Great Backyard Bird Count
This is a reminder the Great Backyard Bird Count takes place next month during the weekend of February 12–15. We introduced readers to this annual event last January, so I won’t repeat. Register at www.birdsource.org to report your bird sightings. You can continue reporting, too, at www.ebird.com. For those who really enjoy attracting bluebirds to your property, did you know there is a group of like-minded folks who meet annually to learn about this species? Find out more about this organization at www.nabluebirdsociety.org.
If you have the space and like asparagus, now is a good time to start thinking about starting an asparagus patch. This is a perennial vegetable that will yield a harvest for 20 years from a single planting, if you do it right. Asparagus likes a deep, well-prepared, rich bed, giving you a chance to work off your holiday excesses with some serious digging. The problem with asparagus is it can be very unwieldy, growing into a big, often-weedy patch becoming hard to manage. A few years ago, I came across a very logical system for growing this vegetable. Doug Croft, the gardener at Chanticleer Garden in Pennsylvania, kept the asparagus in a wide row and the ferns held up by heavy rope running along the length of the planting to keep the ferns upright. The rope ran through holes drilled in posts spaced every few feet along the row. This made it easy to reach under the plants to keep the area weeded and mulched, and just kept the five-foot ferns neat. If you’ve never seen asparagus grow, you will be surprised at how tall it gets. The part we eat is the young shoot as it comes out of the ground, but after a few weeks of harvesting the shoots, you must leave the rest to grow up to full size through the summer to give strength to the roots so there will be more shoots next year. Doug’s system makes it all quite manageable. The trick is to put this row at the edge of the garden where normal cultivating won’t bother the perennial vegetable.
This is a good time to clean up old flowerpots and remove the existing potting soil. After a while, the texture of the soil starts to break down and it no longer supports growth as well. Good potting mix contains peat moss and composted bark; after a while the organic components begin to decompose, especially in our warm, humid climate. It’s a good idea to always refresh the soil in your containers every other year, if not every year. Of course, replenish your pots with a good quality potting mix. It’s hard to find the more economical big bales of potting mix these days, most of it comes in more expensive bags, but you can still find nice big, four-cubic-foot bales of Bonnie Potting Mix at many Quality Co-ops. This is the same quality mix Bonnie Plants uses to grow their vegetable and herb transplants in their greenhouses.
A Good Winter Time Killer
Keep yourself busy on a dreary winter day cutting up ties for your tomatoes. You can make them from strips of stretchy fabric. The ideal material is women’s nylon stocking. Just cut open one side of the leg and then cut across the leg so that you end up with strips about 6 inches long. The soft material won’t skin tomato stems and will stretch all you need when reaching to tie a wayward stem to a cage or stake.
Garden Gloves Have Come a Long Way
I started wearing garden gloves when my hands were finally big enough to fit inside a pair of cloth gloves that were standard issue years ago. That and leather were all you could find. Today, there is a garden glove for just about any task. The stretchy, rubber coated ones feel almost like medical gloves and let you do more precision work like seeding. Nitrile chemical gloves protect you from pesticides when spraying. Other styles have pads to keep your hands from blistering if you do a little too much raking at once. Some have rubberized dots to give you a slip-free grip. Elbow-length pruning gloves protect your arms from rose thorns or other prickly bushes. And, of course, there are still rugged, leather-types for all-round work; these range from really soft goatskin leather, to pigskin, smooth leather or suede. The gloves I find myself using the most have rubber-coated fingers, making them somewhat moisture-proof and great for setting out flower and vegetable transplants. Gardening ladies be forewarned, your glove collection may grow to the same size as your shoe collection. As a big believer in letting your tools do the work, my assortment of styles includes gloves in just about every material, fit and level of ruggedness available, because each is well-suited to specific tasks. The most expensive in my collection — above-the-elbow-length, leather gloves — come out only at pruning time. Each time I use them, their value goes up. A good pair of gardening gloves protects your hands while you work and is well-worth using.
Leave the Semi-Hardy Plants Alone
Sometimes we gardeners lose the least hardy of our perennials during a really cold winter. Three I’ve lost over the years include Mexican sage, purple heart and lantana here in Birmingham. Although it is tempting to cut the dead tops of these bare-looking perennials back now, sometimes those tops are just enough to help protect the plants from cold. The stems provide a little cover and they also catch leaves that tend to bunch around the crown of the plant for added protection. So, if you can stand it, refrain from cutting back the ugly tops of those less-hardy perennials until spring.
Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.