January 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener Association
Ground rules and tools for January
January 6, 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener

'Things are always at their best in their beginning," French philosopher Blaise Pascal declared. Now is the time of year when we're all focused on new beginnings. Hope revives inevitably with the new year and we just know we're going to lose that extra weight, get in shape and adhere to all resolutions we make. The Romans even welcomed the new year by paying homage to a god just for that purpose. Janus, the deity of beginnings, was pictured on Roman coins looking forward and backward at the same time.

Temperatures in our part of the state also fluctuate forward and backward this time of year, but winter has arrived and so have freezing temperatures - and even snow! With the weather now occasionally dipping to near freezing and below, be sure to cover those tender plants. Use cloth or Row Cover (lightweight material available at local nurseries) to cover plants - and avoid plastic directly on top of them. Stake down the corners of the material with bricks or stones. The earth around the plant will release heat and keep it from freezing.

In the likely event some of your plants froze with the sub-freezing temperatures and snow on Christmas Eve, your best bet is to wait until winter is over to cut back the dead foliage on perennials. Another freeze may still follow, freezing them even more, so it is best to wait. Also, the snow has in many areas blanketed the plants from the hard freeze - which may come next time without the snow.

Another useful strategy is to uncover the mulch around plants during the day so the earth can soak up the sunshine. In the evening, as cooler temperatures descend, cover the area again with the mulch. Heat will again be released from the ground to the plant. Yet another method to heat plants is to water the ground around the plant and to sprinkle the plant with water. Be forewarned, you can get too much of a good thing. An excess of water on the ground will cut off the oxygen supply, and too much water/ice on the plant will break its limbs.

Knowing our plants that survived the snow are protected, we can move on to the necessary tasks that confront the gardener who wants to start a year of new beginnings on the right foot.

Now is a good time to get an advance start on your spring garden by ordering seeds for flowers and vegetables. The time spent in armchair gardening before the fireplace will pay off in improved plant selection. Besides, it is fun to page through the garden catalogs.

Preparing beds for the new growing season is a must. But before you begin, you might want to sit down and draw up a plan of just how you want to space your crops in the garden. By deciding now just where you're going to put those tomatoes, beans, squash and melons, you can save yourself a lot of time later. Planning helps determine the number of plants or seeds you want to buy, the cost and the space they will occupy in the garden. Even a small plot will benefit from a little bit of planning and will help you next year in terms of crop rotation.

Like housekeeping, gardening has its mundane chores. Old beds need to be cleaned; debris, weeds and other unwanted material should be cleared out. This is a good time to refurbish the old beds by adding any compost material or other ingredients to improve the soil.

Do not fertilize newly set out trees or shrubs until after they have started to grow, and then only very lightly the first year. Now is an excellent time to select and plant container-grown or bare root roses to fill in those bare spots in your rose garden or borders. Be sure to prune back the top of established trees and shrubs before moving them. Remove about one-third to one-half of the top, preferably by thinning versus dehorning, to compensate for roots lost in digging.

Sow seeds in flats or containers in protected structures to establish plant growth before hot weather arrives. Petunias, begonias and slow-growing transplants should be sown in early January. Warm-temperature plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, marigolds and periwinkles should be sown later this month, or in early February.

If you received a flowering plant as a gift this Christmas, the life of it can be prolonged with proper care. Keep the soil moist but provide drainage so excess moisture can flow from the pot. Keep the plant out of range of heating ducts and away from heating units; also keep it in a cool room at night, preferably at 60 to 65 degrees F.

Check junipers and other narrow-leaf evergreens for bagworms in pouches. If left on the plants, the worms can start their cycle again by emerging from the pouches in the spring and begin feeding on the foliage. Removing the pouches by hand now and destroying them is an excellent means of reducing the potential damage next spring.

Rose pruning in South Texas may be done in January. Climbing roses should be trained but not pruned at this time. Weave long canes through openings in trellises or arbors and tie them with jute twine or plastic/wire plant ties. Securing canes now prevents damage from winter winds, and contributes toward a more refined look to the garden when roses are blooming. Wait until after the spring flowering period to prune climbing or once-blooming shrub roses.

If you still feel the need to do some actual planting there are vegetables that can be directly seeded in the garden in January. They include beets, carrots, chard (Swiss), Chinese cabbage, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach (winter) and turnips. Flowering plants, which can be planted outdoors to enhance your landscape, are agapanthus, alliums, amarcrinum, amaryllis, cannas, crinum, gladiolus, day lily, hyacinth, lilies (true), nerine and rain lily.

Gardeners all have their favorite stories about just what inspired them to embark on their beloved journey of cultivating God's garden. Mine involves a spring day on my grandparents' farm. My grandmother brought me a Treesweet Orange Juice can and stuffed black soil in it. She punched a hole in the soil and gave me a pinto bean to put in the hole. The next week Mother and I returned to the farm. My grandmother told me to come look and see what had happened to my bean. She picked up the can, and I saw a small plant just beginning life's journey. I have never lost my sense of wonder.

My childhood experience brings to mind a quote from "The Gardener's Essential" by Gertrude Jekyll. Miss Jekyll was an English gardener dubbed "a philosopher of horticulture" by Doris Grumbach of National Public Radio. In her book, Miss Jekyll writes: "But the lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives. I rejoice when I see anyone, and especially children, inquiring about flowers, and wanting gardens of their own, and carefully working in them. For love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies, but always grows and grows to an enduring and ever increasing source of happiness.