my garden chores: february 2011

NORMALLY WE’D BE OUT PRUNING fruit trees or grape vines about now up my way during “thaws,” but the winter of 2010-11 is asking for more patience, and I respect that. Knee-deep snow is about to blossom into thigh-high, the February 1 sky tells me, not exactly the time to wield sharp instruments while up on ladders, right? Use the time to do some planning: I just sketched where I’ll plant which vegetables, and made a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance. Patience! The to-do’s for whenever you can to-do them:

NEW BEGINNINGS, ALMOST: The last bit of winter’s the hardest, to my mind, with patience wearing thin (wish some icy spots would wear thin, instead). Getting ready for seed-starting action provides a distraction, and one could always order a few more packets to soothe the soul. I recently updates my list of favorite sources, and not long ago, readers shared their favorite seed catalogs, too.

DID YOU DO YOUR germination testing yet to see what leftovers are still viable? And do you have a light stand to grow your seedlings on (my big old seed-starter stand plan is here; I got a small newer one made last year). Here’s my new chart on how long seeds last, by the way.

OR TRY THIS ESCAPE: Force branches of spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry once buds have begun to swell. Cut on an angle or better yet hammer the ends of stems to make for better water uptake, and put indoors in water. I submerge them overnight, then place them in a bucket of water in my mudroom, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. The closer to actual bloom date you force things, the higher the success rate (no big surprise).

COLORFUL TWIGS from shrub dogwoods and willows would make good indoor arrangements now, and many want stooling (cutting to maybe 8 inches from the ground to rejuvenate) every other or third year, anyhow.

TAKE A WALKABOUT, if you ground is snow-free but not muddy (I don’t walk on sodden soil; it does such damage). Check to see if mulches are in place or if they’ve heaved, or if burlap and other protectors have come loose, exposing vulnerable plants to possible heaving damage or windburn.

MOLE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: I am still re-baiting mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans in the gardens where I see any activity, to rid them from my beds and borders. Strange note: I catch many moles in basement mousetraps, so set them there, too, if yours is a foundation with crevices like mine. I have even caught them in the attic. True.


SEED-CATALOG SEASON is in full-tilt. I am thinking in vegetable Technicolor and shopping through some new listings, thanks to reader suggestions. I’m also concentrating my purchases on companies who don’t sell genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and strive to deal in seed that’s been grown sustainably or organically.

STIFLE THE URGE to start seedlings too early. Small, compact seedlings are better transplants than older, leggy ones. Only leeks and onions should be started indoors this month in my zone; most seedlings take eight weeks or less to be garden-ready, so I count back from final frost about two months for my very first sowings. More on that next month and beyond.

LAST YEAR I TRIED THE TACTIC of grafted tomatoes, for better disease resistance and yield. Can you believe? A fascinating topic. Now they’re available by mail, even.

IF YOU HAVE a cold frame and conditions allow, sow an early crop of spinach and lettuce in it. I’ll start spinach in the open ground at month’s end if snow has melted.

PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless mix each year. Wash previously used flats, cell packs or pots this month with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water, and stock up on fresh seed-starting medium, to prepare for use later. Don’t use potting soil to grow seeds; seed-starting mix is finer-textured and the right choice.


ARE SLIGHTLY AWAKE again, nudged by longer days and stronger late-winter light. They may need a bit more moisture (let them dry between drinks, though) and an occasional half-strength fertilizing starting late this month. But it can get tricky if they are defoliating or looking really pekid, in which case go easy on everything awhile longer. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter…go easy and always check with a finger poked well into the pot first.

KEEP AN EYE OUT for signs of houseplant pests like spider mites, mealybugs, and scale insects. If tackled before they get out of hand, nonchemical methods are usually successful: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip.

ANY SIGNS OF LIFE from your Clivia yet? What an easy, lifetime investment of a houseplant.


PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.

