As soon as the leaves fall from the trees and plant are sufficiently dormant, it’s time to think about grape vines. Nurseries typically get their new shipments in during winter, often after the New Year, but now is the time to start preparing if you want a serious crop of grapes. You need to study how to support the vines, which could be as simple as a sturdy wire fence or an old-fashioned arbor, letting you pick from overhead. Be sure to buy your grapes from a reputable nursery familiar with local varieties. Nationally-known grapes like Concord will soon die here because of Pierce’s disease, which is like hardening of the arteries for grape vines. Instead look for muscadines like Carlos, Ison, Magnolia, scuppernong and many others which are descended from our native grape; all perform well here. Muscadines have been researched for their high-nutritional value, which includes high levels of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds contributing to good cardiac health. There are also bunch grapes bred especially for the South, most of which are used in winemaking. Check with your regional Extension office for information about how to care for grapes and occasional workshops on topics like pruning. How you support and prune grapes greatly affects their health and the yield you get from the vine. Study up on this before you plant as a trellising system should be in place before the vines go in the ground.
Mulch Your Strawberries for Winter
Prepare your strawberry bed for spring by making sure it makes it through winter without cold damage. Wheat straw makes a good winter cover while still letting the plants breathe. Before mulching with straw, cut back and remove all the old leaves — being careful not to damage the crowns, or growing center of the plant. If your planting is large, a lawnmower will make easy work of this. Use the bag attachment so old leaves, which may harbor disease, don’t remain. Otherwise, rake after cutting back so the ground is clean. Then mulch around the plants with clean material to cover the ground and the plants with a couple of inches of straw. Plants are usually productive for a couple of years before they die out or succumb to diseases. In the spring, harvest runners to start a new bed. If you have the space, start your bed in a new location to help prevent the build-up of soil-borne problems.
Try a Cold Frame
You can continue filling your salad bowl with homegrown lettuce and other salad greens by growing them in a cold frame. The unheated structure traps enough heat to keep greens growing during cold days and protects them from severe freezes at night, especially the lettuces, which are not as cold-hardy as kale and spinach. It is not too late to set out a few transplants, or sow seeds directly in the ground, in a cold frame. If your soil is heavy, mix a couple of inches of potting mix into the surface to help drainage. Sow thinly. It’s a little more work while seeding, but will save you a lot of time thinning when the seedlings sprout.
Perennial Flowers Move Well in Fall
Now is the time to exchange old-fashioned Tawny daylilies, iris, Clerodendron and other flowers from the gardens of friends. They transplant best in the fall when the ground is still warm and the tops are dormant. Plants set out now will have some roots established by the time spring comes. Dig them carefully; it is nearly impossible to avoid breaking some roots, but the more you leave intact, the better the chances of survival. Water the day before digging so the ground is easier to dig and to make sure the plants are hydrated.
Late-winter flowers with fragrance are a signal spring is just around the corner. Add some of these to your garden now to enjoy early, when spring fever gets you outdoors in a big way. It’s hard to beat a walk through the garden with coffee in your hand and the smell of spring in the air. Great early fragrances include Chinese Paper Bush (Edgeworthia species), winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), tea olive (Osmanthus species) and Armand clematis (Clematis armandii). In South Alabama, you can add loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) to the list. Annual flowers include dianthus, fragrant varieties of pansies and petunias, sweet alyssum, sweet peas and stock; the farther south in Alabama you live, the more likely these annuals are to bloom in winter. Now is a good time to plant all of these.
Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner's Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.