January Stepping Stones to Gardening Success
The path along the Stepping Stones to Success begins in January. Daytime light is short and temperatures are cold, often frigid. Winter holidays are a pleasant memory. Besides paying the bills, what can a gardener do? For the four-seasons gardener, there is more to do in the garden in January besides viewing it through the window; there are a few preparatory and maintenance tasks. In the Panhandle, we can be blessed with unseasonably mild weather some weeks to perform them. I like to use these coldest winter months to catch on on my gardening education. I look at this gardening time as an athlete looks at his/her training in the off season -- a time for more intensive training and improvement, a refinement of ones abilities. If you want to improve your skills, when it's too cold to garden, pick up a book, watch a gardening video or attend a class.
Inspiration for gardening is everywhere. Gardening applications can be found in the most unlikely places.
Stepping Stones is arranged in most cases on a week to week basis within the months with gardening tasks described by order of the Seven Principles of Gardening, as needed, namely:
1. Plan and Design
2. Analyze and Improve the Soil
3. Create Practical Turf Areas
4, Choose Appropriate Plants
5. Efficient Use of Water
6. Use Organic or Inorganic Mulch
7. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
Following the weeks' tasks, I've included suggestions under the headings "Keep it Up", "Extras", "Be a Plant Explorer" and "Oops! and/or Don't" -- extra tips I practice and have found to be important or interesting. If you've been gardening for several years, there will be fewer tasks each week for each principle. Included in the sidebar at the right are QuickSteps -- a summary or outline of tasks to do each month. Feel free to copy and print out to refer to during the month.
Don't worry if you can't get to the task in the first week suggested. These times are when I've noticed the earliest most likely success achievable. Naturally, each and every year will be different. Some years will be warmer, some cooler. Adjust and stay tuned to the weather.
Plan and Design
Recuperate from New Year’s Eve by lying on the couch watching two uninterrupted hours of the Rose Parade. Hope for inspiration for new bed designs while viewing themed floats of flowers and live plant materials glued to every square inch of surface. Possible applications: Creating a series of square, rectangle or curved raised beds 5 x 5 feet (ovals or salad bowl vegetable gardens) – jot down initial plans when spouse changes TV channel to the other bowls.
Other possible applications: a reminder to mulch every inch of ground with organic, inorganic or live plant material. Tour the yard during bowl game commercials to see if mulch needs to be renewed. Leave no ground uncovered.
Unless you’ve already mastered this, your gardening New Year’s Resolution should be to keep a gardening journal. Start it this week. Diary, notebook, calendar notations or computer entry, In later years you’ll be pleasantly surprised by useful information such as weather conditions (extremes, precipitation, temperature highs/lows winds), first plants emerging, first plants blooming, plants ordered, costs and from where, and other maintenance chores performed (pruned trees today, renewed mulch, turned the compost pile, etc).
Plan and Design
It's been said many times, the dead of winter is a great time to analyze the design of the garden. After the fall of leaves and winter die-back, the bones are laid bare. If you have good bones, you'll see it. And if you don't, you'll notice their absence. Increase the visual effect by layering plantings, creating drama by balancing contrast with harmony of shapes, texture as well as color. Unity and rhythm is achieved through repetition. One focal point plant is nice, when placed in a five to seven part composition, genuine interest is created. In small spaces, design pocket vignettes by choosing plants with two or more features of interest, whether it be evergreen and berries, bark or branch color with shape, or shape and winter flowering. For more tips on winter interest, and plants for winter interest, click on Plants for Winter Interest.
Analyze the Soil
Gather a soil sample together and send it to a soil lab for analysis if it hadn’t done this in the past three years. Has the soil analysis improved from organic amending over prior years analysis?
Inspired by the Rose Parade floats, and after roughing out the design, your eyes spy the stack of seed catalogs you were too busy to look at during the holiday season. A stack hoe high has probably accumulated by this time. Some companies send out 2 or 3 editions—just so they won't be forgotten.