PRIME PRUNING TIME for deciduous trees and shrubs (including fruit trees) is now, while they are dormant. Don’t paint the wounds—let them heal naturally. Always use sharp tools to make clean cuts, and be on the lookout for dead, damaged, or diseased wood and prune out as discovered. This is especially important in winter’s harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

REMOVE VIBURNUM TWIGS that bear egg cases of Viburnum leaf beetle (usually the newest growth, from last year). This reduced potential pest population, but destroy the twigs or put in trash, not compost or brush pile.

DID YOU CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area right around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents? Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round. Check them–if you can see them, that is. No sign here yet of the base of anything!

All based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly. If you want to refer back to last month’s chores, they’re here; next month’s (if your garden is ahead of mine) can be found in this post.

  1. kk says:

    How about knocking the snow off of the branches of trees and shrubs to prevent breakage – please tell me that this is worthwhile and that I have not been wasting vast amounts of time and energy. Just in for a break now.

  2. Val says:

    I have my grow light stand, soilless mix, seeds, and sterile containers (plus trays and lids) all ready to go–but what do you think if heat mats? Are they necessary?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Val: I don’t use heat mats, but they do give you extra oomph when germinating seeds, speeding germination time etc., and it’s more efficient to use one than to crank up a whole room of heat in order to make a tray or two of seed start to sprout — it supplies localized heat to warm the soil, specifically.

  3. Madeline says:

    Like KK I am wondering about taking snow off of shrubs. In particular I keep looking at my Nandina which looks contorted by heavy snow…almost buried…should I try to dig it out or trust that natural melting process?

  4. Val says:

    Thanks–my seeds will be in a warm room, so I will try it without the mat.

    I learned last year during snowmageddon to be careful when trying to help shrubs. I stomped some that were buried by three feet!
    You have to use your judgment when dealing with weighed down branches, but for buried shrubs I am letting the snow insulate them and melt off on its own.

  5. Jayne says:

    The sun is out! Maybe it will melt the ice coat on the knee high snow and we can actually walk about??? We had to put those electric cables on our last “old house”. They were dreadful and that harsh winter was not repeated, at least until now! There is something to be said for a newer “vanilla” house, but at least I am not running around with buckets, a scene being repeated all over this WInter!
    Thank you for the chores list – would love to get at it!

  6. Lisa says:

    All the shovelling does come with free new muscle tone! Unfortunately not a Chiropractor coupon. My back is fine from shovelling, oddly enough when I tried to sit down in my tub I popped a rib out the front, ugh.

  7. Dean Sheridan says:

    The best place I’ve found to start my seeds is the top of my fridge, covered by a plastic dome . I guess I had better start some of my garden chores as there is no snow here on the west coast of Canada , only snow drops.

  8. Zom G. says:

    Seeds on the top of the fridge! That’s a much better use for the space than the current residents: bananas and the yellow pages.

    Has anyone tried the regular bulb-shaped grow lights? I saw them at the hardware store and am sorely tempted. I guess if all else fails I can point them at the snow drifts, right? Kidding…mostly.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Laura: So funny! You are the second person in two days to mention that trick. My roof is too high, but a neighbor came and removed the buildup from the lower roofs (porches, mudroom…) and I have been keeping after the icicles on the higher areas so fingers crossed. What a winter!

  9. Janis says:

    So sorry to hear about everyones winter woes! It seems a violently snowy year for many. I guess I shouldn’t tell you that my grapes and fruit trees are all pruned, or that I heard a frog croaking (albeit slowly) near my back door the other day. Nobody will believe that I live in Canada! :) Stay warm everybody!

  10. Mary-Ellen says:

    Well, we have -25* windchill this morning in Omaha!!! That’s just un-natural!!!! However I do have my pruners all sharpened and sanitized just waiting to prune my peach, apple, pear and plum trees this weekend, It’s suppose to be close to 50!!!–On another subject, does anyone have a particularly good way to deal with scale on Myer Lemon trees? I’ve used alcohol as well as soapy water–any other ideas? The kumkuat is never affected for some reason.—-Seeds on top of the fridge—ice melt in pantyhose–great tips.

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