Winter is the best time to examine the bones of your garden.
With the leaves on deciduous plants gone, you can see where you need structure, where you need evergreens and where you need to prune. You also have time out from planting and harvesting when you can think about building structures, such as walkways, decks, raised beds or seating areas. Our generally mild winters are a plus in this, as you can get outside even in January to mess with lumber, edging or stepping stones. Go out, stare at your gardening space and draw a map of what is already there. Consider what you’d like to keep and what isn’t working. Envision what you’d like to see there and draw it in on your map. Draw a plan for how to build what your mind’s eye sees and make a materials list. Gather the materials and get started. Then, any day that’s warm enough to work, you’re ready.
Get a soil test kit or take a soil sample to your County Extension office to find out the pH of your soil and whatever nutritional needs it has. The County Extension office test kit has room to write what you plan to grow in the area, and the results will come back with specific instructions as to how to raise or lower the pH and what nutrients that crop will require. Go ahead and make adjustments this month. It takes a while for amendments to do their work. Lime, for example, takes at least two months to break down and begin to raise the pH of the soil for crops like tomatoes, asparagus, peppers and other lime/calcium loving plants. Compost takes about as long to break down into usable nutrients.
Think about which areas you’ll be using for which crops and consider their needs. Potatoes, for example, like more acid soil than tomatoes or beans, so leave off the lime where you plan to grow them. Blueberries are another acid-loving crop, so amend soil where you plan to plant them with lots and lots of organic material such as leaf mold, rotted manure and pine straw. Blueberries can be planted this month.
You can plant dormant bare root perennial vegetables or berries, such as asparagus and strawberries, this month. Follow planting instructions that come with the plants. Different plants have different needs for maintaining dormancy until warm weather returns. Our mild winters have wreaked havoc with some plants, such as asparagus, not getting enough cold time to become completely dormant or remain that way until warm weather returns. If they are not dormant, a sudden hard freeze will kill them. You may have to chill some roots or bulbs in your refrigerator before planting.
You may still be harvesting kohl family greens: cabbage, collards, kale, chard, mustard, etc. Depending on the weather, you may also still be pulling carrots, turnips and beets. If a hard freeze is expected, pile mulch on top of root crops to moderate the soil temperature. They should keep pretty well in the soil over winter if you don’t have problems with voles or borers.
Start seeds for lettuce, snap peas and other early crops you’ll be setting out in March. Order seed potatoes to plant at least two weeks before the last frost. Yukon Gold and Norland Reds grow well in Zones 7 and 8 because they are early-mid season crops and can be harvested before the worst heat of the summer.
Annuals and Perennials
Pansies and violas are amazing plants. They are able to withstand freezes and bounce back with happy faces when the weather warms up. They do this by withdrawing water from the above ground parts of the plant down into the roots. When temperatures warm, the water is released back into the leaves and flowers. Keep them mulched and well watered and enjoy them all winter. They won’t survive the hot summer, but by then everything else will be in bloom.
Plant container grown or bare root roses this month. Keep mulched and watered.
Plant summer- and fall-blooming perennial bulbs now. Sow frost-tolerant perennial seeds now. Start seeds of summer-blooming annuals indoors for planting out in March.
Dormant hostas, asters, phlox and other perennials may be dug up and divided now.
Trees and Shrubs
You can still plant trees and shrubs this month, especially fruit trees and evergreens. Keep watering the ones you planted in the fall if rain doesn’t provide. They are growing roots whenever the soil is warm enough, and hydrated plants withstand hard freezes better than ones that are stressed from lack of water. Keep them mulched out to the drip line, at least.
When you move your living Christmas tree outdoors to the hole you dug for it when you bought it, make sure you remember that the tree will not always be the cute little six-footer you bought. A white pine can grow to be 100 feet tall, a hemlock to 70 feet. Make sure you’ve given the tree’s eventual size adequate consideration in choosing its site.
Now is the time to prune fruit trees. Cut off any diseased or damaged wood and prune out the vertical water spouts. Try to encourage strong horizontal branching and a strong central leader for apple and pear trees. Peach trees, on the other hand, like to be pruned into an urn or vase shape without a central leader.
If you want to prune evergreens (most don’t need it), do it now when the pine bark beetles are dormant.
Prune camellias after they bloom.
If you have blueberries, prune back the old canes (five years or older), leaving five to seven younger fruiting canes. You’ll have fewer berries come spring, but they will be larger and sweeter.
Protect tender plants from frost with row cover or frost protection blankets.
If you are planning to plant a fescue lawn next month, you may want to get the ground ready late this month by tilling and adding a heavy-on-the-nitrogen lawn fertilizer, such as 22-2-2, according to the instructions on the package. Don’t till unless the soil is dry enough to crumble in your hand, otherwise you’ll damage the structure of it and wind up with compacted soil that won’t grow a thing. Make sure to remove weeds, including the roots, from the area where you plan to plant fescue.
Warm season grasses, such as Bermuda, centipede and Zoysia, need no particular attention this month.