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There’s plenty to do in the ‘dead of winter’

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. My beautiful philodendron, which has been growing well for a long time, suddenly looks paler green. Though I wouldn’t call it sick, it just doesn’t look as good as it did. It is winter and I always heard not to fertilize houseplants in the winter.


    A. That plant probably is in need of fertilizing, which tends to show up when leaves get lighter green. But don’t give it an overdose, because the plant is growing little, if at all, now.

    Use a fertilizer formulated for foliage houseplants but dilute it to half-strength through the winter. Use this solution of water and fertilizer at least once a week, which is probably about all it will need during these quiet days. In the spring, consider replanting it in a larger pot to accommodate fresh growth.

I hope none of you are thinking of this time as the so-called “dead of winter.” Sure, many of the trees are bare of leaves, most shrubs are dormant and we await the appearance of the earliest bulbs, such as snowdrops and crocuses.

But how can winter be dead when camellias bloom beautifully, when I see flowers of winter jasmine and buds of my rare Algerian iris are just rising from below ground?

All this, while the gardener spends warm afternoons outside enjoying the sunshine while raking the last of the leaves and wrestling out patches of unwanted English ivy.

There are, of course, deeds left undone thanks to the busy weeks since late November. No matter. There’s time to catch up, even if it means starting with such a mundane task as clearing leaves off the roof and out of the gutters.

Some of you still have unplanted flower bulbs and perhaps wonder if it is too late to get them in the ground. As I have said more than once, these valuable bulbs have no future in a paper bag. Do your best to get them in the ground. If you lack the time or energy to dig a new space for them, consider planting them in pots. This is fast, easy and productive. You can set the bulbs deep in the pots and close together, but not touching.

Plus there are ashes from the fireplace to deal with. This is easier than you think, but does require paying attention to the soil requirements of certain plants. Many popular landscape plants require acidic soil for best growth. These include azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and gardenias, so don’t go flinging your fireplace ashes on them. Instead, use the ashes to make soil less acidic in vegetable beds, rose beds and flower gardens (especially where peonies grow). Wood ashes have been credited with pushing stubborn peonies to bloom.

You can also add wood ashes in thin layers to your compost bin.

As you wander around your landscape, keep an eye out for a certain weed that thrives in cool weather. This is the bothersome chickweed, which is already going strong, despite some fairly miserable weather of the past few weeks.

The bad thing about chickweed, a low, densely packed, light green plant, is that it runs rampant through the winter, spreading far and wide while your back is turned. Then, in late winter, it blooms, bearing sort-of-pretty daisy-like flowers that are tiny but packed with seeds. These blooms will drop their seeds all over the place and the problem will be back to drive you crazy next winter.

The good thing about chickweed is that it is easy to pull up. The roots seem barely in the ground and come up easily with the tines of a leaf rake. Do this now, or at least before the plants bloom.

All this is easy enough to do on a nice afternoon when the sun is shining, the camellias are blooming and you haven’t a thought that it is the dead of winter.

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