Weed through them. The ones I keep are for reference and ordering: High Country Gardens, Plants of the Southwest, Agua Fria Nursery, Neal Hinder’s Canyon’s Edge Plants, Plant Delight’s Nursery, The Cook’s Gardens and Seeds of Change and any others I realistically might need to use. Write lists and place orders as wanted (probably at this point in your gardening life, nothing is really needed any more). My GardenNotes on Fall and Winter Vegetable Gardening lists the 15 top sustainable seed companies, many of them organic and non-GMO.
That reminds me, weeding. During one of those bright and sunny January days, venture outside and pull out any annual winter weeds that have germinated – particularly henbit. Tackle those dandelions in the lawns too. If anything has seeded out, do pass the compost pile and proceed directly to the dumpster.
On your way back from the dumpster, turn the compost pile.
Amend the Soil
If you haven’t already broken ground on that new bed under design, do it this week.
But before breaking ground, consult the utility companies for location of utility and or pipelines to avoid damaging or severing them. Call 811 toll free and allow 2-3 business days for their response (also, www. texas811.org). Before digging usually means breaking new ground for building a fence, installing a pool, landscaping and installing a sprinkler system.
Double digging provides double duty for getting your muscles in shape for your ski trip next week. Be sure to add in at least 3 inches of compost or organic material, depending on your plant selection. Drought tolerant plants are frugal feeders; vegetables, and traditional English and East Coast plants require 6-8 inches of compost dug into the top 12 – 18 inches. Incorporate an inorganic substance, as well, if your soil is heavy clay. Preparing the beds and borders ahead of time allows beneficial microorganisms time to multiply.
Raised beds are better for drainage, avoiding compaction by walking around them, rather than in them. Avoid walking on moist soil; this untimely step can alter soil structure. Place a plank down for walking, if necessary.
Efficient Use of Water
Just because it’s winter and the temperature hovers around the freezing point, it doesn’t mean the plants have stopped requiring water. If little or no precipitation has been received, it is time to water on a warmer winter day (above freezing, preferably above 40º). Winter’s wind can desiccate plants too. If snowfall was recorded, track the actual precipitation amounts. Sometimes our snow is as dry as sand. How much water? This always depends on soil conditions (sandy, clay, caliche, texture and drainage and organic content) and the type of plants. Drought tolerant plants require good to great drainage and need watering once every 4 – 6 weeks during the winter. Medium and high water use plants need water once a month, about an inch, even though dormant.
Water winter annuals of pansies, violas and ornamental cabbage and kale at least every other week. Sometimes soil mixes for containers will form a crust over the top, making water penetration to the root zone difficult. Water will run down the space close to the container. I’ve found it beneficial to gently poke holes in the soil (being careful not to destroy roots) to aid water in soak.
Mulch Containers as Well as Beds
It’s a good practice to add an inch layer of mulch to containers. A good quality compost or shredded coir fiber is best for most containers. Inorganic mulch is best for containers of drought tolerant plants.
Coir fiber is fibrous material found in coconuts and is similar in appearance to peat. Coir fiber is considered a renewable resource, unlike sphagnum and sedge peat, therefore ecologically friendly. Coir fiber is superior or equal to peat in several respects: stability, water absorption and drainage. The characteristic I like the best about coir fiber is its wetability – much better than peat, and it’s slower decomposition rate. Coir fiber is sold at most garden centers and through catalogs in compressed bricks. It has a pleasing light to dark brown color that hasn’t faded for me all summer long. Coir fiber could also be used as a soil amendment and bed mulch, but cost may be prohibitive for large areas.
While packing for the ski trip, don’t forget to include something to read in case the weather turns inclement, or muscles become too sore to venture out that second day. Fireside reading, hot chocolate in hand with a good book of gardening essays is just the thing. Ann Lovejoy, Sara Stein, Ken Druse, Elizabeth Lawrence, Lauren Springer, Michael Pollan, Allen Lacy, and Henry Mitchell lead a host of Great American Garden Writers who are confident enough with their gardening skills to write with clarity and humor. Even though most have not gardened in the Southwest, the general principles apply. Wit and gardening seem to go together like trowel and glove, a perfect match. Choose any of them for an enjoyable read.
