Season 2 • Episode 4 - February 28, 2023

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The late winter is always frustrating for the gardener. The weather is cold, wet, and sometimes snowy. Yet, the sun will often peek through the clouds and give us a little time to get out in the garden do a few of those late winter chores. But what should we be doing in the winter garden as we prepare for spring? To get some tips we welcomed Jan McNeilan, retired Oregon State University Extension agent, back to the podcast. She brought her ‘book of knowledge’ with her. Now we know that this is not an actual book, but notes from her and her husband Ray’s years of experience in the university extension service. A lot of these tips we covered when we had the TV show, but now we have time to go a little further in depth on some of the topics.

The first thing we talked about was pruning. This is a topic that we discussed in the past because the winter is one of the best times to cut back your shrubs and trees. We are talking about the late summer shrubs in particular. If you cut back your spring blooming perennials at this point you will be cutting off the new buds and blooms. The spring flowering plants set their new blooms in the mid-to-late summer and the best time to prune them is right after they bloom in the spring and early summer. Now there are a bunch of spring bloomers that you can prune in the late winter and those include most of your fruit trees and shrubs. Apples, pears, peaches, grapes, fruiting plums, figs and apricots can all be pruned at this time to shape and to promote better production. The key with these fruiting plants is knowing which part to prune. For example, if you cut off the fruiting spurs on your cherries and apples, it can reduce your yield. Check out the OSU Extension website for tips and diagrams on what to cut off. Roses and wisteria are a couple of flowering shrubs that you can prune in the late winter. In fact we talked about how Presidents' Day is a good reminder to do your rose pruning. You can do your major rose cutting right now and take things down pretty far. Blueberries are also a plant that you can take back right now. For the blueberries you will want to remove about 1/3 of the oldest wood every year (it will have a bark, whereas new canes are green and smooth). Blueberries fruit on the newer wood better than the older canes. If you miss your pruning on President’s Day for your roses, don’t worry, you can cut them back later this winter or even early spring. A delay in pruning will just mean a delay in their blooming. In fact, if you don’t prune they will still send up flowers, they will just be on a taller plant.

Now is a good time to plant some of your woody ornamental plants too. Arborvitea, fir and pine trees, roses, rhododendrons, lilacs and roses can be planted if you can work the soil. Some of the taller plants may need to be staked for one season or at least through the spring to avoid tipping over in the stronger gusts. Remember to remove the stakes after the first year to prevent girdling your new plants. The key here is like any other time of year: Prepare your soil well and make sure that your plant is well-watered once you plant it. You will see lots of bare root trees and roses in your garden centers right now. Since they are winter dormant you can plant them directly in the ground right now. In fact, planting them now will give them time to acclimate and get a head start on root development. Plus the selection of varieties are the best right now, too. Late winter is also a great time to dig and divide some of your other perennials like hostas and epimediums.

Our next topic asked the question, "Is it too early to clean up your garden?" There is a difference between cleaning up, and CLEANING UP. Cutting off the dead and diseased branches and flower stalks should be OK, but you may want to hold off on cleaning up your mulch and soil covering. This mulch is still protecting your plants and could be protecting those beneficial bugs that are overwintering in your beds. You don’t want to wait too long (a good time would be late March to mid-April) because if you leave some of the leaf mulch covering your new bulbs it may cause them to stretch for sun and get too long and leggy. This brought us around to bulbs in general. This time of year you will start to see some of your early spring bulbs appearing and this gets people concerned because they think that the plant will suffer in the cold and snow. However the bulbs are designed for this. They have very thick early leaves and the flower is still protected deep inside the plant. They will be fine.

Another question we hear regards early season weeding and baiting for pests. The feeling is that weeding is fine. In fact, it may cut down the weed seeds that will get spread in the early spring. Staying on top of the weeds will help control them later in the spring and reduce the need for sprays and other controls. Producer Jeff then asked about preemergent treatments. These treat the soil to prevent weed seeds from sprouting, but it can also inhibit the growth of your other garden plants and seeds. Always be careful about applying any chemical (organic or synthetic) to your garden and read the directions on the label. Baiting for slugs can also be done now, but be aware that they are not as active in the cold as they are later in the spring. However, getting them early is a good thing. Each slug can lay over 100 eggs and so if you get on them early you can reduce the number you see later in your garden. You should look for slugs, snails or their damage to determine if you need to bait now.

