as soon as it reaches the 20s again, start them and let them run for a few minutes.  It may seem like a lot of work, but it beats having to replace machinery when the block freezes or the battery cracks from the cold.

Pots sited against a wall enjoy heat stored up during the day and radiated at night.  They also have shelter from frigid winds.

Pots sited against a wall enjoy heat stored up during the day and radiated at night. They also have shelter from frigid winds.

Likewise, if we can protect a plant with a bit of shelter or insulation, it will save replacing it, or waiting for it to grow back from the roots.  Here in Zone 7b, we don’t have our routines established for dealing with extreme weather.  We just have to think through what we need to save and protect, and them improvise with the materials we have at hand.

Please stay warm, bundle up yourself and your loved ones, and stay healthy  this winter.   Protect the pipes and keep a fire in the hearth if you can.   Like every other challenge, we can manage a spot of cold when we think it through.

This, too, shall pass; and spring will return in a few short weeks.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

January 4 ice 021

At low tide, the ice is left as a blanket across the now lower Creek.

Plants Through the Post (Forest Garden)

Wild Ice (Forest Garden)

Winter Pruning (Forest Garden)

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