You may have already heard of Joel Salatin, an unconventional farmer and author of "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal." Salatin is a pioneer in sustainable farming practices. You can get a peek at his 100-acre operation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in a video from "Growing a Greener World" television show hosted by gardening personality Joe Lamp’l. Look up Polyface Farms in the search feature at growingagreenerworld.com to find an article and link to a 20-minute video tour of his pastures and commonsense techniques.
Winter is a good time to work on the garden infrastructure including putting up a barrier for large animals such as an electric deer fence. Solar powered electric chargers are perfect for fences that are not near an outlet. Most quality models contain a battery for energy storage so the fence stays hot day and night.
If you can poke a hole in the soil, you can probably grow onions. Prepare the ground by working it deeply, but don’t set your onion transplants deeply or they won’t make a good bulb. Plant so the top part of the red or white neck of the plant is partially above ground. If you can’t plant your onions right away, untie the bunch, separate the seedlings and put them in a pail with a couple inches of moist soil over the roots. They should hold for a week or two if you keep the bucket in a cool, bright place such as a daylight basement.
Are you planting a tree near a house, sidewalk, driveway or other structure this winter? If so, avoid trees with extra-vigorous roots such as ash, poplar, willow and maple. Also, avoid Bradford pears because they can reseed and become noxious weeds in the wild. Stick to small trees maturing at less than 30 feet tall when working within 10 or 15 feet of a structure; save the large shade trees for more open spaces.
This idea for easy handling of small amounts of compost or refuse comes from a community garden. A black nursery container fashioned with a rope handle makes it easy to collect a few items from the garden while you work and dump them into the pile. It also works the other direction, for transporting a small amount of finished compost to the raised beds or the garden so you don’t have to get out a wheelbarrow. It’s obviously a great idea for a community garden filled with small, individual plots, but it’s adaptable anywhere because every garden task isn’t a big affair.
Remember boxwoods, gardenias, camellias and other evergreens still need water during winter if the ground is dry. This is especially important before a cold snap when cold winds can easily dry the leaves. Keep your evergreens watered if the weather has been dry.
Check plants overwintering in the garage or basement to make sure they are still in good condition and don’t need water. Citrus, geraniums, mosquito plant and bay tree all adapt well to winter "stasis" until the temperatures warm up enough to put them out in the spring.
Late this month you can begin feeding houseplants again. They will notice the days getting longer and respond with new shoots. As soon as all danger of frost has passed in March or April, move them to a shady spot outdoors. In the meantime, give those without fuzzy leaves a good shower indoors to keep the leaves clean and minimize insect problems.
This time of year it is very common to find beautifully colored bromeliads in garden centers. These often last for many weeks indoors and are very well suited to the dry, heated air. However, don’t be surprised when the original plant starts to die back, that is natural. Often, small "pups" or baby plants are sprouting around the base. As the mother plant dies back, trim away the dead leaves and let the pups fill in. By the end of summer you will have a new, full plant if you have watered and fertilized it through summer. The American Bromeliad Society offers these tips for getting the plant to bloom again. Fertilize with a little Epsom salt for extra magnesium and sulfur. Use two tablespoons of Epsom salts per gallon of water. If your plant doesn’t want to bloom by fall, put it in a plastic bag with an apple for a week! The ethylene gas given off by the apple will help initiate blooms, but give them some time to become visible.
Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner's Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.