It’s not uncommon for many people to long for the bright flowers and full trees of springtime during the bleak days of winter. While many gardeners wait in eager anticipation for spring plantings, Bill McCarthy, master gardener and founder of the Cascade Garden Club, said there’s actually a lot of work people can do right now to prepare their yards and gardens.
“There are several different kinds of gardens, from flower and botanical to vegetable gardens,” said McCarthy. “Everyone thinks this is a slow time of year right now, but it can be a really busy time for preparation.”
McCarthy’s advice for winter garden preparation focuses on four categories: seeds, soil, pruning and equipment. Among these, McCarthy said seeds are perhaps the most essential to get right when selecting and ordering, as a bad seed can’t be changed by a good environment. To make sure the seed is good, he recommends a germination test which looks at the percentage of planted test seeds that sprout to estimate the proper amount and spacing in the garden.
“If you get bad seed it’s a wash,” he said. “You need good seed. If I’m going to grow my own tomatoes or peppers, for example, I’ll do a germination test to see if they are viable seeds. Seed should always be stored in a refrigerator and I tend to save a lot of my own seeds from tomatoes or peppers I really like. Ordering your seed from a good seed source is critical. Don’t just go to your Five and Dime. Look at the package date, that’s critical.”
In addition to seeds, he said plants can also be grown from cuttings using a technique called rooting and growth hormones.
“It’s a process where you get the exact plant from cuttings. With seeds, you sometimes lose the colors or heartiness, but cuttings will give the exact plant.”
Of course, good seeds need good soil to grow in. McCarthy said soils are critical and should always hold proper moisture and nutrients. It can be obtained from reputable nurseries. McCarthy said using fertilizer is often a good idea, but be careful with insecticide sneaking into your yard products, as it can damage the plant quality.
“Mulch is always good, but be careful with our city compost,” he said. “You don’t know where that grass has come from or if there are herbicides and pesticides in it. Those can reduce your vegetable production. I like to use good wheat or oat straw for mulch and compost because it’s clean and holds moisture. Leaves and grass are also good as long as you know where the product came from.”
In addition to preparing for the planting of new seeds, winter is also a great time to work on pruning and maintaining plants already in your garden or yard.
McCarthy said, “Deciduous trees are correctly pruned when they’re dormant, so now is a great time to be pruning since there’s no sap flowing through them. Evergreens are to be pruned between the first week of June and last week of July. Right now is also a great time for large tree removal because the ground is frozen and you can get heavy equipment in there without it hurting your yard.”
Some flowers can also be pruned such as roses and hydrangeas. McCarthy advised leaving flower beds exposed with stems in the winter to protect the plants, as well as piling snow on flower beds to use as insulation.
As a final tip, McCarthy said winter is an excellent opportunity to clean, sharpen, tune-up, repair or replace garden and power tools. Additionally, many tools and other garden materials are on sale this time of year, so it’s a great time to buy.
For those who don’t currently have a garden, McCarthy said there’s a new opportunity coming soon to take part in a Cascade community garden. This garden is being set up by McCarthy and the Hometown Pride group with the purpose of providing a place for people to garden and funds for the local food pantries. The garden is planned to be created in the spring near the well house on city-owned property.
McCarthy said, “It’s a perfect spot. It’s close to a water source, has good soil, and I have farmer friends who would till it up with their industrial equipment. We’re looking at a 20 x 20-foot area so you can go all the way around it with an alley down the center. I think people would have a little more of a stake in it if they rented the plots. They pay $50-$75 a year and we supply the area to grow their garden produce. We’d give that money to the food pantries and church so they can buy additional food.”
All participants are expected to supply their own seeds, plants and equipment. For more information on participating in the community garden and renting a plot, contact McCarthy at 563-543-7921.