January 2015
How's Your Garden?

How's Your Garden?

Winter is a good time to think about garden infrastructure such as a large cistern for collecting rainwater.  


If winter weeds such as henbit are taking over your lawn, just spot treat them and other broadleaf weeds with an approved weed killer. In areas where grass is thin or weedy because of shade, soggy ground, tree roots or other conditions not suited to growing a good cover of grass, then consider a ground cover, mulch or a shrub bed. Trying to grow grass in places where it isn’t suited is a no-win situation.

Cisterns to Collect Rainwater

Gardeners love a good rain. Plants just seem to respond so much better to rain than our garden hoses. According to some meteorologists, one reason is that rainwater contains nitrogen-bearing oxides produced by lightning. If you are a serious gardener growing fruits and vegetables that need water at critical times, a cistern for collecting rainwater might be a good investment over the long run. Water bills keep going up, but rainwater is a gift. There are many ways to collect rainwater, from a series of inexpensive 50-gallon drums networked together to specially made cisterns such as this one I saw at a botanical garden in North Carolina several years ago. Just do an Internet search for "rainwater collection" and you will likely find a system you can buy or build to suit your needs and budget.

  Alpine straw-berries make up for their small size with extra flavor.

Alpine Strawberry is All Flavor

The first time we grew Alpine strawberries, we were hooked on their flavor. Even though the fruit is very small, the flavor is huge. It’s strawberry with maybe a hint of pineapple and a very aromatic scent. Alpine strawberries are not very well-known but they deserve a little more attention, especially in North and Central Alabama where they do best because of the slightly cooler weather. The plants look like common strawberries only more compact and they generally do not generate runners. However, they are perennial, so you can expect your planting to get better with time. Divide the plants every 3 or 4 years and start anew. Water regularly and fertilize in spring and you will likely enjoy steady production of berries, with the best being in the cool months. Plant them in a spot where they get some afternoon shade to avoid the searing summer sun. Serious gardeners will start their own from seed, but it takes a year to get a fruiting plant. Because they are not very well-known, you may have to order them from companies that ship plants.

Perennials Respond to Winter Attention

Unless it happens to be bitter cold or raining, the "off season" is a good time to tend to perennials when there aren’t many other demands on your time. For example, the iris bed that didn’t bloom well last spring probably needs dividing. Dig and discard the old rhizomes; replant the younger ones. Daylilies, too. Rake out the old foliage in a bed of lamb’s ears and cut back old woody stems. The bed will look thin and rough when you finish, but it will grow back in early spring. Trim back tattered ornamental grasses; use a string trimmer or blade for thick plants. Sprinkle a little lime around your Lenten roses; they like it better if the soil is not too acid. Trim back browned hostas, peonies and other cold-hardy deciduous perennials if you haven’t already done so.

A mix of cool-season greens is pretty in the garden and on the table.  

Build Raised Beds

Mild winter days are a good time for building projects such as raised beds; take advantage of the next mild spell. Deep raised beds are great because plant roots like the soft, deep environment. Because the beds require a lot of soil, starting now also gives you the chance to create a good pile of composted leaves to help fill them. Avoid filling deep raised beds completely with native soil, but use a 50/50 combination of potting soil and amendment such as leafy compost or cow manure. Using native soil defeats the purpose of the raised bed where the rich, airy soil encourages good root growth. A plant grows in proportion to the health of its roots.

Using the Raised Beds in Winter

Our raised beds are the source of all of our salad greens and several leafy herbs like parsley and cilantro through winter. We keep them covered with a large sheet of frost cloth stitched together to fit the size of our bed. The frost cloth allows sunlight to pass through along with good air exchange (unlike plastic). Water also passes through, so the beds get the benefit of rains. You may find frost cloth at local landscape supply stores or search it online. A lot of frost cloth is sold as blankets to put over favorite shrubs and ornamentals. To cover long raised beds, look for material sold in lengths or rolls. You may also find it sold by the foot. For those who sew, the spun bond polyester material will remind you of interfacing. If you take good care of the material and store it out of the weather during the warm months, it should last several seasons.

Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.