We then got into seed-starting. A lot of gardeners want to start their seeds now to get a jump on the season. For some that means growing them inside. For others it could mean that they are planting directly outside for those cold weather crops like peas, lettuces, carrots, broccoli and kale. For those crops and other warm season crops, Jan will write the temperature for germination on the seed packet itself. In fact, the seed packet for most seeds is a source for an abundance of information about growing, caring and harvesting for those plants. Some people will even try to plant warmer-weather seeds and even plants outside when the temps are not really warm enough for them to thrive. A good example are tomatoes. You can find the plants in your garden center early in the season. But if you plant them outside without protection they will wither or die. Then you must make the trek back to get more of them later in the season. We know that last year it was so cold and wet that many people didn’t get their warm weather crops like tomatoes and basil in the ground until June, and they still performed well at harvest time. If you do start seeds you will want to have a warm and sunny spot in your home. Start with a container (some say egg containers may not work, but give it a try) and fill it with a good sterile planting soil. You can get seeds from your local garden center or even use old seeds that you saved or harvested from your garden last year. But how can you tell if they are still good and will germinate? For those really old seeds you can take 10 of them and put them in a wet paper towel. If 3 germinate then you can guess that 30 percent will germinate. The rule of thumb for the old seed germination is as follows:

1 Year: Leeks, onions, parsnips and sweet corn
2 Years: Okra and parsley
3 Years: Asparagus, beans, carrots and peas
4 Years: Beet, mustard, peppers, pumpkins and tomatoes
5 Years: Cabbage, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, melons, radishes, rutabagas, spinach and squash

Once in the soil, keep them moist, but not soaking wet. You can use a heat mat or grow lights to help them grow, but it isn’t always necessary. Wait until they have roots coming out the bottom of your seed tray and they have 2-3 sets of leaves before you even think about putting them out, and then watch for pests and frost. Watch your soil temperature, too. When it hits 50 degrees, it is a good time to get them in the ground. If it is colder than that, they may just sit there until the soil gets warm, anyway.

Lawn and moss were also on Jan’s list. It may be too cold for your lawn to grow but you can mow it to clean up debris like Ryan recently did. Planting grass seed to fill in dead patches is still too early to do. Jan told us that the dates between April 15 to October 15 are the best for seed growth. If you have moss, applying a product also may be a waste of time since a lot of them may work well only when the ground temperatures are a little warmer. The details will be on the moss control product.

Right now, cleaning and sharpening your garden tools is also a good thing. Getting them ready will make those late winter and early spring chores go much more smoothly. Moles and gophers may also start getting more active. Our thought is that if they are not causing too many problems, leave them alone. They do benefit the soil by digging their tunnels. If you need a reminder, moles eat worms and grubs, gophers eat roots, bulbs and vegetation. Ryan suggested cleaning up the old chemicals in your garden shed. These outdated garden products are considered hazardous waste and should be dealt with in a safe manner. In the Portland, Oregon metro area you can go to this link for details on recycling these products. If you are not in that area, check with your local waste collection provider or your local garden center.

We ended by talking about ways to get everyone involved in these early season chores, including children. Having the kids help with vegetable starting will help them to become lifelong gardeners. Plus, it can be a lot of fun, too! One way to help you get excited for the coming spring and summer is to bring in early season flowers and keep them in your house. Hellebores floating in a bowl will bring that wonderful spring color inside. Some people even cut the early budded branches of quince, forsythia and flowering plum and bring inside to watch them bloom in a vase. Outside fragrance will also add to the excitement!

Late winter is the time to plan and plant. You can get a lot of things done and set the table for a successful gardening season ahead. For more information you can check out the Oregon State University Extension website.

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