Tidewater Gardening - January 2013

The January Landscape


K. Marc Teffeau

Happy 2013! If you are reading this, then I guess the Mayan calendar was wrong and the end of the world as we know it did not occur. So, let’s start thinking about surviving the winter gardening blues and getting excited for the spring.
Since I’m not able to prognosticate the type of winter we will have with conventional methods such as a bum knee or the width of the whooly bear stripes, I will assume that we are moving into a “normal” January for us. December was fairly mild and the nice aspect was that we received a decent amount of rainfall in November and December to help recharge the water levels in the landscape.
Even if we have a fairly mild January, we will still be stuck inside looking out at the dreary landscape. If we have a few days of nice weather, however, there are still a few things you can do in the yard. If you have a grape vine in the garden, January is a good time to prune it. Make sure that your pruning shears are sharp and clean.
If you have any questions about pruning your grape vine, there are a couple of instructional videos on YouTube that you can watch that you might find helpful. They will show you the basic methods. I find that the four-armed Kniffin system is the easiest to use.
If you have apple or pear trees in the yard, January is a good time to cut off sucker shoots from around the base of the trees. You can also prune apple trees now. If you do, be sure to remove the pruned branches and place them in the trash or take to the landfill to avoid the spread of diseases.
If we have a dry spell during January and the ground isn’t frozen, this would be a good time to till the vegetable garden and let it lay fallow. This practice will be beneficial if you had terrible insect problems this past year, particularly grubs, squash vine borers, and other soil insects. Tilling your garden in winter can help to control these insects. Many of them burrow down in the ground and spend the winter in a larval stage. Tilling can bring them closer to the surface and the low temperatures can kill them. Don’t till the garden if the soil is too wet, but if it is workable, this can help to start the season off clean.
The one plant that you can put into the vegetable garden now is garlic. Poke 4-inch-deep holes in the ground with the end of a rake and drop in the garlic cloves.
If you have a wood stove, don’t throw out that ash! If you are burning wood, save that ash until spring and spread it in your garden. Scatter it around your carrots, radishes, and onions to keep root maggots away. It will also improve the flavor of your potatoes.
Wood ash is high in potassium and will raise the pH of soil. Of course, use some common sense here when handling the ashes. Place them in a metal bucket or container, outside of the house or garage so as not to have the cooling embers be a fire source. Every year we hear about folks who accidentally burn down their house or garage because they put still-hot embers in the wrong type of container, or didn’t move them away from the house.
When I was a county extension agent, every winter I would receive calls concerning insects in the firewood. Homeowners often like to keep a supply of firewood indoors, stored close to the fireplace or woodstove. If the wood is old and has been stacked outside for some time, insect problems can occur. Dead and decaying wood is a favorite overwintering place for insects and spiders. These insects pose no problem until you bring the wood inside. Then, exposed to the warm house temperatures, they become active and start to move around. Given any time at all, these creatures will emerge from the wood and come crawling out to disturb your peace of mind.
Beetles, wasps, bees, ants, moths, flies, various spiders, mites, centipedes, millipedes and crickets are some of the pests often found in firewood. These insects and spiders seldom become established in the house, but occasionally they will appear in large enough numbers to cause concern. Will they bite or chew the house down? Probably not. The majority of insects that feed on wood, attack it only in its unseasoned form, so they’re not likely to start chomping on some prized piece of living room furniture.
Your best control for these unwanted critters is prevention. Keeping a two or three year supply of wood on hand increases the risk of insect infestation. Logs cut during the fall or early winter are less likely to become infested than those cut in the spring. The wood should be seasoned to burn efficiently and safely, but firewood that sits around for several years may rot and become infested.
It’s best not to let firewood rest directly on the ground for too long. Rotate and re-stack piles of firewood that have been in one place for a year or more, and keep it covered and dry. Indoors, bring in only a one or two day supply.
