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Month-by-Month Gardening Guide: January & February

Fruits and Nuts:

Fruit production is a “year round” job and timing of cultural practices is very important to the health of your fruit trees. Apply fertilizers approximately one month prior to the initiation of growth in spring. Fertilizer may be broadcast on the soil surface where rainfall or watering will aid in getting it to the soil.  Rates of application are dependent on the type of tree, vigor, last year’s growth and fruiting. For most fruit trees that are grown in sod, except pears, use a basic rate of 0.1-pound actual nitrogen per inch of truck diameter measured one foot above ground. Fertilize pear trees at one-half the basic rate. The fertilizer rate may need to be adjusted up or down, depending on growth and fruiting in the previous years.

Late winter is also an excellent time to prune fruit trees and fruit-bearing shrubs. Improperly pruned plants can reduce your fruit yields and quality. Many of the same pruning techniques used for landscape trees also apply to fruit trees. For example you should remove root suckers, dead, broken or diseased limbs, remove low drooping limbs that interfere with mowing, remove crossing or rubbing limbs, and thin out smaller wood to encourage high quality fruit. Apple and pear trees also differ from stone fruits (peach, plum) in their overall pruned shape. Apple and pears should be pruned leaving an upright limb in the center of the tree to act as a central leader. In stone fruit trees the leader should be removed so that you have an open center. Many counties hold annual fruit tree pruning seminars where you can gain hands-on practice. Check with your local extension office for further information.

Late winter, before growth starts, is the perfect time to apply dormant oil sprays to your fruit trees. Dormant oil sprays are applied to areas where insects overwinter (i.e., trunk, limbs, and twigs) on apple, pear, peach, and other fruit trees. Dormant oil will provide good control for scale, aphids, and mites, and even helps control San Jose scale when applied to peach and apple trees. An application now may reduce insect pressure later in the season and the amount of chemicals needed to keep pests under control. This is especially important since predatory insects, which help in pest reduction, are very susceptible to insecticides.

Peach leaf curl is an early season disease on peach and related species which causes early leaf drop and weakens trees making them more susceptible to other diseases. This disease is more common during cool, wet springs following mild winters and may not occur on peach trees every year. Infected leaves become severely distorted and have a reddish or purplish cast.  Later they become powdery-gray in color and then drop. It is not difficult to control leaf curl. Since the fungus overwinters on twigs and buds, a single dose of Ferbam or chlorothalonil, thoroughly covering the tree, will provide control. Sprays can be applied in late fall through winter until bud swell.

Fruit trees and fruit-bearing shrubs can also be pruned this month to improve the overall health of plants and fruit yields. Remove root suckers, dead, broken or diseased limbs, low drooping limbs that interfere with mowing, crossing or rubbing limbs, and thin out smaller wood to encourage high quality fruit. Apple and pear trees differ from stone fruits (peach, plum) in their overall pruned shape. Apple and pears should be pruned leaving an upright limb in the center of the tree to act as a central leader. With stone fruits the leader should be removed so that you have an open center. Your local extension office has publications that can help you in deciding how to make your pruning cuts.

Groundcovers and Lawns:

Wild onions seen in our lawns this time of year are really wild garlic but, whatever the name, the best time for treating them is in February or March because the chemical must be allowed at least two weeks to work before the lawn is mowed. Typically, the warmer the temperature – the better the results. Wild Garlic is difficult to control and usually requires two treatments in two consecutive springs. Spot spraying individual clumps with 2,4-D amine herbicide or2, 4-D plus dicamba works best. Always read the label for proper mixing directions. You can add 1 teaspoon of liquid dishwashing detergent to each gallon of spray to help the herbicide stick to the leaves. Only mix the amount of spray you will need to prevent disposal problems. Remember to avoid mowing the tops for at least two weeks, until they begin to yellow and curl, to get the best kill of the underground bulbs.

Begin now for the best control of winter annuals, like henbit and chickweed, also. These weeds should be controlled when the plants are young.  Herbicides, such as 2,4 D, MCPP and dicamba work best on winter annuals, as well as many summer annuals. Many products that are sold containing all three chemicals will give the best control and save you the most money. When purchasing herbicides, check the label for these three active ingredients. Phenoxy herbicides should not be applied when rain is forecast, when wind is high or used when temperatures rise above 85F. High temperatures will cause 2,4 D to vaporize and that could spell trouble for nearby trees and perennials. High temperatures are not such a big concern now but will be very important when treating your summer weeds.

