University City

January is time to mulch, move shrubs and dream of tomatoes

The therapeutic value of gardening remains strong in January, even if not much is happening out in the yard.

Though gardening in the first month of the new year is mostly an extended fantasy done indoors, it is comforting to imagine that, by ordering seeds now, you can enjoy big red tomatoes on the Fourth of July.

This dream may come true no matter what happens (or doesn’t) with Congress. Despite the relentless 24-hour news and celebrity cycle, our gardens resonate to deeper, more enduring rhythms of renewal and hope.

You can keep moving woody shrubs to new places in your landscape this month, but January is not a traditional month for starting anything outdoors in the vegetable garden. Experienced gardeners wait until March to plant cool-season vegetables, though some gamblers plant peas or onions in mid-February during mild winters.

The best way to get a jump on spring vegetables this month is to order your seeds and start crops indoors that will be set out in March. Broccoli, kale and other cold crops, as well as lettuce, chard and spinach, are especially rewarding choices.

The Internet is hard to beat for ordering seeds, and most major seed houses now have online catalogs. As an alternative, Renfrow Hardware in Matthews has a wonderful selection of organic and local seeds to choose from, plus seeds in bulk.

As I do every year, I challenge all University City gardeners to try three new varieties this year (and then let everyone know what works and what doesn’t).

A sunny, south-facing window sill works OK for starting seeds, but a simple light frame using fluorescent shop lights is more reliable. An inexpensive two- or three-shelf unit of wire “restaurant shelving” is a convenient alternative to building a frame from 2-by-4 lumber.

Local farmers also start such warm-season vegetables as tomatoes and peppers indoors in January so that they can transplant them into unheated greenhouses mid-March. Advanced gardeners may want to give this a try.

In March, home and community gardeners can use Wall O’ Water covers to create a version of farm-style climate protection at a garden scale.

But January isn’t totally an indoor month; there are a number of outdoor chores to be done. And with the pleasant weather we’ve been enjoying so far in University City, working outside has been more of a delight than chore this winter.

• After cold snaps, check your pansies for “heaving,” or popping out of the ground. They are tough little guys, so just push them back in gently, restore soil around their roots and water them.

• If you haven’t banded your trees against cankerworms yet, make that a top priority. So far there are no reports of mass movements of moths up tree trunks. But the cold is sure to come, and the females will start climbing. Renfrow, Faulk Brothers (on Tryon near Orr Road east of UNC Charlotte), and other good garden centers have banding materials.

• Stay on top of winter weeds in flower beds and the vegetable garden. Weeds are much easier to manage in small quantities. Left alone, pests such as chickweed can form a massive mat by March, which gives you one more unpleasant chore to deal with instead of planting spring crops and flowers.

• Use autumn leaves as mulch to protect the soil – not just in the vegetable patch, but everywhere in the landscape. You only need 2 or 3 inches. Some gardeners swear by laying down a layer of newspaper or cardboard underneath mulch to prevent weeds from starting to grow.

• If you want some exercise, consider spading your vegetable and flower beds. This old-fashioned technique has both strong proponents and critics; I’ll discuss the controversy in greater depth later.

For now, spading simply means turning the soil with a shovel, one blade deep, and leaving the roughly dug soil on the surface. The cold weather can then do some important work for you by freezing pests and weed roots, and loosening clods of clay. Then when time comes to add compost and form beds later in the spring, your soil will be ready to go.

But if you don’t like that idea, or any other garden suggestion, don’t use it. In your garden, you call the shots.

There are dozens of different approaches to gardening that provide endless discussions. But rarely is there a right or wrong way to garden. Observe, experiment and – most of all – get out there and try. Then do what works best for you.

Happy New Year, and have a great 2014 in your garden!