As gardeners, perhaps one of our new year’s resolutions could be to stay better on top of tasks to be done in the garden. Spring will be here before we know it, and we need to have our yards and gardens ready.
Pets and plants:Learn what common plants in home gardens can poison your pets
There’s little time to lose. Otherwise, we’ll be overwhelmed come spring. Gardening is a year-round activity, not just a spring one.
As I write this right at the end of the year, we still haven’t had a freeze. Looking out the window I see heliconias and angel’s trumpets still in bloom. If we have a freeze, later we will have to cut such tender plants back.
After a freeze
How far we need to cut them back, though, all depends on the severity of the freezes and the individual plants. If you just indiscriminately whack all these tender plants back almost to the ground, you may be needlessly losing a head start on next year’s growth.
Several weeks after a freeze, examine each stem for signs of life. There’s no substitute for scraping the bark and looking for green beneath it. Last spring, for example, as I cut back cold-damaged princess flower bushes, I noticed that some stems still had green beneath the bark. So, I left them.
They looked a little scraggly for a while, sticking out from the rest of the stems which had cut back to about knee height. But I noticed that these older stems had many more flowers as we moved into the flowering season. On the other hand, if we end up having several hard freezes, you may indeed find that you need to cut all your tropical plants back to 12 to 18 inches high. It will all depend on the weather. By late February to early March, you should know.
Caring for citrus
If you planted young citrus plants this past year, be vigilant of the freezes that may come, especially if temperatures dip down into the mid to low 20s and stay below freezing for 12 hours or so. If we face such extreme cold, you will want to protect the grafted portion of the plant. If the plants are small, bank hay or pine straw against the trunks as high as reasonably possible.
Even better, build a frame around the plants and cover the whole frame, the insulating pine straw and all, with plastic to seal out the cold winds during the short cold period. Just make sure the frame holds the plastic off the foliage. The plastic has to completely seal in the plant, extending 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 as we talk about cold protection, realize that this is still the best time of year for planting the majority of the woody shrubs or trees that we normally grow here and that are cold hardy. Planting shrubs and trees now is much more favorable 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 balls don’t dry out as quickly now. The roots will continue growing and help to establish the plants before hot weather arrives. So, take advantage of the cooler weather, especially for your large landscape 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, Taiwan cherries, Okame cherries, redbuds, and red maples blooming around Tallahassee.
Now is a good time to plant these. But it’s also a good time to plant dogwoods, and even summer bloomers, such as crape myrtles and chaste trees.
Perhaps you have been thinking about planting a privacy hedge? Fast-growing shrubs such as sweet viburnum and Ocala anise can do the job and now is the 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 groundcovers such as lomandra or giant liriope?
There’s no need to wait until spring. If you’re doing the work yourself, the temperature may be more pleasant now. And if you’re considering hiring a nursery or landscape company, they will be backed up with work for months come spring. If you’re considering a complete redesign for a landscape area, definitely act now, as the landscape designers’ and installers’ schedules quickly back up as we move into spring.
Plant camellias and prune shrubs
We are fortunate to live in an area that can enjoy the color of camellia flowers all winter. Now is the time to visit nurseries to make selections of camellia varieties that you like and add some of these easy-to-grow shrubs to your home landscape.
They grow best in partial or light shade with a little protection from the harsh afternoon sun of summer, but they’re really fairly adaptable to most sites. Just avoid poorly drained areas.
January to February is also the time to do most of your pruning. The exception for this would be with spring-blooming plants such as azaleas, loropetalums, and spiraea. Delay pruning them until after they flower in the spring. But evergreen shrubs, deciduous fruit trees and vines, crape myrtles, and roses are among plants to prune before spring growth begins.
When pruning crape myrtles, just remove crossing, rubbing, or poorly placed branches. Generally, if you don’t cut back the tops or the ends of branches you will end up with a much prettier plant that’s much easier to manage in the future. Let them grow in natural tree form. Just prune to remove poorly spaced branches.
If the crape myrtle is too large for the site, consider just replacing it with a variety that won’t grow so large rather than trying to cut it down to size. There are crape myrtle varieties of all sizes.
If the mulch is thinning around your trees and shrubs, take time to replenish it now. Perhaps you need to pull or spray some weeds first, but there’s no need generally to remove the old mulch. You will just add to it.
One of the most readily available and easy-to-work-with mulches is pine straw. If you have falling leaves or pine needles in your lawn, you can even gather them into a pile using your lawn mower and use them as mulch. I would recommend covering them with some fresh pine straw that you buy, though, to improve the appearance and to keep the leaves from blowing.
Seasonal color and veggies
You can add seasonal color to your yard now with annuals such as pansies, violas, snapdragons, diascia, and nemesia. Visit your local nursery to make selections of these and other cool-season flowers. Don’t forget to fertilize them monthly to keep them growing well.
Cool-season food plants such as arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bunching onions, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach, Swiss chard, celery, potatoes, and English peas can also be planted in areas that receive enough sun.
Plant deciduous fruit trees and vines such as pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, persimmons, figs, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, pecans, chestnuts, mayhaws, and pawpaws.
Remember, spring is just around the corner. Use the mild north Florida winter now to plant, prune, mulch, and plan. And enjoy the harvest from citrus and cool season vegetables and herbs.
David W. Marshall is a landscape consultant with Tallahassee Nurseries and an Extension Agent Emeritus with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected]
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.