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Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Just because it's winter doesn't mean there's nothing to do in the garden

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show." 

            ~Andrew Wyeth

Now that the holidays have passed, what to do with all those lovely poinsettias sitting on the dining room table, around the fireplace, next to the front door?

If you live farther north than, say, Beaumont, this probably won't work for you.  But those of us fortunate enough to live a bit southward can take a lesson from Ed Holland who lives in the Memorial area of Houston. 

That's Ed's poinsettia hedge pictured above.  He lined his driveway with these "Christmas" plants and was delighted when they made it through first one, then two, then multiple winters.

He does trim them after they bloom to keep them lush, and they are somewhat protected by overhanging tree canopies. They are heavily mulched and were well watered during this past summer's drought. However, the area is high, so it is extremely well drained — a must for poinsettias during our (normal!) spring and fall monsoons.

But they still receive lots of sideways sun, and they do bloom . . . all by themselves.

Poinsettias actually do like us a lot, even if you just keep them in pots.  But they are outdoor, not indoor, plants. 

Whether you plan to put them in the garden or keep them in a container, let them die back naturally now.  The leaves will fall off eventually as the plant wants to go dormant after blooming. Altho the flowers are pretty insignificant, they're there.  What you see are the colorful bracts. 

My grandmother Mimi's poinsettias used to hold their colorful bracts until almost June.  But then, her apartment was like a greenhouse most of the year.  She hated air conditioning and loved fresh air, so constantly had the windows open any day the temps went above 75. 

Don't expect yours to do that, but the newer varieties do hold color much longer than older varieties did.

Just stick them someplace where they won't freeze until spring.  Most poinsettias die from overwatering, so be careful.  The hotter they get, and the more water they receive, the faster those leaves will fall off.

Put them on the floor at night, by a window unless temperatures are below freezing.  Keep them out of heating drafts.  Every now and then, spray the leaves with water.  This will keep them from suffering from lack of humidity.

In spring, cut off the deadwood, and plant!

Mums are a great buy right now and they can go right into the ground.  They'll bloom twice in this area, once in spring and once in fall.  They tend to get a little leggy. If that bothers you, cut them back after they finish blooming.  Don't cut back now, however.  You don't want to encourage any new growth that might be more susceptible to killing freeze damage when temperatures drop.

Established mums probably won't even need covering during freezes (I never cover mine) but they'll really appreciate a good heavy mulch. 

If you do cut back leggy plants in spring, stick those cuttings in the ground after you strip off all the leaves save for a few at the very top.  They should root easily.

Poppies are one of my favorite flowers but, unfortunately, they don't much like us.  However, if you plant them now, so the roots get enough cold, they should bloom for a little while in the spring.

From the Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD (see below to order):

This month, you really should . . .
    •    Plant new rose bushes.  They need 6-8 hours of full sun every day. (Valentine’s Day is the traditional day to prune roses.)
    •    Fertilize established trees and shrubs, except azaleas, camellias.
    •    Keep a water source in the yard for birds wintering in your area.
    •    Mist indoor plants.  They like humidity.  Set outside on sunny days. 
    •    Feed perennial bulbs (when they start showing greenery) with bulb food, superphosphate or bone meal.  (Squirrels may dig up bulbs to get at bone meal.)
    •    If a freeze is forecast, water all plants.  Dry roots are more susceptible to freeze damage.
    •    Think about it: is your landscape negatively impacting the greater ecology through water runoff or use of garden chemicals? 

If the spirit moves . . .
    •    Feed established trees if you didn’t feed them in December.
    •    In water garden, add underwater plants as forage for fish.
    •    Plant agapanthus, allium, crinum, iris, hyacinth, montbretia.
    •    Fight snails/slugs by planting fennel, garlic and rosemary.
    •    Plant seed for arugula, beets, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, cress and watercress, endive, mustard, parsley, peas, red radish.  Set out either plants or seed for collards and kale.
    • Set out plants/sets of garlic chives, leeks, multiplying onions, Irish potatoes, turnips. Start broccoli, collards, eggplant, lettuce, tomato, pepper seeds in flats; protect on cold nights.
    •     Set out winter annuals like calendula, cyclamen, nemesia, pansies, snapdragons and primroses and narcissus for spring color.   Plant chamomile, coriander, tansy, lamb’s ear, feverfew. Narcissus will bloom this month!

If you’re really feeling energetic . . .
    •    Scrub pots well with detergent and bleach to prepare for spring annuals.
    •    Call Extension Service for information on best vegetable varieties.
    •    Plant dianthus, delphiniums, hollyhocks, larkspur, petunias, columbine, snapdragons and stocks under deciduous trees (lose leaves in winter).  These need cold to establish roots.   Dianthus and columbine need summer morning sun and afternoon shade.

Great Don’t-Do tips for really Lazy Gardeners
    •    Don’t overwater dormant roses, bulbs or hibiscus.
    •    Don’t panic over yellow azalea leaves.  Azaleas (and other evergreens) drop leaves to make room for new ones.
    •    Don’t set out late spring or summer perennials and annuals yet. 
    •    Don’t prune deadwood out of trees or shrubs yet.  If you hit live wood, you may trigger new growth that will be susceptible to freeze damage.
    •    Don’t prune crape myrtles unless absolutely necessary (see page 6).

(That's page 6 of the Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD.  What it says is that crepes should not be topped, creating those "fists" at the end of branches.  Just weakens the plants.  This is a practice promoted by guys who make money unnecessarily pruning crepe myrtle trees  . . . and we bought into it, much to the detriment of these poor plants!)

Brenda's (slightly-quirky) Lazy Gardener has been a Houston Chronicle fixture for almost four decades.  Check out her latest gardening post at Your input is always welcome and appreciated!

"THE LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" — Specifically for Houston area gardens: monthly do-now reminders & gardening advice. 12 pre-designed gardens for butterflies, hummers, sun, shade and more. A gardening book on CD. $20. 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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