Malcolm McDowell Woods
The Natural Gardener

What to do when things are dormant

By - Feb 2nd, 2010 03:17 pm
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The garden may be resting, but now is the time for the gardener to prepare for spring.

The garden may be resting, but now is the time for the gardener to prepare for spring.

Greetings, gardeners.

It’s still winter and the gardens are resting, and so are we. Or are we? We may not be digging and planting, but we can be preparing for the next season. A cold or snowy day is a perfect time to bring out last year’s gardening journal or photographs to recall both your successes and challenges. This is valuable in deciding what to repeat or what to change, even eliminate.

Events that enlighten
February brings a number of gardening expositions, workshops and classes. The Milwaukee Audubon Society, in concert with the Concordia Center for Environmental Stewardship, holds its Natural Landscapes Conference, The Treasures in Our Backyard, at Concordia University on Feb. 7. The Wisconsin Public Television Garden Expo in Madison is one of my favorites. The event is Feb. 12-14 at Alliant Energy Center with more than 100 workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics. The Realtors Home & Garden Show is March 19-28 at State Fair Park. Gardening displays, speakers and UWEX Master Gardeners will provide information.

Great gardening resources
Many organizations and garden centers hold classes and workshops during this down time. Topics range from starting plants indoors to environmentally friendly practices, plant selection, even beekeeping! Friends of Boerner Botanical Gardens at Whitnall Park offer classes for both children and adults. Discovery World offers four evening programs, March 9-30, with garden expert and author Melinda Myers. Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, known for its Italian Renaissance Gardens, offers an annual lecture series in March. The Milwaukee Art Museum repeats its successful Art in Bloom on April 2-5 with speakers, demonstrations and workshops.

If you need to shape up your trees and shrubs, the University of Wisconsin Extension will hold pruning workshops on March 24, 27 and 29. For information, call Ann Wied, consumer educator, UWEX, Waukesha County, at 262-548-7788.

Local publications can provide timely information. Sharon Morrisey, Milwaukee County UWEX consumer horticulturist, writes a monthly column in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Entrée section starting in April. Melinda Myers has a weekly podcast on the Journal Sentinel‘s website, plus a newspaper column.

For specific plant questions and problems, call the Milwaukee County UWEX Horticulture Helpline at 414-256-4664, Monday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon. On Fridays at 11 a.m., Wisconsin Public Radio (90.7) airs Garden Talk. Host Larry Meiller and guest experts answer call-in questions. The program repeats at 7 a.m. on Saturdays.

Getting into basics
Winter is a good time to appraise the shapes of leafless trees and shrubs. This is the time to prune, if necessary, while they are dormant. However, do not prune spring flowering species or you will eliminate this year’s flower crop. Lilacs and forsythia, for example, should be pruned soon after they finish blooming. Before making the first cut, get information on proper techniques. The book Month-by-Month Gardening in Wisconsin by Melinda Myers is an excellent source.

As the soil emerges from under snow, check areas where you planted spring-flowering bulbs. Note any areas with standing water or ice; plan to move the bulbs to a better location after they bloom. Look for any bulbs that sprouted prematurely and make a note to cover them with mulch next fall. This is the beauty of a well-kept gardening journal!

After perusing the seed catalogs, consider starting vegetables and flowers indoors. It’s not an expensive investment and provides more plant choices than you can find in garden centers. Again, Month-by-Month Gardening in Wisconsin is a good guide. Some seeds can be started as early as February, including pansies, gerbera daises and impatiens; snapdragons, verbenas, moss roses, eggplant, broccoli and parsley can be started in March. By April, you can move outdoors with cool-season crops such as beets, peas, radishes, carrots and other vegetables.

If you are over-wintering geraniums or tender perennials, keep checking them for any insect or disease problems, then consult your books or call the UWEX Horticulture Helpline if you spot a problem. By March, you can repot your geraniums, cutting them back to four to six inches above the container. Find a sunny spot and treat them as houseplants.

Planning your landscape
Now that you have absorbed fresh and creative ideas from many diverse sources, you can plan for your landscape.

If you want to expand your garden beds, put plans on paper; be sure to take the amount of light and drainage in each area into account as you plan. For resources, check out the UWEX publication, Planning and Designing Your Home Landscape, specific books, publications or landscape design classes.

What if you have absolutely no room for additional beds? If you can’t expand in traditional ways, think about creative options including vertical gardening that adds plants on fences, trellises or even free-standing supports. Read Melinda Myers’ book Small Space Gardening for fresh insights on growing vegetables and flowers. Be sure to visit the All-America Selections site for current selections and more ideas.

Color your garden
Gardeners often complain that landscape color waxes and wanes or even disappears. If you want continuous color, take time to research attributes of individual plants including blooming time and length of bloom. Some of my resources include the National Garden Book by Sunset, Taylor’s Guides: Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and the American Horticultural Society’s Great Plant Guide.

Be prepared
Before you set out for the nursery or garden center, prepare your shopping list! Even an experienced gardener may be tempted to buy “one of everything,” especially new introductions. Take a list of specific plants for each landscape area, including containers and trellises. Choose plants for an area that have the same requirements — don’t mix sun loving and thirsty plants with those that require shade or don’t like wet feet.

Don’t rush the soil — it’s all about planning right now
If you have limited sunny space for growing vegetables, there are alternatives such as container and/or vertical gardening. I can’t accommodate pumpkins, squash and other “sprawlers” but I do grow fit containers of tomatoes, peppers and herbs in sunny spots. Containers let me plant earlier too; container soil is warmer than that in garden beds.

Explore UWEX vegetable publications for ideas and information. Our growing season can be somewhat limited, so check maturity times. Be realistic too about plant choices — list what your family will actually eat or might be willing to try.

Explore environmentally conscious choices such as rain gardens or rain barrels to reduce runoff. This list contains local rain barrel distributors.

As we move towards spring, April entices us outside. Don’t rush to work your soil if it’s wet; you may end up with cement-like chunks all summer. Remember that we can have frost in April so hold off planting tender flowers. Instead, plant a pot of frost tolerant pansies, repair bare spots in the lawn, inventory your tools and start a garden journal if you don’t have one.

Spring is still a few months away. Enjoy your quiet time now, revel in your gardening books, take a class, attend an exhibition, and dream on!

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