- Go outside and look for signs of spring. My earliest recorded blooms are henbit, dandelion, Veronica pectinata, snowdrops and crocus. The earliest recorded crocus one spring was Crocus chrysanthus, var. Zwanenburg Bronze, a species crocus (as apposed to hybrids), blooming on and off for a few weeks in mid-January. In colder years it blooms in February. I have a patch of mixed daffodils planted close to my south-facing brick house that is always the first to bloom, a week or two later than the crocus’ though. Record first blooms sightings in your garden journal throughout the year.
- Plant trees during the warm spells.
- Start seeds for cool-weather vegetable crops indoors or outside under cold frames or polytunnels. Lettuce, spinach, mache, kale, chard, cabbage, broccoli, English peas, etc. One year I planted lettuce seeds on New Year's day under a simple tunnel -- a clear plastic bin, the kind on sale right after the holidays. It took 3 weeks to germinate, but they did.
- Choose a calcium chloride de-icer (instead of a sodium based de-icer) for those snowy, icy driveways and sidewalks. Use only in the recommended manner to minimize residue in your lawn and gardens. Melt water from salting icy sidewalks will flow unto the soil and damage plants.
- When damaging weather occurs such as heavy wet snowfalls or ice storms, gently tap the underside of branches. Prune broken branches as soon as possible; do not wait until spring. Prune down to a joint, do not make stub cuts. During heavy snowfalls, tap the accumulated snow from the limbs as the snow continues to fall to avoid damage. Evergreens are particularly susceptible to contortion by moist snowfalls when heavy snows blow in. Review my section on Pruning, under Maintenance/Grooming the Garden.
- Don’t neglect our feathered friends, if you’ve supplied them with food and water, continue to do so; they’re expecting it.
- Start or join a new gardening club.
Be a Plant Explorer
Muscles and joints need to be saved for gardening not skiing? Visit a conservatory. By this time I’m usually going gaagaa for gargantuan greens. North, east or west, Denver, Oklahoma City or Albuquerque offer tropical delights within a days drive. Manu of these conservatories feature a late season exhibit of orchids and other tropicals. Or visit our own Mary E. Bivins Tropical Conservatory at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens. Sooth the impatient gardener within you, breathe the lush, humid, earthy air inside the dome. And come back renewed and refreshed. Can’t get away – settle for the local nurseries, close your eyes and imagine the possibilities.
The Texas Panhandle is strategically located at the convergence of three major climates: the cool temperate continental region of the Great Plains to the north, the sub-tropical/warm temperate and humid region to the east and south, and the arid, semi-desert region to the west and southwest. Living in a transition zone wreaks gardening havoc. However, on the upside, we are within a day’s driving distance of three major ecological regions, and their botanic gardens and nurseries. There are opportunities galore to feast upon botanic diversity.
If botanic wanderlust takes hold, follow the bloom trail. Show me the Blooms! Head west to the Tucson Botanic Garden, www.tucsonbotanical.org . Desert plants are among the first to bloom. Botanic gardens offer a wide range of delights. The Tucson Botanical Gardens launched a Desert Connections project in 2003, to connect people to nature in the desert, revolving around three topics: wildflowers (2003), butterflies (2004) and birds (2005). Visit their website often for other special events. After a repeat visit in 2016, I was even more impressed and wrote a GardenNotes about their garden; read it here. If going to Tucson, try to include a visit to Tohono Chul and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Spend some time in the desert while hiking in Saguaro National Park.
Ooops! and/or Don’t
- With automatic sprinkler systems, turn the automatic function off, and water when needed. Watering the dormant turf three times a week is a waste of water and not the best for the turf.
- If you didn’t take that ski trip in Week Four, don’t succumb to the urge to clean out the flower beds (I do make an exception in the case of beds with early and mid-spring blooming short stemmed bulbs. For these, it’s better to get in there and rake off the leaves so you’ll be able to see their blooms.) Re-mulch these beds with compost. Wait an additional 2-4 weeks for cleaning out the others.
- Clean out the shed instead.
- Sharpen your tools, you’ll soon be using them.
Revised, January 1, 2018