January Stepping Stones

Week One

Plan and Design

Recuperate from New Year’s Eve by lying on the couch watching four 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.

Mulch

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.

Maintenance

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, JUST DO IT! Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) offers an excellent GardenCycle Day Planner for quickly and easily recording climate and gardening activities on a daily basis. This can be purchased from www.Amazon.com or from Seeds of Change. 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).

Week Two

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?

Appropriate Plants

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, Yucca Do Nursery, 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).

Maintenance

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.

Week Three

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 lines to avoid damaging or severing them.

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.

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.

Week Four

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.

Extra’s

  • Go outside and look for signs of spring. My earliest recorded blooms are henbit, dandelion, Veronica pectinata, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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 or call 520-326-9686. 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). Butterfly Magic, an indoor exhibit of over 500 live tropical butterflies in their tropical conservatory was exhibited thru January 30, 2005. Visit their website often for other special events.

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 4 weeks for cleaning out the others.
  • Clean out the shed instead.
  • Sharpen your tools, you’ll soon be using them.

Angie Hanna

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