Dormant, but not dead

Published 6:03 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

Your garden may look dormant in the dead of winter, but that doesn’t mean you get time off. There are still many tips local gardeners should be doing to keep their gardens healthy and help ensure a robust spring.

“It’s so important not to neglect the gardens during the winter,” said Margie Cooper from Smithfield Gardens. “A lot of weed growth occurs during the winter months because we don’t normally get cold enough to stop the growth. So, if you don’t watch it, come spring, you’ll have twice as much work to do.”

To ensure plants are healthy come spring, gardeners must prune now to ensure maximum foliage and to avoid disease.

“Any evergreens or ornamentals that have stray branches or are getting new branches, you want to clean up, so they don’t cross-branch, which happens when two smaller branches rub together,” Cooper said. “You need to open it up; otherwise insects and diseases can get inside.”

While removing dead stems and leaves, be careful what you prune; otherwise, you may find you have fewer flowers. Azaleas, aucubas, camellias, honeysuckle, jasmine and lilac are some of the plants that should not be pruned now.

“Some plants have to be pruned, because flowers won’t grow in the same place twice,” said Angela Carchic of Bennett’s Creek Wholesale Nursery. “Other plants will only grow where they were last season.”

A “Guide to Successful Pruning” is listed on the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Web site, which Carchic recommends for gardeners who are unsure what to prune and what not to prune.

While you’re in there deadheading brown flowers and pruning, don’t be tempted to clean out the leaves that have fallen into your flower bed.

“They’re like a mulch for your plants,” Carchic said. “Mulch can provide insulation for your plants in the winter and moisture for them in the summer. The leaves are compost and will help insulate the plants while it’s cold.”

Speaking of the cold, it’s important to protect some of the plants – especially palm trees – that aren’t used to the temperatures Suffolk has been experiencing.

“People need to wrap them up in burlap sacks if the weather drops another 10 degrees at night,” said Ronnie Kelly of Kelly’s Nursery. “A lot of stuff we’ve got here in Suffolk isn’t used to the temperatures and won’t tolerate it. You better hope and pray you don’t lose them.”

While it might be cold now, it’s supposed to warm up a little toward the end of the month. Since Suffolk winters aren’t quite as bad as some, you can start early on your vegetable gardens.

“We can plant them a lot earlier than most people think, if you have your soil right and garden ready,” Smithfield Gardens’ Cooper said. “Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards and anything considered a heartier vegetables can go into the ground.”

Whether you’re planting your vegetables now or later, make sure your soil is ready for the veggies by adding lime and other additives. It is a necessary step for Suffolk gardeners. Due to the hundreds of years of farming, the soil has been depleted of nutrients and consists largely of clay and sand, Cooper said.

“Suffolk soil is more acidic than other soil,” she said. “If you don’t beef up your soil early enough, you can burn plants and cause seeds not to germinate, because they get too much of one thing and not enough of another.”