3 things to do before winter’s over

snow-is-meltingH AVING TROUBLE WAITING, BUDDHA-LIKE, FOR SPRING? Me, too. Busy hands are happy hands, my grandmother said, so I’m assigning myself tasks to make the dreaded month of February feel more productive, not actual horticultural chores yet because of the lingering snow, but things like these:

Hoard cardboard: I’ve stopped putting my corrugated boxes from packaging and other plain cardboard out for recycling. I’ll stockpile all that arrives from now onward, breaking down the boxes and stashing the resulting panels as future weed-smothering, under-mulch control. Learn how it works.

Order asparagus: There are some weak stretches in my long row of asparagus, spots where for some reason the old plants just aren’t performing any longer. Time to order more, and maybe plan for another row. Asparagus is an investment crop that pays back for years to come; get started planning your patch now.

rodent-runs-in-snowGo on the offensive: I saw mole, mouse or vole trails in the snow this week, the first in awhile, so I’m tripling up on mousetraps baited with peanut butter in all sheds, by the house foundation, in the basement, and anywhere in the yard that I see their runs. I read recently that it’s best to leave them baited but not set for a few days, to get the creatures’ confidence. Here’s my own how-to.

One more thing, a “don’t:” If your place is out from under snow or ice, you have my envy…but also my warning: Don’t start stomping around on lawns or beds if the  ground is sodden and squishy. Frozen is fine, but not where your feet leave their mark. The damage you’ll do will exceed the value of whatever real chores you manage to accomplish. Busy yourself with these other faux chores while you (and I) wait. Be patient, like the Buddha.

  1. I have been battling Japanese Knotweed in my yard for 2-3 years. Assume a passing bird deposited a seed. Anyhoo, I dig & rip & pull but can’t seem to get rid of it all. The vines tunnel deep and far. Last summer I covered the entire area with a black tarp and tons of rocks hoping to kill it. Didn’t work. Any suggestions?

  2. Anna says:

    Just wanted to alert those of you who live in northern climes. I just returned from the local W Mart. The corms are in stores now and they go fast. I picked up two bags of freesias. Hang on a little bit longer spring is on its way to you too. I enjoy planting with bulbs. The sprouting is very inspiring. Check it out.

  3. susan says:

    I watched a vole try to cross my yard, but my pair of Jacks decided it was not the best idea. I leave the trapping to them, they love it.

  4. chris says:

    i say no to cardboard.

    i say work the soil, and working the soil means being able to run my single wheel tiller between rows without turning up some sear roebuck box, and if i planted right (ie bunching up a couple of rows of a veg together to increase shading and retarding weed growth), then my weeding in the rows should only be an issue early on, when i should be thinning anyhow.

    then again, i would also never think to put in raised beds, or put on black plastic to lengthen the season, so i am not into alot of smart ideas.

    this isn’t rocket surgery, yaknow?

  5. Keith Alexander says:

    Fantastic advice, on all counts. I MUST be like the Buddah – the limbs and debris can wait. I’m also placing that Asparagus order now. Thanks for the reminders, Margaret. The Helleborus, Trillium, etc. make me forget we are still in the midst of winter. There’s other work to be done.

    1. margaret says:

      @Renovation Therapy: Now this discussion gets really ugly, fast.

      It is a multi-year project to eradicate Polygonum cuspidatum, especially a well-established stand. Rhizomes can go down 8 or 10 feet. A combination of efforts is best:

      1. Cut it back three times a season, each time digging out some of the rhizomes, too. Bag up (do not compost) all the plant parts.

      2. If you plan to use chemicals like glyphosate, which is a highly personal decision and not something to take lightly, it would be most effective after cutbacks, and especially in the late summer or earliest fall. Do not just spray this stuff all over the place. Focus! Use a children’s oral syringe, the over-the-counter type from the pharmacy that is for liquid medications and has no needle. The concentrated form of glyphosate can be “injected” into the lowest extremes of the cut-back plants, meaning no unneeded chemical use, or drift. Friends who have worked in land-reclamation projects for botanical gardens and park systems have told me this is the tactic they use.

      3. I’d solarize the entire area for about two million years afterward to thwart re-sprouts, and check regularly. Sort of kidding on the timespan, but this is not an easy plant to get out. Don’t replant the area immediately, thinking you have achieved a victory right off. Keep a watchful eye on the area.

      On the chemical issue, which I’m sure will concern various visitors and concerns me greatly, let me say this: I share these details (about using the concentrate, not dilute form, and the child syringe and the late-summer timing) because I suspect people tackling knotweed will usually try chemical control. If you are going to, do it right, in the least-toxic manner possible. So in the hopes that if you DO use glyphosate at any time, it will be prudently applied and in a focused, intelligent manner, I share that information.

      Final point: Even if you do believe in chemicals, with knotweed you have a lot of other work cut out for you as well. Three times a season, destroy all the bits, etc.

      @Anna and Keith: No fair talking about what you saw blooming. Try to remember, some of us are still in the thick of it.

      @Chris: When you are finished over there… Really, though, yes, I believe in soil prep and did it “properly” for years. I have had good success with the smothering approach, but I do NOT ever use landscape fabric or materials that don’t break down. The cardboard, or newsprint, here is gone by season’s end, rotted below the mulch layer.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. The “Wave Hill chair,” for which you can order a pattern here, is based on a 1918 design by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld, so it’s the Rietveld chair, and is in the Museum of Modern Art, in its original design. Wave Hill, which I lived across the street from for many years, modified the chair pattern in the early 1960s. It has been used on Wave Hill grounds since.

      Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer in Pennsylvania, a horticulturist, has also made an adaptation of the Rietveld chair in more recent years, and it can be seen around the grounds at Chanticleer.

      Chairs or not, these are two wonderful places to visit for any gardener.

