Winter is the hardest time for gardeners in the northern zones. There is little we can do outside. But this month, at least, we can begin starting seeds indoors under grow lights and imagining the bounty that will come of them when we set our sturdy little transplants out as the soil warms up. If you haven’t done so already, purchase seeds and seed starting supplies now and let the dreaming begin!
In the meantime, if you are staring out your window at a monochromatic landscape of grays and whites, and wish you had some RED to look at, here are five easy ways to make it happen.
Red-Twig Dogwood (Cornus alba) – On a sunny day when snow is on the ground, this plant can supply wonderful warm red color. Even without snow cover, the twigs of this beautiful shrub just glow in the sun.
Winter Fire (Pieris japonica) – The new foliage of this evergreen shrub is a fiery red and covers the shrub at this time of the year. In the spring, clusters of drooping red flowers appear.
Perennials – Although these perennials offer more of a burgundy color than warm red, ‘Dark Towers’ Penstemon, with its evergreen foliage, and many varieties of Heuchera, offer good foliage color throughout the winter months.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) –The brilliant red berries of winterberries stand out well and can be seen from quite a distance. This shrub is deciduous and the berries cling to the branches after the leaves fall off. Another bonus of this shrub is that it attracts birds to your yard. Hollies also have bright red berries while the dark leathery green leaves stay on the shrub year-round. Both a male and female variety are needed for winterberries and other hollies to produce berries.
Cardinals –The bright red plumage of male cardinals is a delight at all times of year, but particularly seen against white snow. They are attracted to sunflower seed feeders and will stick around most of the winter.
It is not unusual to see the foliage of early hardy bulbs peeking prematurely out of the soil if there is a period of unseasonably warm weather in late winter, especially if the bulbs have a southern exposure or are planted near the house’s foundation. Do not be too alarmed since the flower buds are still tucked safely underground. The exposed leaves may be nipped when cold weather returns, but the plants will still bloom later in the season.
A dozen long-stemmed roses is a traditional and lovely Valentine’s Day gift, but one that can be enjoyed only fleetingly. Why not give a gift certificate for an actual rose plant instead, so the sight and smell of rose blossoms can be enjoyed for years to come? Choose a hardy, disease-resistant shrub rose like one of the Knockout series for beauty and ease of care. To really woo your sweetheart, offer to plant the rose yourself come spring!
Some cool season flowering annuals can be grown from seeds sown directly in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, including calendula, white lace flower, bells-of-Ireland, sweet alyssum, larkspur and annual baby’s breath. These plants will often self-sow in future seasons if you let some flowers go to seed.
You can start slow-to-germinate plants such as parsley, thyme, tarragon, geraniums and sage in seed trays. They may have enough light from windows, but you may need to supplement with a grow light. Start early cool season vegetables such as chives, onion and leeks under lights.
Small, compact seedlings are better transplants than older, leggy ones. Most seedlings take eight weeks or less to be garden-ready, so count back from final frost about two months for the very first sowings.
Wash previously used flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach to water to prevent fungal disease that can kill seedlings. Instead of potting soil, use a finer textured seed-starting mix.
If the soil in the garden is dry enough to work, you can begin tilling or spading the soil. Add compost, well-rotted manure or other organic matter and turn under your cover crops if you planted any. Perennial vegetables such as rhubarb, asparagus, horseradish and artichokes may be planted this month.
Now is the time to prune deciduous trees and shrubs (including fruit trees) while they are dormant. Don’t paint the wounds—let them heal naturally. Always use sharp tools to make clean cuts on any dead, damaged, or diseased wood, suckers and water sprouts. This is especially important in winter’s harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing, breakage and disease.
Remove Viburnum twigs that bear egg cases of Viburnum leaf beetle (usually the newest growth from the past year). Be sure to destroy the twigs or put them in the trash. Don’t dispose of them in the compost or brush pile since the eggs may survive.
Water evergreen shrubs on relatively warm days if winter precipitation is below average.