Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winter Gardening Chores and Tips

Many simple chores that do not take an exorbitant amount of time outside (it’s too cold), should be getting checked off of your to-do list. What a benefit to have these chores finished when the spring finally arrives. 
If you didn't get around to mulching the beds before, it can still be done if the mulch material is not frozen stiff.  Materials like pine needles, straw, leaves, and evergreen branches can be used to protect small plants. 
Pine Needles as Mulch
Pruning is one of those chores that seems to intimidate the gardener.  I've actually had folks ask if pruning would kill their shrub or rose.  Not likely, if one doesn't get all Edward Scissorhands about it! Mainly, pruning is making judicious cuts on branches that may be too long, or that are rubbing an adjacent branch.  Taking no more than 1/3 of a shrub is recommended to prevent the plant from stress. Pruning dormant trees including fruit trees, and summer or fall flowering shrubs at this time is preferred.

Several types of pruners are available. See some of them here

pruning shrubs
Some of the shrubs and trees that can take a dormant winter pruning are Crape Myrtle, Pee Gee Hydrangea, Spirea, Butterfly bush, Flowering Plum, and Potentilla. Berry bushes will produce more fruit if pruned to encourage new growth.
Flowering  Plum tree
Pruning early spring flowering plants like forsythia or azaleas will cut off the buds for this next season. Prune these early flowering plants just after the blooms have faded.  The full season of growing will ensure that next years’ buds are allowed to develop.

Rabbits and voles can damage the bark of shrubs and trees.  So, inspect the trunks around the ground for signs of rodent damage. 
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The tube barriers of hardware cloth or plastic needs to be as high up the trunk as a typical snowfall, and buried into the ground an inch or two.  This bark damage can effect the life of the shrub since the bark carries nutrition and water up into the plant.

rhodo wilt
Severe Moisture Loss of Rhododendron
Water, or rather the lack of water in winter is a problem that some simple maintenance on the part of the garden can eliminate.  Antidesiccants like Wilt-Pruf sprayed onto broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons, azaleas, or holly can reduce moisture evaporation.  Likewise, if there is a thawing of the ground during the winter, a deep drink from the hose will keep the evergreens hydrated. 
This time of year is a great time to add organic fertilizers to the shrubs.  I use the excuse of a mild winter day to get outside.  Mostly, I apply fertilizer for acid-loving plants  like Espoma Holly-Tone  This fertilizer will not dissolve, but will be used by the microorganisms in the soil once the weather and soils get warmer.  I also like to add Sulfur, a natural element that lowers the pH of the soil -  a condition that hydrangeas like to produce blue blossoms. 
blue hydrangea
Mop Head Hydrangea
I’ve had many inquiries about the low, or no blooming hydrangea that are certainly a disappointment.  Several things affect hydrangea blooms. Low light, too much shade, and since hydrangeas set buds in the fall, a late freeze or ice event can kill off those buds.  I was even ready to throw out the Ever-Blooming Hydrangeas as a waste of time after two seasons of disappointing performances.  But one thing that remedied my infrequent bloomers was adding Triple Phosphate
The N-P-K of fertilizers indicates the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, three key elements for plant growth.  Phosphorous aids in the development of strong root systems, and the production of blooms.  The summer after I applied the Triple Phosphate to the soil at the base of the plants in late winter, I had more blooms that ever before.  Now is a good time to apply Triple Phosphate for summer blooming shrubs.  triple phosphate
These few winter chores of pruning, mulching, and fertilizing your plants now will pay big dividends with shapely shrubs that are full of blooming color. Other tips for winter plant care are in a previous blog, seen here.
Middle Atlantic Chapter American Rhododendron Society

Thanks for letting me add to your to-do list.  Enjoy!
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