University City

December 14, 2012

Gardening at the winter solstice

This Friday, Dec. 21, looms large in the lives of gardeners and farmers.

This Friday, Dec. 21, looms large in the lives of gardeners and farmers.

No, I’m not talking about the Mayan Apocalypse. Don’t make a big bonfire for your rakes, shovels and seeds, thinking they won’t be needed after the world ends. In fact, I’m hanging on to mine. If there’s anything I want to have in these uncertain times, it’s first-rate gardening tools.

Did you hear that, Santa?

We can’t blame the ancient Mayans for all the fear-mongering. The hype is purely the work of 21st-century “authorities,” undoubted masters of media and the Internet, even if they know nothing about the Maya or the natural history of our planet.

Gardeners and farmers recognize Dec. 21 as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The solstice marks the end of one cycle but the beginning of another. The sun will be low in the sky, and its weakened light will shine only for about 9 1/2 hours. At this time of year, outdoor plants naturally go dormant, their above-ground growth slowing almost to nothing, even as roots continue to grow beneath the soil.

It is a perfect time for farmers and gardeners to rest and reflect, as well.

For instance, this is the ideal time to review that garden or farm journal you’ve been keeping so religiously. If you aren’t keeping a grower’s journal for some reason, put it high on your garden resolutions list now. Nothing helps more when planning a successful garden year.

Check out your new seed catalogs and their online versions, too, with the goal of getting those seeds ordered by early January, before the varieties you want sell out.

There are a few things to do outdoors this month, as well. We’ll have opportunities, because December weather typically fluctuates from days cold enough to freeze a bucket of water to ones warm enough to open wintersweet blossoms.

Clean up: Since the leaves of most hardwood trees have finished falling, this is the perfect time to do a final cleanup in the yard. While you are working, check out the “bones” of your garden. This is an ideal time to spot potential for improvements in your garden design.

Compost: Of course, your fallen leaves will go straight into your compost pile or you’ll use them as mulch, right? Don’t even think of stuffing this bounty from Mother Nature, meant to build and protect soil, into plastic bags set by the curb. (But if you do, don’t be surprised if eco-gardeners like me come pick them up. Talk about holiday presents. Ho ho ho!)

Trees and shrubs: You can plant bare-root trees and shrubs throughout this month. It is also a good time to dig and transplant small shrubs and trees. You can also prune or trim fruit trees, as well as mid-summer and fall blooming woody landscape plants, but recognize that you’ll be stimulating their growth by pruning now.

Be warned: Stay strictly away from spring bloomers such as azaleas, camellias, and forsythia, or you’ll cut off their blossoms!

Bulbs: It would have been better, no doubt about it, to plant daffodils and tulips earlier this fall. But if you don’t over-think it and get cracking right away, bulbs planted now may pay off in a splendid spring show. There is one advantage – you can pick up bulbs now cheaply. Be as picky as you can – you want nice, solid bulbs, but don’t expect top quality. When planting, add a bit of bonemeal, Bulb-tone, or a similar bulb fertilizer, following instructions.

I’ve used the trick of planting cheap, end-of-season bulbs at schools, where budgets are always tight. Some enlightened stores will even donate bags of bulbs to schools and community gardens this time of year. Bulbs are big and easy for children’s hands to hang onto, and wow, do the kids get excited when those flowers pop up in March and April.

New beds: Farmers and food gardeners can take advantage of nice weather to prepare beds now for planting in the spring. Lettuce, peas, and cabbage family plants can all be planted in March, but spring rains can play havoc with soil preparation. By preparing beds now, you’ll be ready to go. Protect the soil with a light sprinkling of straw or leaf mulch. You can knock down winter weeds as needed with a sharp hoe – the smaller the weed, the better. Then a final pass just before planting should give you a weed-free and highly productive bed.

A note from my friend, David Goforth, N.C. State CES Extension Agent in Cabarrus County, and an expert farmer: He believes that the El Niño phenomenon off the Pacific coast of South America has contributed to our long, mild fall, but may also cause a late cold snap in April. Food growers might want to keep that in mind when planning for next year’s tomatoes.

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