For best success, treat wild garlic this month with a herbicide containing 2, 4-D plus dicamba. Since wild garlic develops a large bulb underground, it will often take two applications during two consecutive springs to exhaust the bulb’s energy supply. Add a teaspoon of liquid dishwashing detergent to help the chemical stick to the plant’s leaves.

Winter annual weeds, like henbit and chickweed, can also be controlled this month. Choose a herbicide that contains 2, 4-D, MCPP, and dicamba which eliminates broadleaf weeds without causing damage to your lawn. Be sure to read the label on any herbicide you purchase.

If you haven’t raked-up last fall’s leaves you could be destroying your lawn. As leaves pile-up on the lawn, they restrict sunlight causing a weakened and thinning turf. These spots make it easy for broadleaf weeds to get establish and create more weed maintenance work for you.

Perennial Flowers and Vines:

The best time for pruning groundcovers and vines is late winter or early spring. For beds of groundcovers such as ivy, vinca or lirope use your mower set to the highest level to cut old foliage. Leaving the old foliage will promote anthracnose, which gives plants an unhealthy appearance. Remove the old stems on honeysuckle and shape other branches as necessary to control size. Trumpetcreeper flowers on new growth, so pruning now will promote better flowering. Also, heading back the new growth will promote more lateral shoots and give a denser vine. Wisteria should be pruned after flowering. Because of its vigorous growth habit, it will need to be pruned often. Clematis is a little tricky since some of these plants bloom on old wood and some bloom on new wood. Unless you know for sure, it would be best to prune these vines after flowering. Most varieties only require a thinning of old wood but some more vigorous growers can be pruned back to within 12” of the ground. It may not be necessary to prune every vine in your landscape. Instead, look for overgrown, unattractive vines that may have seen a reduction in flower production. Other vines like honeysuckle and winter creeper grow so fast, it often is necessary to prune them every year. Most vines, including summer-flower clematis, should be pruned in the dormant season. Begin by pruning out dead, diseased, and damage vines. Prune out the top one-third of overgrown or elongated stems and one-third of the older, less vigorous stems. Wait until July before pruning wisteria, since pruning this hardy vine during the dormant season will lead to excessive vegetative growth in the spring.

Pruning groundcovers, such as vinca or English ivy, usually is only necessary to remove unhealthy tissue or to promote spreading. However, lirope should be cut back every spring to avoid anthracnose, a disease the gives the old foliage an unhealthy appearance. Use a rotary lawn mower on the highest setting to cut these beds back to 4 to 6 inches in early spring.

Plants in Pots:

Be observant when watering your houseplants. Root rots are a common cause of houseplant loss but the irony is that it comes from too much care. It’s a gardener’s nature to make sure plants have plenty of water and often it’s easier to water on a set day than checking with the plant first. This is where we err. Not all houseplants need the same amount of water on the same schedule. The size of the plant, its pot and other conditions, like light, make each plant unique. So how do we check with the plant? Simple, learn to gauge the moisture content of the soil by its color and feel. Dry soil will be a light brown color. The container will also be lighter; this is especially noticeable with hanging baskets. You can also stick your finger or a pencil into the pot several inches deep. If it’s damp or soil sticks to the pencil, you should wait to water. When you water, wet the entire soil mass, not just the top inch. Water should be added until it comes through the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot. Be sure to empty the water from the saucer after the plant finishes draining. Leaving the water in the saucer will prolong the roots exposure to excessive moisture and increase the likelihood of root rots.

You probably would not think of letting your house go undusted for 5 months, but what about your house plants? Dust can build-up on the surface of plant’s leaves just like furniture. During the winter this can be especially harmful since the dust can reduce the amount of light that reaches the plant for photosynthesis, something already limited with the short days of winter. Clean large leaves individually with a soft rag moistened in lukewarm water and a few drops of mild dishwashing soap. Plants with lots of smaller leaves can be turned upside down and dipped in a similar water solution for cleaning. Avoid using plant shine products which create a sticky surface on which dust and dirt may cling.

If you received new plants for the holidays, check them closely for insect infestations. Quarantine gift plants until you determine they are not harboring any pests. What pests should you look for?

