What to do until spring arrives

Winter: No yawning! Here's how to keep your thumb green and nurture that dream of flowers in the warm sun.

In The Garden

January 23, 2000|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to the Sun

Gardeners, facing the bleak prospect of about three more months of grayness outside, are asking themselves, now what? While nothing takes the place of flowers blooming on a sunny day, there are things we can do to enjoy both the illusion and promise of spring, and improve our gardening as well.

Those of us who haven't gotten rid of Christmas trees or other greenery can do so by cutting up the limbs and putting the smaller branches on our gardens to add warmth and some nourishment to the beds. An evergreen-covered garden is especially important this year because the unseasonal warmth of the early winter has made some daffodil shoots appear early, and they'll be vulnerable when sleet, snow and freezing temperatures inevitably arrive.

On warm, dry days, we can mulch some beds that we missed in the fall and turn our compost piles, if we have them, thereby speeding decomposition of autumn leaves and grass clippings. This is also a good time to cut back perennials (such as sedum 'Autumn Joy' and astilbe) that we may have left standing for their attractive seed heads, as well as sedges and grasses.

Mild days in the winter are pleasant times to prune dead wood from shrubs and trees; pruning is easier when we can see what we're doing without leaves. If you don't have a compost heap, you can price and compare mulch at various garden centers.

For indoor cheer, cut stalks of forsythia, Japanese cherry, (Prunus japonica) flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) or star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) and place them in water. In a week or 10 days, they'll be in full bloom and will give us a semblance of spring.

Some of us already have forced daffodils and tulips blooming in our living rooms. Or we can go to a garden center and buy some primroses, perhaps the most cheering early spring flower there is, with short purple, red, white, yellow, pink or orange buds to choose from. After they have finished blooming, plant them in the garden and they'll bloom there next year.

Some of your houseplants, such as kalanchoe, African violet (Saintpaulia) and cyclamen should be blooming, and if you brought geraniums (Pelargoniums) in the fall, they will bloom indoors all winter.

They need several hours of sun, fertilizer about once a month and watering about once a week. Pelargoniums have great staying power throughout the year. They'll do even better if you pruned them when you brought them inside.

The first flower to bloom outside is the perennial hellebore (Helleborus), which blooms for about a month in January, February or March, depending on the species. The most dependable species in our area are Christmas rose (H. niger), Lenten rose (H. orientalis), stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) and Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius). Nurseries that carry them include Carroll Gardens in Westminster and Happy Hollow Nurseries in Cockeysville. Hellebores are in the Ranunculaceae family, like the peony, which they resemble.

When the weather becomes impossible, settle in with gardening books, catalogs and brochures. Catalogs tantalize us when we need flowers the most and when we have almost forgotten how much work gardening is, so order with restraint.

Different books can instruct as to design, plant material, history and philosophy, as well as inform us about plants themselves.

Finally, if the ground isn't frozen, how about planting a tree to commemorate the beginning of the new century? Your grandchildren will love you for it.

SOURCES

Books

"The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" by Michael A. Dirr, Stipes Publishing Co., 1975. This explains plants' size, leaves, stems, flowers, habits and landscape value.

"The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello" by Peter Hatch, University of Virginia Press, 1998. It describes the earliest days of American horticulture.

"Noah's Garden, Restoring The Ecology of Our Own Back Yards" by Sara Stein, Houghton Mifflin, 1993. This book tells us how and why to return diversity to our gardens.

Brochures and catalogs

* Heronswood Nursery, Ltd. 7530 N.E. 288th St. Kingston, Wash. 98346 360-297-4172

* Niche Gardens 1111 Dawson Road Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516 919-967-0078 www.nichegdn.com

* Wayside Gardens 1 Garden Lane Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001 800-845-1124 www.waysidegardens.com

* White Flower Farm P.O. Box 50 Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050 800-503-9624 www.whiteflowerfarm.com

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