If January is for sending out seed orders, February is the month to start planning the garden work and, for a few chores, actually getting into the garden. For me, this mandates a “To Do” list and, as memory falters more frequently, I find I rely on this list more than ever. Whether you keep an actual “To Do” list or not, here are a few tasks that will keep your mind on the ever-nearing garden season.
Be Ready to Test the Vegetable Garden’s Soil
Now, before the end of winter, is a good time to obtain soil test kits from you local University of Maine Cooperative Extension office, either in person or by calling to request that one or more kits be mailed to you. Each kit includes a cardboard box to hold the soil, instructions for taking the sample, and a form for important information about your garden. For example, you can indicate that your garden is organic and the recommendations you receive will focus on organic amendments. You will want a separate kit for each area of the garden to be tested. For more information, visit the lab’s website: http://anlab.umesci.maine.edu/default.htm.
Samples can be sent to Orono by mail or dropped off at the local Extension office. If you take the samples as soon as the soil can be worked and submit them promptly, you will get the results back from the lab in time to apply recommended amendments before planting.
Find or Buy a Soil Thermometer
Do you have a soil thermometer overwintering in the tool shed? If not, consider purchasing one now so that you can monitor soil temperature this spring. Soil thermometers have a large round dial, much like some cooking thermometers, but with a long probe that can be pushed four inches into the soil.
Soil temperature is the most important factor in deciding when to transplant seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and other summer crops. These crops are tropical in origin and will not grow well until the soil temperature at a 4-inch depth has warmed to at least 60º F for tomatoes and cucumbers and 70º F for peppers and squash. Soil temperature at the 2-inch depth is also the best guide for direct sowing seeds, including those of onions, beets, and Swiss chard (50º F); snap beans and dry beans (60º F); and sweet corn (60º F).
Cut Back Perennials after the Snow Melts
In the perennial bed, spring cleanup involves cutting back winter-killed foliage and flower stems on those perennials that were not cut back in fall, work that should be done in early spring, as soon as the ground has thawed and before growth begins. For those perennials that need dividing, cutting off old growth can be done as the still-dormant clumps are dug. All of the cuttings from this work can feed the compost pile, even the woody stems and flower stalks after cutting them into small pieces.
Knowing which herbaceous perennials to cut back in autumn and which to leave until spring is knowledge that comes with years of gardening experience. The gardener who grows daylilies learns that leaves left on the clumps until spring can be quickly removed with a rake, and that foliage left on Siberian iris through the winter provides a protective mulch for the dormant crowns. She learns that astilbes loose cold tolerance as a result of pruning back in autumn, so she allows the snow to pile up around their dried seedheads, and she does the same with the spent flowers of sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ for the joy of seeing the flat-topped seedheads capped with snow.
With experience the gardener learns that the list of perennials which, left intact, fare better during winter includes butterfly weeds, coral bells, tickseeds, artemisias, asters, campanulas, cardinal flower, Russian sage, and turtlehead, and that the seed heads of some perennials, including black-eyed susan, globe thistle, gayfeather, and purple coneflower, bring winter birds into the garden. And the gardener who grows foamflower will tell you that if you leave the leaves intact through winter, the plants become welcomed spots of green during midwinter thaws.
Salvage a Few Bean Poles
If you have large trees in the garden, you know that winter always take its toll, leaving the ground littered with branches of all sizes. After this year’s Christmas week ice storm, large branches lie everywhere. Some of the hardwood branches are long and straight enough to make sturdy bean poles while others can serve as supports for pea and cucumber trellises. Everything else gets dragged to the burn pile, work that can be started now, before the snow melts.
Force Hardwood Cuttings Indoors
Branches of many woody plants can be forced into early flower or leaf in late winter, providing a glimpse of the season ahead. For example, we are currently enjoying the bright green needles of tamarack cuttings taken from storm-damaged branches in early January.
Woody plants with flower buds that can be forced in early February include forsythia, red maple, alder (long yellow male catkins), flowering quince, apples and crabapples, lilacs, spirea, and serviceberry. The flowers of horse chestnut, beauty bush, deutzia, and mockorange can be forced beginning in March.
Take cuttings on a mild afternoon when the temperature is above freezing and the stems are soft and pliable. This will ease the transition from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors. Take cuttings of younger shoots at least 12 inches long with abundant flower buds, distinguished from leaf buds by their larger size and rounder shape. If in doubt, cut open a few buds to look for leaf or flower parts inside. Select only branches that are well budded.
Once inside with your collection of cuttings, fill both the sink and a bucket with warm (100º F) water. Holding the stems underwater in the sink, cut them at a sharp angle an inch or two above the original cut. For larger cuttings (more than a half-inch in diameter), split the bottom with an inch-long lengthwise cut that exposes more of the water-conducting tissue to the forcing solution. Making these cuts underwater prevents entry of oxygen that could block uptake of water.
Immediately place the stems in the bucket of warm water and set it aside in a cool place (between 60 and 65º F), then arrange the stems for display as the buds begin to show color. Alternatively, you can immediately create an arrangement and place it on display in a cool location for all to watch as the buds slowly swell and open. To promote hydration and retard bacterial growth in my arrangements, I use a forcing solution instead of plain water. Each quart of this solution contains 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon household bleach.
Remember, high temperatures speed up bud development, but reduce the size, color, and keeping quality of the blooms. Keep the arrangement away from direct sunlight and away from any direct heat source, such as heating vents or the wood stove, that would dry out the buds. A cool location with bright indirect light is best.
Change the water or preservative solution each week. If the surrounding air is dry, mist the arrangement with water several times a day to keep the bud scales moist until flowers or leaves emerge. Once the buds open, a process that can take two to three weeks, the blooms should stay fresh for at least a week.