Gardening for the long term

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

(12/13) Now that Christmas has almost come and gone--what are your plans for the rest of the winter? I'm not a person who has a 5- or 10-year plan but short term is just fine. If you really planned ahead, maybe you bought a live Christmas tree that you plan to put in your yard and if you were really good, you already have the hole dug and ready to accept this living thing that will need some care to survive. Let's hope it's not too cold to be planting outside after Christmas and also hope that the soil isn't completely frozen. In our area it probably is manageable. Assuming you did buy a live tree you probably kept it watered and sheltered and only set it up in your house at the last minute to keep it as fresh as possible. The tree should be inside no more than a week in a cool room--65 to 68 degrees during the day and less at night. The tree should be watered every day or so by wetting the soil ball directly; be sure to protect your floor with plastic or a large shallow container. If you keep it in your house too long it may break dormancy and begin to grow; planting outdoors after that may cause injury to the tender shoots. When it's time to transfer your tree back outdoors, do the transition slowly: put it in your garage or other sheltered area for a week or so to get used to the cold temperatures again; continue to keep the soil ball moist. Your tree is probably wrapped in burlap and tied with string--be sure to loosen the string; there is no need to actually remove the burlap--it will rot in the ground. Caution--if it is wrapped in plastic-coated burlap you will need to remove it before planting. More long-term planning will be required in April or May after all danger of frost has past--fertilize your tree with an all-purpose fertilizer. Treat it well to serve as a reminder of a special Christmas for years to come.

More long-term planning: Did you wipe your gardening tools clean after use and before storing for the winter (you did put them away didn't you?) If you didn't, do it now so they aren't covered with snow until they reappear in the spring. Moist soil on blades encourages rust and dirt can dull pruner blades. Actually this job should be ongoing every time you use your tools. Wooden handles require special care. Wipe all your wooden handles with linseed oil to keep them from splitting due to dryness and sharpen the blades with a file.

Taking down the Christmas decorations can make your house seem awfully dull and dreary--how about forcing some bulbs to brighten your house. Amaryllis bulbs are readily available in garden stores or catalogs--sometimes you can find them on sale after Christmas and sometimes they have started to grow in the box. Take them home and plant in soil (or in water) to have a blooming plant for several weeks. If you plant in water, fill a clear vessel (a bulb forcer) with a 3-inch layer of stones or pebbles; add the bulb then add more stones around it for stability (the weight of the stem makes the plant vulnerable to toppling over). Add water just below the bulb, but not touching it and monitor the water level to make sure it remains consistent. If you plant in soil, use potting soil and fill the pot 2/3 of the way up the bulb, keeping the neck and shoulders free of soil. Water regularly while blooming. As blooms fade, reduce watering. As far as a long-term plan, you can keep your plant till spring and plant in a sunny location in your garden, either still in the pot or in soil. Bring back into your house before the fall frost and you may have this plant for many years.

In addition to amaryllis you can brighten your house by bringing in cut branches of pussy willow, forsythia, crabapples, or other spring flowering shrubs to force into bloom indoors. Be sure to cut the branches with sharp pruners. The pussy willows may form roots in the water and possibly you can plant outside in spring or share with friends to plant.

What about the geraniums you brought in to store over the winter? By now they are probably getting very leggy since most houses don't provide enough light to keep them in optimum condition. You can cut back the plants to about a foot or less tall. They will re-sprout and grow bushier as the days get longer in late winter. You can also root 4 to 6-inch cutting by stripping off the bottom set of leaves, dip the cut ends in rooting hormone powder (available in garden stores) and stick the cuttings into a pot filled with moistened potting soil. Keep the soil moist, and they should root in a few weeks.

The ultimate in long-term planning: New Year's Resolutions. Here are some for gardeners:

1. Don't blame yourself for gardening failures. Simply try again and learn from the experience.

2. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Take advantage or others' experiences and learn from your garden-fanatic friends.

3. Try something new. Have you ever met a gardener who didn't want the newest of the new or something out of his or her comfort zone.

4. Share your passion. Perhaps you will be the reason your children serve homegrown veggies to your grandchildren.

5. Embrace nature and garden for the birds, bees, and butterflies and all the pollinators that enable us humans to enjoy all the many forms of food brought to us by pollinators.

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