Yes, it’s cold and often grey outside, but that doesn’t mean your garden chores are done for the season! Believe it or not, your garden is still a living and growing thing all through winter. Now that the days are growing longer you’ll have more time to get all of your indoor and outdoor gardening chores done.
January and February are the months to consider doing a winter prune on your deciduous shrubs and fruit trees, before the buds pop. Trim out anything dead, diseased, or damaged. This will be easier to see now before there are any leaves on the branches. Trees and shrubs left unpruned may have fewer blooms and less growth come spring. Prune roses as well and they’ll reward you with a riot of blooms.
It’s also a good time for planting early spring bulbs! Yes, it’s true, if you can work the soil it’s not too late to plant spring-flowering plants such as Crocus, Hyacinths, Tulips, Daffodils and more. For summer bulbs you’ll want to take a look at them and make sure none of them are rotted or collapsed. This indicates either disease or a bug infestation, so you’ll want to get rid of those before it spreads to your healthy bulbs.
Examine your perennial plants for frost heaves. This happens when the roots get exposed due to the freezing and thawing cycles of the ground. If you find them make sure the roots are properly buried and consider adding some mulch over the area to prevent future heaves.
January and February are a good time to plant bare-root hedges, which are cheaper than pot-grown. These should become available toward the end of February, so think about digging your holes now when the ground is softer and easier to work with.
Sweet Pea is one of the great early crops to start from seed packets at this time. Early January is the best time to do that. Make sure they are in a frost-free area, and they’ll be ready for planting in March or April!
Turn the soil in your vegetable garden. The weather over the next few months will help to break it down and get it ready for planting in spring once the cold weather passes.
For the past few years, Long Island has had relatively mild winter weather. While some people enjoy warmer weather in the middle of winter, for plants the fickleness of mother nature can be extremely confusing.
During the cool season of fall, plants begin to enter dormancy. They are, for all intents and purposes, asleep. They do not put out new growth or take in many nutrients. However, when winter temperatures warm up for a long period of time (weeks instead of days) plants may break dormancy.
When trees and shrubs break dormancy they may push out flower buds or new shoots for branches. This can be a problem when a cold snap comes and cold weather returns as those buds and branches will likely die off in the cold weather. Fruit trees in particular may have their spring fruiting ability affected by extremely cold weather after warm temperatures.
Spring flowering plants may begin to push out of the ground early, breaking ground in early winter instead of spring with similar results as with trees and shrubs.
Another issue that comes from a warmer winter is that harmful insects will not be killed off. Normally, during cold winters harmful insects and their eggs are killed off in great numbers with just a few surviving through until spring. These insects hide in tree bark, the grass of your lawn, leaf piles, the shingles on your house, and more. With a mild winter, there are more resources available for pests to consume, which means that there will be a lot more pests around. Bugs like cockroaches, mosquitoes, spiders, ticks, mites, moths, bees, and wasps can all benefit from a warmer winter. Bugs that burrow into trees may also be more active in a mild winter giving them more opportunity to cause damage.
There is no good way to protect your plants from a fickle winter, but there is no need to worry as most of them will do just fine once spring comes around and the weather warms up normally. The best thing you can do is avoid heavy pruning in late summer and during the fall, as this triggers new growth that will likely be killed in the cold weather. Generally speaking, even if the cold kills off new growth and flowers the issue is only cosmetic and will resolve itself over the next growing season.
When to Plant Fruit Trees
Early spring is a great time for planting a fruit tree. In warmer climates fall planting may be preferred, however, harsh winters can damage young trees in harsher climates—particularly bare-root trees. Early spring is a good time because the root system of your newly planted tree will have time to establish itself all warm season long before having to handle the harsh winter.
Stone fruit trees—including peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and plums—are one of the easiest fruit trees to plant. They require very little care and need less pruning than some other fruit trees, such as apple trees. Dwarf or semi-dwarf trees may be an excellent choice for smaller yards. They are available for apple and cherry trees, but not yet for other varieties.
Digging the Site
Just before planting your fruit tree you should dig a hole that is slightly larger than the root ball. It’s important to dig the hole just before the time of planting, rather than far in advance because you don’t want the sides of the hole to compact. It’s important for the dirt to be loose and crumbly before putting the tree in. Some people suggest putting compost in the hole before you’ve planted the tree to give the roots a nutritional boost. After placing the tree in the hole backfill over the roots, making sure there are no air pockets around the rootstock (or base of the tree).
It is important to water in your newly planted tree. If the tree root dries out the tree can fail to thrive and even die. Fruit trees need sun for most of the day, so be sure to choose the correct location for your tree. While they may grow with less sun, they will not thrive and fruit as much as you may hope.
Fruit trees are susceptible to a host of pests and diseases including winter moth caterpillar, peach scab, suckers, crown gall, cherry leaf spot disease, and fire blight. Care for these range from pesticides, antifungals, and antibiotic sprays to prevention by sterilizing pruning tools. Your local extension office or horticultural service such as Organically Green can help you to care for fruit trees and handle any issues that may arise.