Horticulture Hints by Neal Sanders – February 2020
If you have trees or shrubs to remove, or other major work in the garden, get it done while the ground is frozen in order to prevent much more serious damage that will occur if it is done when the ground softens in the spring – usually by mid-March. Soft ground compacted by heavy machinery will need a major reworking to make it loose enough for plants to grow well next year. Few things are as bad for lawns or gardens as soil compaction.
Get out and take a class! Whether it’s on vegetable gardening or orchid growing, pruning shrubs in your yard or replacing your conventional lawn with a more environmentally sound alternative, use the time you are not gardening to become a better gardener and steward of the land.
Take advantage of days when it is above freezing to spray dormant oil on your fruit and nut trees. Dormant – also called horticultural – oil is harmless to birds and bees. It coats and smothers egg masses of damaging insects so they will not hatch and start eating the tree’s new leaves in the spring. It must be applied on days when the temperature is above freezing and before leaves start to open, so February and March provide the best window for their use.
On a warm day, consider a trip around your yard to refresh the anti-desiccant coating on both broad leaf (like rhododendrons) and needled evergreens that can be damaged by strong sun or drying winds over the winter. (Wilt-Pruf and Wilt-Stop are two such products). While we have mostly had a mild winter so far, every New Englander knows there is no guarantee harsh weather isn’t coming.
If you are a vegetable or flower gardener who starts your own seedlings indoors for planting later, February is the month to get ageratum, petunias, and other annual flowers started along with vegetables such as beets, leeks, lettuce and onions. Your work now will give you a head start on a more productive garden this season.
While this has been a low-snowfall winter thus far, that can change quickly in February. Clear snow around small trees and shrubs to make it harder for rodents to eat the bark. On a warm day (above 40 degrees), spray deer repellents on the evergreens that the deer eat. As they get hungrier, deer become less fussy about what’s on the menu, but a mouthful of repellent may send them to another area.
Deer are on the lookout for food this time of the year, and the evergreens around your home are a prime target.
One of the hardest things for birds in the winter is the lack of water. While putting out seeds and suet certainly helps, a shallow container of water birds can drink from is vital. If you don’t have a heated bird bath, put out fresh water for the birds each morning in a sunny location. It may freeze during the day, but the birds in your garden will have had the chance to get a very important drink before it does.
Winter Sowing 101
Last call! If you are planting either a vegetable or a flower garden from seed this spring, early February is likely your last chance to get the widest selection from seed catalogs or quality seed company web sites.
Time to send lawn movers to the repair shops for a tune-up before the shops get overwhelmed in March and April. Remember that sharp blades do less damage to your grass. If you are considering a new mower, keep in mind that rechargeable, battery-operated mowers need less maintenance and do just as good a job as gas-powered ones without the air or noise pollution.
Sharpen the garden tools you will need for your spring clean-up and gardening. Once you’ve got out your sharpening kit, don’t stop with clippers and pruners. Shovels and hoes are more efficient and save you work when the blades are clean and sharp.
Clean up old chemicals. Like food, garden chemicals have expiration dates. “Old” products may have broken down and no longer be effective. If you have bottles of weed killers or insecticides from last year (or years before), you should put them aside to go to the next local collection day for hazardous chemicals (usually held in the spring). If you purchase new chemicals, always mark your purchase date prominently so you don’t use products that may no longer do the job, but could still pollute your environment.
Out with the phosphates. If you have an old bags of fertilizer in your garage or shed, it’s likely that it contains phosphates (that’s the middle number on a fertilizer container). As of last year, phosphates may no longer be applied in Massachusetts unless the soil has been tested to show a real need for the chemical. Why the ban? Phosphates run off lawns and gardens, polluting streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and the ocean; causing a huge increase in vegetative growth to the detriment of the native plants and animals that live there.
Snap off the candles. Do you want to keep your pines, firs or spruces dense and compact? This is the month to snap off the ‘candles’ that will otherwise grow; extending branches out to areas where you may not want them to go.
If a soil test has shown your soil to be too acidic for growing a lawn, flowers or other plants, put down lime over snow now. As the snow melts, the lime gradually moves into the soil. Fireplaces ashes can be used but they must be spread thinly. They are more alkaline than lime and can damage plants if applied heavily.
Winter Salting of roads and walks is a fact of life in our area and while it does promote safety it can be damaging to landscape plants.
Common Symptoms of Salt Injury:
- Damage mostly on the side of the plant facing the road or sidewalk
- Browning or discoloration of needles beginning at tips
- Bud damage or death
- Twig and stem dieback
- Delayed bud break
- Reduced or distorted leaf or stem growth
- Witches’ broom development (tufted and stunted appearance)
- Wilting during hot, dry conditions
- Reduced plant vigor
- Flower and fruit development delayed and/or smaller than normal
- Fewer and/or smaller leaves than normal
- Needle tip burn and marginal leaf burn
- Discolored foliage
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Early leaf drop or premature fall color
Management Strategies for Mitigating Salt Injury include:
- Reduce salt use.
- Make applications carefully.
- Protect plants with physical barriers.
- Use salt tolerant plants in areas near roads,
driveways, and sidewalks.
Forcing Branches to Bloom Indoors
The branches you choose will need to be at least 12 inches long and should have several tight but plump buds on the branch. Carefully cut the branch away from the parent shrub or tree with a sharp clean knife. You may want to take a few more branches than you need, just in case some fail to bloom properly indoors.
Once inside, the next step in forcing early flowering branches is to first carefully split the base of the branch about 4 inches up the branch and then trim an inch off the base. Place the whole branch in warm water. If it is not possible to submerge the whole branch, at the very least the cut ends should be placed in warm water.
After the branches have soaked overnight, remove them from the water and place them immediately into the container or vase where they will be displayed. The water in the container should be warm. Place the flowering branches in a room that is 50 – 70 F. Forcing flowering branches will be faster at higher temperatures but you will have better and longer lasting flowers if they are kept at lower temperatures.
The flowering branches will need bright, indirect light in order to bloom indoors properly. Direct light can be very intense and may burn the branches or flowers.
The time it takes to force branches to bloom indoors can be anywhere from one to eight weeks, depending on the variety of flowering shrub or tree you are trying to force and how close it was to blooming naturally outside. Like any cut flower, you want to make sure that you change the water in the container where you are forcing branches to bloom often. This will help the flowers on the branch last longer. Cool temperatures will also help keep your flowering branch looking lovely longer. Some
branches to try are: pussy willows, forsythia, serviceberry, lilac and redbud.