      My chairs are yet another adaptation…made of cedar and many of the pieces “heavied up” to be thicker and more sturdy/comfortable, and angle altered for easier seating here and there, etc. But all of them, I would say, are the Rietveld chair, give or take.

  6. chris says:

    oy, it’s not a matter of success, it’s a matter of aesthetics…do you think gardening is an art/craft, or just a mechanical effort measured by ultimate yield?…well, when Weyreheuser comes out with the Cardboard Guide to Gardening, i guess you can write the first chapter…

  7. Wayne says:

    I am in the winter blues right now. post seed catalog frenzy. Maybe I should sit like the man and breathe, and breathe…

    I have a great great supply of cardboard from the school!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Wayne. Collecting cardboard is a key step to February serenity. I am thinking of allowing myself like 3 mail-order plants to stave off total mental freakout. Do you need to borrow a Buddha? I have a large collection.

  8. HVFarmGirl says:

    Your cardboard recommendation was the best gardening advice I ever got. So many benefits: stablizing and moderating soil temp and moisture, obliterating the endless varieties and tenancities of invasive and semi-invasive weeds, reducing erosion during the winter (I covered my garden with horse-poo after this year’s growing season and then cardboard with hay). I love the idea of all that manure soaking directly into the soil, getting moisture thru cardboard but not running away so to speak. Then there’s the idea that I’m not burning fossil fuels to schlep the stuff to the transfer station where it will get schlepped further away to be recycled in some county far far away from here. Can’t even imagine how big the carbon footprint of recycling a piece of cardboard would be. I look at the cardboard (and NYTimes) accumulating in the garage right now and say, It is Good. Spring Will Come. Maybe a bald eagle or two as well.


  9. chris says:

    @ renovation therapy.

    looking Japanese Knotweed up in the trusty wiki-p, it seems that it is a commercial source of resveratrol, that cool stuff that may make you live longer. extraction is done commercially with water and alcohol, so maybe you can try it yourself (small batch brewing). it would be a zen thing, turn a losing battle to eradicate a weed into an elixir-making project.

    as for cardboard in the garden, ok i’ll desist, whatever suits your fancy, nancy…

  10. Joe C says:

    Thanks for the tips. Especially #4 the “don’t”. I was all set to go out a rake a few leaves this afternoon in the 56 degree weather we had here on Long Island. Like you said the ground was a little mushy in the beds so I backed off… cardboard huh? I’ll haev to try that one.

    Cheers – Joe

  11. joyce jandorf says:

    It was 70 degrees today and yesterday, so I spent both days raking my semi-wild hill, and raking & clipping around my neighbor’s never-tended lilac bushes. Tarzan vines have encroached on the lilacs, and are almost impossible to dig out. Its bad enough ripping them out of the branches. They have honesuckle-like foliage, and the stems grow to 3 inches in diameter in some places, and wind so beautifully around any unfortunate stem. Any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Ashlee. Walking on soggy lawn or stepping in beds before the soil dries out can compact the soil and damage its structure. Have you ever squished wet soil in your hand (whether potting soil or from the ground)? It makes a sticky, dense mass, losing its crumbly “tilth” or texture. What happens is you squeeze all the air spaces out….so it can’t drain, and air is critical to plant health. Lawns can get so compacted that the grass will not thrive, and one of the “cures” is aerating with a machine…to increase the air space…the opposite of what standing on it when it’s wet and squishing out all the air spaces will do. Frozen soil is one thing…it won’t compact…wet is another, and very vulnerable. Soil compaction from any means is not conducive to healthy root growth.

  12. Masdeleine says:

    knotweed can be eradicated! Cut the stalks at ground level – spray Round-Up directly into the hollow stalk – repeat when necessary – eventually the plant gets weakened enough to not be able to continue being a pest! Using chemicals sparingly and safely and wisely – and I would definitely NOT plant any food crop in the area for at least 5 years.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Masdeleine. Thanks for your suggestions (not unlike the ones I got from my botanical-garden friends, above…so it must be true!). Hope to see you soon again.

  13. Carole C says:

    Talking about mice, voles and moles-not sure if the little, round shells of seeds that I sometimes find hiding in my couch are brought in by any of these animals, but I was wondering! Any thougths? We do set mouse traps at various spots inside the house and have caught mice over the years. Never thought to set them outside.

  14. pats says:

    it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day and my kids and i spent an hour relocating our garden patch. i also planted some sprouted and new garlic, some rather sad leftover kale, and a sweet potato that had sprouted just before frost (if it doesn’t come up, at least it will be fertilizer, right?).

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Pats. I use the leftover (sad) stuff like winter-beaten Brussels sprouts and kale and parsley in vegetable broth that I make from onion, garlic, hunks of winter squash (skin and all) and some root vegetables ans ginger and such. Whatever I have goes in, unless it’s colorless and totally gone. Then I freeze the broth as a base for other things. :) See you soon again, yes?

  15. Jane says:

    Good Morning Margaret –
    Decided last year to increase my collection of hellebores. Their flowering seems to be the gift that just keeps giving with little fuss. Any suggestions about best sources, and/or types, as well as division. Are the clones always true to color and form? I’m across the river – zone 5.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jane. Have you seen this hellebore article of mine from last year or thereabouts? If something is a clone (as in vegetative division of “parent” plant) it should be true, yes, though I have seen some “clones” from the tissue-culture lab (micropropagation) that just didn’t seem stable (I am no lab expert here; could be wrong but some things seem adapted to the process than others).

      I have transplanted seedlings in spring or fall (late spring and early fall here specifically) and that is the way you get exactly what you want more of: by dividing. Seedlings will be every color imaginable; not predictable, fyi. These plants have big, thick root systems so be prepared to do some digging.

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