If you see insects or spiders, suck them up with the vacuum cleaner or whack them with the broom or fly swatter. A pyrethrum aerosol insecticide labeled for the general household control of crawling and flying insects can also be used. For a heavily infested log, leave it outdoors until the moment you are ready to throw it on the fire.
Under no circumstances should you apply an insecticide to the woodpile outside, or the wood you bring inside. Besides being a waste of money because it doesn’t work, it can also endanger your health. Pesticides give off hazardous gases when they burn. Treat the pest ~ not the wood!
I am going to make an assumption that we are not going to get away without having some snow or ice in the January forecast. When sidewalks and driveways ice up, people reach for the deicing salts. Use these materials very carefully to avoid any environmental issues. To prevent damage to your home and the environment, chooses a deicer carefully. Do not use plant fertilizers or products that contain urea because, if applied incorrectly, the nitrogen and phosphorous in them has the potential to harm local streams and the Bay.
The runoff created by melting ice and snow from one small sidewalk may not cause much harm, but the cumulative effects across the region can create harmful levels of salts and nutrients that eventually pollute the Bay. Another problem with using fertilizer is that as it breaks down it makes a mess and you can end up tracking the fertilizer into the house and onto the carpet.
Remember that deicing salts are just that ~ salts ~ that can have a bad impact on soils if they build up. Once the soil in a landscape bed or turf area is contaminated with too much salt, the only solution is to remove it and replace it with fresh soil.
Wondering what to do with your Christmas tree after the season has ended? Recycle it! As a result of our landfills filling up so quickly, many of them are no longer accepting yard waste ~ which includes your Christmas tree.
To recycle your Christmas tree, you can put it to use in the garden in a number of ways. Sever the boughs and place the smaller ones, curved end up, around plantings as mulch. Or, build a teepee-like protective canopy over laurel, azaleas and other tender plants to ward off snow. You can strip the needles from the remaining branches and scatter them under the drip line of acid-loving plants.
Use your discarded tree as a bird feeder by tying pieces of suet, strings of popcorn and other morsels of food to the tree. Hang a pinecone covered with a mixture of peanut butter and bird seed in the tree. You can also stake the entire Christmas tree in the snow as a windbreak to the windward side of tender broad-leafed evergreens.
A number of municipalities will now pick up the trees, chip them, and provide gardeners with the resulting mulch, free of charge. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used recycled Christmas trees to create duck nesting habitat on Poplar Island. Check the Star-Democrat or contact the town of Easton to see if that program will again be offered this year.
During January you can start the seeds of slow-growing flowers like alyssum, coleus, dusty miller, geraniums, impatiens, marigolds, petunias, phlox, portulaca, salvia, vinca and verbena. If you start gerbera seed now, it will be ready to bloom in June.
You can also start tuberous begonias and caladiums now to be set out in the spring. Set the roots in pots or shallow boxes of a soil mixture ~ 1/3 sand, 1/3 peat and 1/3 loamy soil. Cover them with 1 inch of this soil mixture. Keep the pots moist, but not wet, and in good light at 65°. Transplant to larger pots in 6 weeks and set outside in the ground after all danger of frost has passed.
During the winter, our interests also turn indoors to our houseplants and their care. Remember, don’t do a lot of fertilizing during the winter. They do not need it. Excessive fertilization can result in a salt buildup in the soil and may cause root problems. If you are growing plants in clay pots, excessive salts will show up as a white deposit on the outside of the pot.
Also, watch your watering. Depending on where the plant is located in the house, it may require more or less water depending on the environmental conditions. If the plant in question is growing in a cool, north-facing room, it will need less water than one that is in the living room, den, or family room where the woodstove is located.
If the leaves of your houseplant are turning yellow and dropping from the bottom toward the top, the plant may be suffering from over-watering. The plant could be in a pot that is too large and the excess soil around the roots holds too much water, leading to low oxygen levels and root rot. To avoid this problem, never put a plant into a pot that’s more than 1 to 2 inches wider than the root ball.
Wilting can be caused by too much water, too little water, or over-fertilization. Leaves with brown edges may be a sign of chronic under-watering or periodic episodes of severe drying out.
Happy gardening!

Marc Teffeau is the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. He lives in Preston with his wife, Linda.