January 2020 Gardening Tips


Happy New Year everyone!

December 21st, on the Winter solstice we turned the corner, and each day we move gradually from the dark into the light to a longer brighter day.

A few weeks ago I planted my Paper white Narcissus on pebbles or you may use potting soil. I use tall glass vases and it is most important keep the pebbles moist with enough water to cover the bottom of each bulb.

In September I brought my Rosemary plant indoors as they are not hardy outdoors in our zone six and spray it twice weekly with water. I run a cold-water humidifier and a germ guardian air cleaner for personal health and the health of my plants.  

After planting the paper white Narcissus I placed them in a dark cool closet until the foliage is about four inches tall. Today I moved them from the dark closet to a cool room with indirect light and where the temperature remains at about 65 degrees. When the buds are almost ready to open I will place them in a brighter area to be enjoyed, not only for their bloom but also the heady fragrance which permeates the house.   

Just the thought of new bloom gets me out of the winter doldrums. But with the heavy snow and the arctic blast that will surely come in January plus the unusual and dramatic changes that are occurring with global warming and subsequent climate change. Those changes, combined with pollution in the air, water and the earth, tell us that our planet is being severely damaged.   

That being said; your contribution to saving this wonderful planet is to organically tend the soil with compost and manure and natural brown mulch, which builds the humus component in your soil. Your plants and vegetables will thrive, as will you.  Throughout the year allow your garden to anchor you, connecting heart, body, mind and spirit to Mother Nature’s lifegiving bountiful gifts and spiritual energy.  

The harsh winds of January and February extract moisture from trees and shrubs, especially the evergreens. Winter winds are more harmful to plants than cold temperatures, not only causing plant breakage but also soil erosion. On that note, it’s helpful to have a few bags of topsoil and mulch in the garage. With these items on hand, any roots can be covered when they become exposed by wind or frost heave.  Roots exposed to the elements for any length of time can kill the plant, therefore, quickly cover exposed areas with soil and mulch, to prevent their demise. When spring arrives, and the earth warms up, the plant can be resettled in place together with composted manure and the natural brown mulch to provide an excellent growing environment.   On a sunny day in January, take a walk round the garden to breathe in the fresh air and allow Mother Nature to lift your spirits. As you walk, make some notes and decide what worked for you last year and what you will never try again. 

Later back indoors, while sitting in your armchair, browse through the catalogues that began arriving a few months ago, you have already begun making lists of plants that you are thinking of buying. However be aware; the catalogue photos are meant to tempt you with their lovely but “doctored up” pictures of plants that you feel certain will make your garden sensational this year.   

A word of caution – try to make 2020 the year for realistic and organized change. Don’t get caught up in the fantasy of brightly colored, high maintenance garden pictures shown in the catalogues.  Suit your garden to your lifestyle that will work within your time frame and physical abilities.  If you follow that construct, you will have the time to sit, relax and smell the roses, without being overwhelmed.    

As you sit in your armchair and plan for the coming season, it’s also important to keep your budget in mind. It’s hard to believe as you look outside at the dull and dreary weather that in a couple of months, early spring sunshine and pleasant breezes will warm the soil. When the soil is dry enough to tread on, winter debris may carefully be cleared away. Then with a clean palette you can add that lovely layer of manure and compost (the ratio being three parts manure to one part compost). At that time another task I find personally satisfying is to make a clean edge on the borders, this simple task makes such a difference to the look of any garden.  With the preparation done when April showers arrive, the sun is shining and you are ready for the fun stuff, the placing and planting!  

For those of you who are vegetable gardeners and look forward to a bountiful year with fruits and vegetables and with enough rain and sunshine here to produce this bounty. With this bounty and the advent of spring we can expect the invasion of the good and bad insects, moles, voles and other critters.

In the garden I always say by kind to yourself as you remember that by the end of last season you became overwhelmed with too much gardening, and not enough time to relax and smell the roses. Here are some suggestions you might follow:

Send some of your borders back to grass.

Make some of the high maintenance perennial borders, into mixed shrub borders. To accomplish this, take out some of the high maintenance perennials and donate them to a worthy cause. 

Plant evergreen shrubs, some green, some blue and some of the lovely evergreen gold variety, amongst the remaining perennials.  To these, add small flowering deciduous trees and shrubs that will begin flowering in April and successively through June. The Carlesii viburnum, also known as Korean Spice is a favorite small shrub of mine, with its white buds that open to a pale pink and the most delightful fragrance.  

Add a Ben Franklin tree with its white cup like blooms and gold center that flowers in August through September. 

Nestle three Blue Mist shrubs in the mixed border; this plant will delight with purple blooms and fragrant leaves into September. 

On a fence or trellis fragrant, plant white autumn clematis.

Add a groundcover as an evergreen framework – my favorite is Myrtle with its glossy leaves and miniature blue flowers that emerge in April.    

