December 2003

Ground rules and tools for December
December 4, 2003
Victoria County Master Gardener

With winter approaching, and as the weather turns cooler and the days grow shorter, it is easy to forget that a true gardener's work continues year-round. Neglecting those routine chores or forgetting that some preparation and planting can still be done now can make for more arduous work come spring. The late fall and winter months are an ideal time to take care of maintenance needs and to begin preparing and planting for later.

Drain the gas from mowers, tillers and other equipment. Run the engines in these machines until the carburetors are dry. Doing this will prevent the old gas from building up a lacquer-like finish on the carburetors and can save a future trip to the repair shop.

Clean all garden tools - both large and small. Lubricate metal parts and rub linseed oil onto wooden handles to help preserve the wood.

Do not be in too big of a hurry to prune existing plants. Sit back and enjoy the holidays and ball games. Lightly pruning berry plants, such as yaupon or holly, can provide material for holiday decorating. However, save the heavy pruning for January or February. When the time is right, maximize safety and avoid accidents by planning ahead and wearing necessary safety equipment.

Christmas poinsettias will soon be readily available. Keep them cool; heat will cause them to dry out and shorten their lives. Do not be misled by the stories of the poisonous qualities of these beautiful plants. Tests by some universities have shown that this is not true. However, as with all plants, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to some plants, including poinsettias.

Outside planting continues even into the cooler months. For color in the beds, plant calendulas, flowering kale, pansies, snapdragons, stock, sweet alyssum and larkspur. These will last into early spring. Under heavily shaded areas use ground cover, such as lariope, unica, English ivy, Algerian ivy and monkey grass. It is also time to plant those spring-flowering bulbs.

Preparation should begin now for planting roses in January or February. Prepare the existing soil by destroying grass and weeds and incorporating composted manure and pine bark.

The cooler months are an excellent time to plant trees. Always dig the hole large enough to allow at least a 6-inch clearing around the sides for root growth. After setting the tree in the prepared hole, fill in with the same native soil, and do not add any amendments. Planting a little above the ground will allow for settling, but do not pack the soil. Water thoroughly to get rid of any air pockets, however, wait until late spring to fertilize, and only if the tree is growing rapidly. There is no need to prune or cutback container or burlap-wrapped plants, and cut bare-root plants back immediately at planting by one-third to one-half to compensate for root loss when they were dug. Water newly planted trees every seven to 10 days if dry, but do not over-water as this can cause root-rot. More trees fail because of too much water rather than from not enough. Be sure to add 4 to 6 inches of mulch around the base to help conserve moisture and control weed problems.

When preparing for and planting trees, always remember that what is now a small tree or a plant in a 1-gallon container will look entirely different in a few years. Plan ahead and think about what is the purpose of the plant - for privacy, shade, color or ground cover. Consider the plant's growth habits and what it will look like in five, 10 or 30 years.

Even though the weather is cooler, evergreens and lawns still need watering according to soil type during dry spells. Sandy soil requires more watering than does clay soil, and maintaining the moisture helps prevent winter injury and aids in frostbite recovery.

Clay soil can be made more workable with a new product called "blue shale." This is a porous, light-weight material capable of absorbing water then releasing it back slowly according to the plant's needs. When used in containers, mix it 50/50 with potting mix. Blue shale is sold under the name Tru-Grow. Check with local garden centers for availability

Recent studies have shown that gardening helps fight osteoporosis and is a legitimate form of exercise. However, always work carefully and employ smart techniques. Raised beds require less bending and stooping as do long-handled tools with grip surfaces. Stools can be utilized for weeding or planting, and kneepads should be worn as needed. Sitting areas allow for resting and enjoying the smells and sights of the garden.

Get the younger ones in your family involved in the garden and flower beds. Vegetables can be grown year-round in containers, so allow youngsters to grow something they like to eat, such as, green beans or squash. Let them help with the entire process - planting, watering, nurturing and harvesting, and always praise their efforts. They will attain quite a sense of accomplishment and joy.

Throughout the year, always purchase plants and materials from a reputable dealer. A bargain plant is not a bargain if it dies. When shopping, always look for plants with a hearty root system. Roots should not be too wet or dry, there should not be any knots, and they should not be thin or lanky. Do not hesitate to ask questions, and always read the information tags that accompany most plants. These tags provide feeding and watering instructions, sun or shade tolerance, and growth habits. Another source for good advice and help with problems is the county Extension office.

Because of the temperate climate in this area, gardening and yard work can be a year-round, beneficial family hobby. By planning ahead and keeping up with maintenance and preparation work, activities in the garden become enjoyable endeavors, not chores. Efficiently utilizing the "off-season" will make for a bountiful spring and summer garden.