  • Mealybugs- a small sized (1/5 to 1/3 inch), soft-bodied insect covered with a white, powdery material. They damage plants by sucking plant juices.
  • Spider mites- found most often on the underside of leaves, are very tiny (1/50 inch) and may be green, yellow, red or virtually colorless. Often webbing will be your first indication of infestation.
  • Aphids- a pear-shaped insect with long antennae and two short cornicles extending from the rear of the body. Aphids suck plant juice and leave behind a sticky residue and distorted plant growth.
  • Scales- flattened insect that is surrounded in a waxy covering. Often found on both sides of the leaves, twigs, and branches.
  • Whitefly- the adults resemble tiny (1/16 inch) moths which swarm around the plant when disturbed.

Washing with soapy water and a soft cloth may be all that is needed to remove aphids, mealybugs and scale insects from broadleaved plants. Use two teaspoons of a mild detergent to one gallon of water. A light infestation can be controlled using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol and dabbed on individual pests. Horticulture oils and insecticidal soaps will often work for heavy infestations, although it may be best to destroy the plant instead.

The tropical look of the amaryllis flower makes it a wonderful holiday gift. If you received one this year, make sure to place it in a well-lighted area, a southern window exposure is best. Water when the soil surface feels dry to the touch, typically once per week. To keep an amaryllis and have it flower again next year, follow these tips. Once the blooms fade, remove them to prevent seed formation. Leave the plant’s leaves so it may replenish the food storage in the bulb and give the bulb regular water and houseplant fertilizer. The amaryllis can be moved outdoors to a shaded area after the last frost date. Continue to grow the bulb until mid-summer before allowing it to go dormant. In August, stop fertilizing and gradually reduce watering. After three weeks, stop watering completely. The leaves will naturally turn yellow and die down and can then be cut off a couple of inches above the bulb. When all the leaves have turned yellow, usually September or October, set the bulb and its container in a cool (50-60F), dark, dry place for at least six to eight weeks. After this dormant period, move the potted plant back into a slightly warmer (65F), bright area and start the growth cycle again by watering. Keep the soil moist, especially when it starts to flower. Flowering should occur within 4 to 8 weeks from when you start watering again.

Trees and Shrubs:

Do your trees need fertilizer? This common question often has many different answers. Fertilizers can help keep trees healthy but many times they are over-used causing excessive growth. To determine the nutrient needs of your tree, be observant and note the general vigor of the plant and the color of the foliage. Yellow leaves, short new twig growth and abnormally small leaves often indicate a need for fertilizer. Late fall to early spring is the best time to apply fertilizer. For rapidly growing trees, a yearly application may be necessary. Mature trees should be fertilized once every three or four years. What about the trees you setout last fall? Newly planted trees should not be fertilized during the first year since most nursery-grown trees already have high levels of nutrients. Adding additional nutrients can actually reduce the tree’s rate of growth. Only a soil test can accurately tell how much fertilizer should be added. In most soils, nitrogen will be the limiting factor and will yield the greatest response. Standard ratios of 4:1:2 or 3:1:2 of N, P, and K are recommended for most trees. A modest rate would be 1 to 2 lbs. of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. There are many methods of applying fertilizers but broadcasting a granular fertilizer on the surface of the soil remains the most practical and efficient method. Apply your fertilizer beginning at the outer two-thirds of the branch spread and extending out beyond the drip line of the tree (the outer branches). No fertilizer should be applied within 12 to 18 of the trunk.

Winter sun and wind can cause excessive transpiration (foliage water loss) of evergreen trees and shrubs. Since the roots in the soil are frozen and unable to replace lost water, the limbs will often turn brown. This can also occur when temperatures warm-up on bright sunny days and then drop to injurious levels at night. Winter injury occurs more frequently on the south, southwest, and windward sides of the plant, but may affect the entire plant. Yew, arborvitae, and hemlock are most susceptible. New transplants are also more sensitive. Reducing winter injury to evergreens begins with proper placement. Susceptible plants should not be planted in highly exposed (windy, sunny) places or on the south or southwest sides of building. You can reduce damage by propping pine boughs against or over evergreens as insulation. Keeping evergreens properly watered throughout the growing season will also keep plants healthy and less prone to winter stress. If one of your evergreens suffers winter injury, wait until mid-spring before pruning out injured foliage. Often the buds, which are more cold hardy than foliage, will grow and fill in areas. If the buds have not survived, prune the limbs back to living tissue. Fertilize injured plants in early spring, give them plenty of water during the growing season, and plan for adequate protection next winter.

