As gardeners, one of our New Year’s resolutions might be to keep track of tasks that need to be done in the garden. Spring is here before we know it and we need to have our patios and gardens ready.
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There is some time to lose. Otherwise we will be overwhelmed by spring. Gardening is a year-round activity, not just a spring activity.
As I write this right at the end of the year, we still haven’t had a freeze. When I look out the window, I see heliconias and angel trumpets still blooming. If we freeze, we will later have to cut back such tender plants.
After a freeze
How far we have to cut them back, however, all depends on the severity of the freezers and the individual plants. If you just arbitrarily knock all these tender plants back almost to the ground, you could unnecessarily lose a head start on next year’s growth.
Several weeks after a freeze, examine each stem for signs of life. There is no substitute for scraping the bark and looking for green under it. Last spring, for example, when I cut back cold-damaged princess flower bushes, I noticed that some stems were still green under the bark. So I left them.
They looked a little fragile for a while, sticking out from the rest of the stems that had been cut back to around knee height. But I noticed that these older stems had many more flowers as we entered the flowering season. On the other hand, if we end up having more hard freezers, you may actually find that you need to cut all of your tropical plants back to 12 to 18 inches tall. It all depends on the weather. In late February to early March, you should know this.
Care of citrus
If you have planted young citrus plants in the last year, be aware of the freezers that may come, especially if the temperature dips down to the mid to low 20s and stays below freezing for 12 hours or so. If we are facing such extreme cold, you will want to protect the grafted part of the plant. If the plants are small, knock hay or pine straw against the stems as high as reasonably possible.
Even better, build a frame around the plants and cover the entire frame, the insulating pine straw and the whole thing with plastic to shut out the cold wind during the short cold period. Just make sure the frame keeps the plastic from the foliage. The plastic must seal completely in the plant and extend all the way down to the ground. The idea is to make a mini greenhouse and seal in the heat that radiates from the ground at night.
Even though we’re talking about cold protection, you should realize that this is still the best time of year to plant the majority of the wooded shrubs or trees that we normally grow here that are cold-resistant. Planting shrubs and trees now is much more beneficial than planting in the warmer months while the plants are actively growing.
Planting trees and watering
You will need to water the new plants, even now during the winter, but you will find that the root ball does not dry out as quickly now. The roots will continue to grow and help establish the plants before the hot weather comes. So take advantage of the cooler weather, especially for your big landscaping projects.
Maybe you need a shade tree or you would like to plant a flowering tree to add some landscape color. Soon you will see Japanese magnolias, Taiwanese cherries, okama cherries, red buds and red maples blooming around Tallahassee.
Now is a good time to plant these. But it is also a good time to plant dogwoods, and even summer flowers, such as crape myrtles and chaste trees.
Maybe you have been thinking about planting a privacy hedge? Fast-growing shrubs like sweet viburnum and Ocala anise can do the job, and now it’s time to plant.
Or maybe you have overgrown shrubs in front of the house that really need to be replaced with lower growing shrubs or ground cover such as lomandra or giant liriope?
There is no need to wait until spring. If you do the work yourself, the temperature may be more comfortable now. And if you are considering hiring a nursery or landscaping company, they will be backed by work for months until spring. If you are considering a complete redesign of a landscape area, you should definitely act now as the schedules of the landscape designers and installers are quickly backed up as we enter the spring.
Plant camellias and prune shrubs
We are fortunate to live in an area that can enjoy the color of camellia flowers all winter long. Now it’s time to visit nurseries to make selection of camellia varieties that you like and add some of these lightly grown shrubs to your home landscape.
They grow best in partial or light shade with little protection from the harsh afternoon sun of summer, but they are actually quite adaptable to most places. Just avoid poorly drained areas.
January to February is also the time to make the most of your pruning. The exception to this would be with spring flowering plants such as azaleas, loropetalums and spiraea. Postpone pruning of them until they bloom in spring. But evergreen shrubs, deciduous fruit trees and vines, crap myrtles and roses are among plants that need to be pruned before spring growth begins.
When pruning crape myrtles, just remove intersecting, rubbing or poorly placed branches. In general, if you do not cut the tops or ends of branches down, you will end up with a much more beautiful plant, which is much easier to manage in the future. Let them grow in natural wood form. Just prune to remove poorly placed branches.
If the crap myrtle is too big for the spot, just consider replacing it with a variety that does not grow that big instead of trying to cut it down to size. There are crape myrtle varieties in all sizes.
If the mulch is getting thinner around your trees and shrubs, take the time to refill it now. You may need to pull or spray some weeds first, but there is generally no need to remove the old bark chips. You just want to add to it.
One of the most readily available and easy to work with bark chips is pine straw. If you have falling leaves or pine needles in your lawn, you can even collect them in a pile using your lawn mower and use them as mulch. However, I would recommend covering them with some fresh pine straw that you buy, however, to enhance the look and prevent the leaves from blowing.
Seasonal color and vegetables
You can add seasonal color to your garden now with annuals like pansies, viola, snapdragons, diascia and nemesia. Visit your local nursery to pick these and other cool seasonal flowers. Do not forget to fertilize them monthly to keep them growing.
Seasonal food plants such as arugula, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, scallions, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach, chard, celery, potatoes and English peas can also be planted in areas that get enough sun.
Plant deciduous fruit trees and vines such as pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, persimmons, figs, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, pecans, chestnuts, mayhaws and potatoes.
Remember spring is just around the corner. Now use the mild winter in North Florida to plant, prune, mulch and plan. And enjoy the harvest from citrus and the cool vegetables and herbs of the season.
David W. Marshall is a Landscape Consultant at Tallahassee Nurseries and an Extension Agent Emeritus at UF / IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For questions about gardening, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.
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