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Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith

Monday, December 07, 2009

Winter and the holidays in Brenda's Garden

Poinsettias make great gifts and, with our steadily warm winters, are becoming great garden plants as well.

“In gardens, beauty is a by-product.  The main business is sex and death."  ~Sam Llewelyn

DEAR BRENDA: Help!  Everything in my garden is dead now as a result of the snow.  What should I do?  SAM

DEAR SAM:  You can do what I'm doing.  Nothing.  This is the natural order of things.  It's winter, after all. 

Problem is, we've gotten so used to our increasingly warmer, shorter winters, it comes as a real shock when cold weather sweeps through and plants actually die . . . or die back.

The question is, how do you tell the difference?  You can't.  Not until spring.

The real decision is how much deadwood can you personally stand in the garden.  For the sake of the plants, it's better not to remove deadwood.  If you accidentally cut into live wood, you might trigger new growth.

That tender new growth will be far more susceptible to freeze damage than hardened wood.  A plant root system that might have easily survived might die as a result of the new growth freezing.

On the other hand, if you absolutely cannot stand the deadwood, go head and cut it back. It's a gamble.  Try to leave a little bit of deadwood on the stalk so you won't trigger new growth.

Then mulch REALLY well.  The leaves are falling and putting them out for the trash is absolute insanity.  A tree's own falling leaves are its very best fertilizer. 

Putting them on your gardens, piling them high to cover the deadwood, will keep the soil warmer and more moist all winter long (maybe saving some plants that would have otherwise died), and in the spring, as the leaves break down, they'll replenish the soil with valuable nutrients, fertilizing the trees from which they fell.

The early December snow can on rather suddenly before things had a chance to gradually cool down, but it's not unusual.  Our average first freeze is in the first week of December.

To my amazement, my roses are the only plants that seem to have totally ignored the freeze.  They're  blooming along just fine. They're almost all antiques.

DEAR BRENDA:  I can't stand the garden now. It's so ugly.  I want to cut everything down to the ground and put in winter flowers.  What would you recommend?  J.T.

DEAR J. T.  See the answer above about cutting down everything.  I don't recommend it.  But that's a personal decision.

Look around  your neighborhood at the plants that look good right now.  We did have a hard freeze and that'll give you a good barometer for what will and won't stay evergreen.

CyclamenIn the meantime, you can buy and put in a number of plants that actually love the cold and should provide color all winter long, including cyclamens (left), primroses, monkey plants(right) and nemesia, to name just a few.

DEAR BRENDA: I've already been given a poinsettia.  Will it stay pretty until Christmas and what do I do with it after that?  A.J.

DEAR A.J.:  If you live anywhere from, say FM 1960 south, in the spring  you can try planting it in the garden.  Poinsettias in gardens are thriving over this area now.  But that's not to say they won't succumb if we have a prolonged cold spell.

My grandmother Mimi Gracida's poinsettias would last from December through June in her apartment and then she'd give them to me.  I'd plant them in the yard where they'd die.

But I have to tell you her apartment was a greenhouse.  She kept it so hot in winter, but kept bowls of water everywhere for humidity (in the good old-fashioned way). In spring she'd open all the windows.

So humidity was everywhere and that's the key to keeping them alive inside.  Don't overwater.  It's much better to spray the leaves every other day than to water more than once a week. 

The roots are very susceptible to rot.  When you water (once a week is good), take off the decorative foil cover. Submerge the pot in a larger bowl of water.  Let the soil get completely wet.

Then set the pot, no foil cover, aside for a full day so all the excess water can completely drain out.  An ideal situation is to set the nursery pot it came in inside a larger decorative pot, with pebbles or something in the bottom so the nursery pot has air circulation both at the bottom and around the sides. This way, excessive moisture can always evaporate out.

Make sure it's not in a central heating draft.  And set it on the floor at night where it's cooler.

Weeping YauponDEAR BRENDA: Have you ever heard of a weeping yaupon?  A friend gave me one and hers is very pretty but I've never heard of this. JO

DEAR JO: I photographed this one at Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, so you can see how big these can get.  They're great background plants, since they don't do much in summer.  But in fall and winter, they're covered with these wonderful red berries that will attract a lot of birds to your yard. 

Be sure it's well drained.  These grow on the sides of our ditches and bayous.  They can take part sun but they will produce more berries the more sun they get. 

Another great berry plant that grows on the sides of woods, like yaupons, is the American beautyberry.  Mine is about 8 foot tall with branches that cascade over, like those in the picture of the yaupon.  But it has really beautiful purple (or white) berries that many species of birds love in the fall.

P.S. Now through February is also our best time to plant all trees and shrubs and to seed early spring blooming “northern" annuals such as sweet peas, hollyhocks, larkspur, pansies, delphiniums, stocks, alyssum and dianthus, to name just a few.  They need the cold to set strong root systems. 

If you wait until spring, our ground heats up too quickly and their bloom period will be much shorter.

Brenda Beust Smith (Features > Brenda's Garden)
Email Brenda for list of area gardening/environmental speakers ($5) andlist of her topics for garden club presentations ($250-$300)


"THE LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" — a gardening book on CD offers gardening tips plus 12 pre-designed gardens for butterflies, hummers, sun, shade and more. Monthly what-to-do reminders for Greater Houston/Gulf Coast gardens. $20 each. Make checks payable to Brenda B. Smith & mail to: Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD, 14011 Greenranch, Houston, TX 77039-2103.

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