Be vigilant with chores for the winter garden

In the dead of winter, most people don't normally think about their landscapes and gardens very much. Here are a few helpful plant tips that you may wish to consider on these cold winter days:

• Avoid heavy traffic and playing on dormant lawns during the winter. Dry turf is easily broken and the crowns of turf plants may be severely damaged or killed. This damage may show up next spring and summer as thin or poorly growing grass.

• Apply pre-emergence weed control in late February to home lawns. The best time is when the Forsythia shrub blooms. Do not use pre-emergent weed control, though, if you are planning to replant or reseed your lawn.

• Flower and vegetable garden seeds stored under warm, moist conditions deteriorate rapidly, and sometimes actually rot. Be sure to keep your seed stored in a cool, dry location, like a cellar or basement. If you can't do this, it's best to buy fresh seed each season.

• Speaking of ordering seed, now is a good time to check through your seed catalogs and place your orders before varieties sell out.

• Save those plastic mesh bags you buy oranges in, because they make ideal storage bags for air-drying bulbs, herbs, onions and gourds. Check any bulbs, tubers or corms that you currently have in storage and discard any that are soft or diseased.

• Examine the limb structure of your shade trees and remove any dead, diseased or storm-damaged branches now before they fall and cause damage to any plants or passers-by below.

• If feeding birds is one of your favorite hobbies, order vines, shrubs and trees that provide cover and small fruits for your feathered friends. Consider planting species such as crabapple, hawthorn, dogwood, holly, cotoneaster and pyracantha, which can help lure and feed hungry birds.

• Clip and bring branches of forsythia, pussy willow, quince, spirea or dogwood indoors to force blooms inside the home. Make long, slanted cuts when collecting the branches and place the stems in a vase of water as soon as possible. These plants should bloom in two to three weeks. Be sure to change the water every four days.

• Water newly planted shrubs and trees in the landscape when the soil becomes dry if no rain occurs for more than two weeks. Pay particular attention to evergreen shrubs and trees, as their leaves transpire water whenever air temperatures rise above 40 F.

• During cold snaps, invert large flowerpots over semi-hardy perennials such as dusty miller for protection from low temperatures and wind.

• Check houseplants often to be sure they are receiving enough light and water. Most indoor plants prefer a well-lit location, like a south- or west-facing window. Don't place houseplants near a heat vent, on top of the TV, next to a door, etc., as hot and cold air are hard on them.

When watering, use your own built-in water meter. Stick your finger 1 inch into the potting soil and if the soil feels dry at that level, then it's time to water. Check to be sure that water drains completely through the soil ball from top to bottom and exits through the drainage holes.

• Have your soil tested through Gwinnett Extension. Follow the fertilizer and lime recommendations.

• Turn or roto-till your vegetable garden to expose weed seeds, nematodes and insects in the soil to the elements. Exposing insects and weed seeds to cold air and drying winds will help reduce their numbers in your garden this year.

• Continue to turn your compost pile adding leaves, yard debris and manure in December.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.