Want to start spring a little early? Gather branches of some of your favorite deciduous shrubs and trees and bring them indoors for some early color. Select and cut branches two to three feet long with many fat buds. Cut more than you will need since not all branches will absorb water satisfactorily. With a sharp knife, split the cut end up to 4 inches. Place the branches in a deep container of warm water and re-cut (underwater) one inch from the base of the stem to prevent air from entering the stem. Remove any buds or twigs that will be under water. Leave the branches in a cool room until the buds swell and begin to show color. For tight buds this may take up to 8 weeks, but if the buds were plump when you cut the branches, it may take as little as 4 days. After the buds begin to show color, you can move the branches to room temperature. Be sure to change the water every few days. Your flowering branches should last for about a week. Good candidates for forcing include redbud, flowering quince, dogwood, witchhazel, forsythia, saucer magnolia, flowering almond, spirea, lilac, and viburnum.

Vegetables and Herbs:

If this is to be your first year growing a vegetable garden, keep these guidelines in mind as you select your garden site. Choose a garden site with deep, well-drained soils on a nearly level site. A heavy soil that holds water will often delay your ability to work the soil causing you to miss the opportunity to plant cool season crops. A slight slope is preferred to avoid frost pockets in the garden, but excessive slopes can lead to erosion. Sunlight is perhaps the most important factor since the more shaded the garden is, the lower your yields will be. Garden vegetables require six or more hours of sunlight per day to produce well. Locating the site near your house will make it more convenient when watering is needed during the summer.

What can you plant in the garden in February? Plenty. Spinach, Radish, Mustard, and Kale can all be planted in late February in our area. Collards, Head and Leaf Lettuce, Onions, Peas, Beets, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Swiss Chard and Turnip Greens will do best if planted in mid to late March. Aphids and caterpillars can be especially bad on early crops. Watch for them and treat as they appear. Most vegetable seeds will be planted to a depth equal to three times the seed diameter. Lettuce seed should be planted shallow, as it needs light to germinate. Staggering planting dates a week to two-weeks apart will help extend the harvest season.

If you’ve been burning wood for heat this winter, what are you doing with your wood ashes? When properly applied to garden soils, wood ash can be a valuable soil amendment. Since wood ash is derived from plant materials, it contains many of the essential nutrients plants need to survive. Burning wood releases gases like nitrogen and sulfur and leaves behind other nutrients as trace elements. The actual fertilizer value of your ash depends on the type of wood you burn. Ashes from hardwoods, like oak, typically contain a higher percentage of nutrients than ash from softwoods like pine. Generally speaking, hardwoods produce approximately three times as much ash per cord and five times as many nutrients per cord as softwoods. To put it another way, the ash from a cord of oak could meet the potassium needs of a garden 60 by 70 feet and contains enough calcium and magnesium to reduce soil acidity by slightly increasing the soil pH. Compared to neutralizing power of traditional limestone, wood ash is less effective per pound of product; however since it also contains many water soluble nutrients, research has shown it can actually increase plant growth up to 45% over traditional limestone. Each pound of wood ash is the equivalent of one-third to one-half pound of good agricultural limestone. Under normal conditions, five to ten pounds of wood ash per 100 square feet of garden area will neutralize excess soil acids and increase the soil pH to a favorable level. This liming action of ash is important because it promotes better soil structure development over time, making garden sites more aerated and easier to till. Soils low in organic matter, soils needing lime, and soils that become unusually hard during drought conditions are ideal sites to make use of wood ashes. In addition to promoting good structural development in the soil, the supply of calcium from the ashes can also be helpful in correcting nutritional problems in plants, such as blossom-end rot of tomatoes and peppers. Even with all the benefits you receive from applying wood ash to your garden you should still plan to soil test to ensure that a liming material is needed. A soil test will also give you an indication of how much of the wood ashes may be appropriate for your garden site. When applying wood ash, avoid applications just after or prior to heavy rains. Wear long sleeves, gloves, and a dust mask when making applications. Do not apply ash immediately before planting or during early emergence since it could cause short term concentrated alkaline conditions that could interfere with plant growth.

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