Kick Start Your Garden in Late Winter

Chores you can perform in the garden to help prepare for spring

If you are anything like me, late winter is a tough time for a gardener. By this time, I am itching to get outside, but since I am in Central New York, we are generally still covered under a foot or more of snow. But don't despair. There are plenty of things we can do to get a head start on our garden right now.

How to kick start your garden in late winter

If you still have snow on the ground busy yourself with the following tasks:

  1. Order seeds and plants from catalogs. Many varieties can be hard to find locally and are sold out quickly through the catalogs, so order as soon as you can. I like to get my order in by late February at the very latest. This is also a great time to learn more about the varieties that you want to grow so that you can have a better garden.
  2. Clean and sharpen your garden tools. I am very bad about keeping my tools clean during the gardening season, so it's very important that I take care of maintenance before the season gets started again. Arm yourself with a small bucket of warm soapy water and remove all the crusted dirt and grime from each tool.  Then dry with a soft cloth.  If you have any rust spots, rub them off with steel wool.  Make sure you are wearing gloves, as I find the steel wool a little irritating to the skin.

    At this point, the tools will probably need sharpening.  Using a 10" single-cut file, simply follow the current bevel of the blade.  For small tools, you can use a vise to hold them in place while you are sharpening them.  Just a few swipes should do it. Garden shears can be sharpened by cutting aluminum foil if you are a little leery about sharpening them with the file. You can also send your tools out for sharpening.

    Now that the tools are clean, dry, sharp and rust free, you will need to protect them from further rust.  A little vegetable oil on a rag is a great way to help prevent rust.  Rub the metal parts down with the slightly oily rag and don't forget the wooden handles also.  They need a little TLC as well, to help prevent cracking.  If you have Linseed oil, that works very well on the wooden handles also.
  3. Prepare containers for new plantings. Now is a great time to wash containers if you didn't get to it during the fall. I use a new round head toilet brush to scrub the insides of the pots and remove any dried dirt before wetting them down. To remove stains and to sanitize them, use a solution of 10 parts water to 1 part bleach. Thoroughly rinse and dry the pots before planting them.

  4. If most of the snow is melted than you can perform a lot more tasks:

  5. Check plants that may have heaved during the spring thaw. Plants that were newly planted in the fall or areas of the country without much snowfall to insulate plants, may have trouble with plants heaving out of the ground as the ground thaws. Exposed roots can quickly kill a plant. So if you see any plants heaving up, cover any exposed roots with compost or soil until you can push them back into the ground later.
  6. Check for winter damage on trees and shrubs. This is especially a problem in areas with lots of snow, ice and/or wind. It's perfectly fine to prune out any dead wood at any time of year. Late winter is a great time because the plants have not leafed out yet and you can see what needs pruning. But don't get too overzealous with the pruner. You don't want to prune out anything that will be blooming in a few weeks unless it's absolutely necessary.

    Not sure what to prune and when? If it blooms in spring, prune, if necessary, right after it blooms. Pruning any later will remove the next year's buds since these types of trees and shrubs bloom on old wood. Old wood just means growth that is at least a year old. If it blooms in summer, it's usually safe to prune in late winter or early spring as these plants generally bloom on new wood, which is just a term for current year's growth. In fact, I find that many summer and late summer bloomers perform better when pruned in late winter. This includes Rose of Sharon and many late blooming Spirea.

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