It is never too soon to introduce your children and grandchildren to the wonders of the garden and as an extra enticement, introduce them to the garden fairies.  Through the years I asked children to draw a picture of the garden fairy and make a list of questions to ask the fairies who live in the wild patch.  We all have a wild patch in the garden; in fact you are probably saying, “Maureen, my garden is one large ‘wild patch’. The children became so excited and enthused about their lists and pictures of the fairies as what you have done is transformed science into magic. It appears that these days we have forgotten about fairy tales, dreams and magic; it’s time to bring those wonderful energies back into our lives and into the lives of our children.  

In spring and on into summer I would find my children or their friends checking the garden impatiently wanting to see their planting efforts come into bloom. In the vegetable garden they waited to see what was ready to eat from the produce they had planted.  I have found that this introduction to the garden often inspires children to make gardens of their own as adults. 

My son Ian is a great example of this as he has partnered with me through the years in the garden – and the old adage that ‘the student is better than the teacher’ has certainly proved to be correct. Ian is a designer ‘par excellence. If you have the opportunity take a ride to the shore and visit the Old Saybrook Inn and Spa to admire the beautiful gardens Ian designed and the crew under his direction, installed a few years ago.      

In my March gardening tips, I’ll give you some suggestions of ornamental trees, shrubs and long blooming perennials. With that list in hand it is preferable to obtain your plants from local garden centers that carry tried and true plants that will flourish in zone six.   On the other hand, if you feel that over the years, you have been throwing good money after bad in your garden and despair when you feel that your garden never looks right, get in touch with a landscape company that you trust who will keep your budget in mind whether you want to do your own work, or wish for a design to install yourself.  

On the other hand when you are planning your garden for this coming season there are important facts to keep in mind:  

What are the plants requirements for sun, shade, soil, and water? 

Will they survive in this zone, Zone 6?  

What are the growth patterns of the plants?  Do they grow fast or slow?  

You do not want a fifty-foot tree up against the house with those tremendous roots that will play havoc with your house foundation.  Or do you want that lovely but very large, Catawbiense Rhododendron, all ten feet of it, climbing through your dining room window in five years? 

To find those facts, either check the plants in a book, on the Internet or read the labels attached to the plants in the nursery. 

Check every aspect of the plant before you buy.  The red or green Lace leaf Japanese maple looks lovely in spring but is it something you can enjoy, without its leaves in the winter?  Personally, I not only enjoy the foliage of plants and trees but also the shape and bark of trees without foliage in winter.  

For those of you just beginning a garden, let’s honestly dispense with the myth that gardening is a relaxing hobby. At the end of that first day of digging, lugging soil, manure and fertilizer, and planting everything at the proper depth; you will feel that you are going to keel over.  

Then you remember that you still need to water the newly installed plants as you drag your tired body to switch on the hose. Thank goodness, the mulching can wait until tomorrow or next weekend, right? Right!   

Watering by the way can be meditative. Imagine that the hose is your umbilical cord so that as you nourish the earth and the plants, the earth can nourish you. 

By now the sun has gone down, and you trudge indoors muttering to yourself “what the heck did I get myself into”?  To this comment I say, “You did not have to work on the whole garden in one day”.  

In gardening, there is always tomorrow, or next week, and even though the label says to plant it by the end of May or June, believe me folks, a few weeks later does not matter, the garden will wait for you.  

You may be saying to yourself at this point “Maureen are you trying to put us off gardening”? No folks, but I would remiss, as someone who has gardening in my blood (as well as manure) for over four hundred years to tell you, however reluctantly, not only the pleasures, but some of the aches and pains.

The idea is not to bite off more than you can chew.  For first time gardeners don’t scatter your energies all over the garden, tackle and complete one area at a time. That area should be priority until it is complete.  

If you have a new home with no landscaping, some hardscape may be required.  Hardscape are walls, walkways, patios, ponds, decks and so on. The sound and look of a water feature in the garden is delightful, it need not be elaborate, a fountain is fine – the reflection of water is Mother Nature’s mirror. If you are not able to do this construction yourself, get in touch with a contractor that you trust, so that a plan can be done now, installed and ready by spring.    

All of these endeavors means getting yourself in shape physically, so get off that couch, put away the catalogues and your plant lists, stretch, then wrap yourself up warm and take that walk.   

As you walk, look at the trees in winter, the elegant shape of them, the lichen on the stonewalls, and the moss tucked in cracks and crevices.  Clear your mind and allow nature’s spirit to surround you.   Take a look at a garden or two in your neighborhood which you have admired when they were in bloom and see what they look like in winter.  

I remember one of my professors when I studied at the Royal Botanic gardens at Kew saying, “in winter you can tell a really good landscape by its bones, without the flesh of flora and foliage”.   In spring, get in touch with those neighbors whose gardens you admired and ask them some of the secrets of their garden. They will be happy to talk with you not only of their successes but their failures – true gardeners are realists when they speak about their gardens and love to share.  

Try to visit the Providence, Connecticut or Philadelphia flower shows; they are on in February and March.  Always a good cure for the winter blues! Enjoy your daydreaming of the season to come and I’ll see you next month in your garden.