RISMEDIA, February 12, 2011—(MCT)—Winter brings a long layoff for gardeners—too long for some. There are only so many gardening catalogs to page through, only so many planting schemes to dream up. After a while, you just want to get your hands dirty.
The following gardening activities can be pursued even when the temperature doesn’t break freezing. While they may not fill the void till spring, they’re enough to keep you busy on a few chilly weekends.
Seed a lawn
Believe it or not, winter is a good time to spread grass seed—the second-best time after fall, argues Denny McKeown, a Cincinnati-area nurseryman and author whose books include The Gardening Book for Ohio and Month-By-Month Gardening in Ohio.
Melting snow assures good seed-to-soil contact, McKeown explained, and the freeze-thaw cycle heaves the soil and works the seeds down into it. The seeds will germinate when the soil warms, but that soil will still be moist enough to supply the water needed as the seeds sprout and grow, he said.
Some advise spreading the seed right on top of the snow, but McKeown doesn’t recommend that. “You don’t know where the grass seed’s going,” he said.
Instead, he suggests spreading seed when the snow is melted. Remove any fallen leaves or debris, and just spread the seed right onto the existing lawn or bare soil.
Andrew Pratt, grounds manager at Cleveland Botanical Garden, cautions you may lose some seeds to birds or rot. But McKeown sees that as a bonus. Most people plant too much seed, he said, so that’s just a way for nature to do the thinning.
Plant a terrarium
Terrariums—gardens in glass containers—are back in style, said Betty Howell, co-owner of House of Plants Florist in Akron’s Merriman Valley. So if you can’t plant a garden outdoors, why not create a miniature one indoors?
Terrariums are no longer limited to aquariums with lids, Tovah Martin notes in her book The New Terrarium. Vases, bowls, glass domes called cloches and even canning jars make good containers.
Terrariums don’t have to be closed, either, Martin says. A container with an open mouth will still help contain humidity to a degree. If you use an open container, Howell recommends choosing one with an opening that’s five or six inches wide—big enough to fit a hand inside.
Choose plants that like shade, tolerate high humidity and won’t grow too large, Martin advises. You don’t have to limit yourself to houseplants either. Nursery-propagated wildflowers are a good choice, Martin says. So are woodland plants such as moss or ferns that you collect outdoors, provided they’re not endangered and you have permission to take them.
You can either plant them directly in the terrarium or in pots. A single small pot elevated on a base of seashells or glass beads is an elegant look.
If you plant directly in the container, Martin recommends putting a layer of small pebbles or gravel mixed with activated charcoal below the soil. If you like, you can top-dress the soil with more pebbles.
Upkeep is minimal. Water very lightly, remove yellowed or damaged leaves, get rid of mold as soon as you see it, and rotate the terrarium occasionally so all parts are exposed to light. You don’t need to fertilize, Martin says.
Start garden seeds
Tired of growing the same old stuff? Starting seeds indoors is a way to supply yourself with vegetables and flowers you might not find at the garden center.
Many garden centers sell seed-starting kits that can get you started. Pratt likes to start seeds in his basement in a container placed on a heated mat, with a shop light fitted with a cool white fluorescent bulb positioned about four feet away from the soil. He uses a timer to keep the light on about 12 hours a day.
But it’s also possible to start even more simply. The seed packet will give you specifics on when and how to plant, but in general, sow the seeds in small containers filled with soilless potting mix that you’ve already moistened with water. Cover the containers with clear plastic—or opaque if the seed packet specifies the seeds should germinate in darkness—and set them in a sunny window where it’s warm enough for the seeds you’re growing.
Uncover the containers every day to check for growth, and spritz the plants if necessary to water them without disturbing the seeds. Don’t let the soil dry out.
As soon as you see the first signs of growth, crack the plastic covering for a day to let in air. The next day, remove the plastic for good.
For the first couple of days, keep the soil moist, then continue to water as needed. Start feeding the plants a weak solution of a soluble fertilizer once they get their first set of true leaves. Those leaves will look different from the tiny oval or rounded seed leaves the plant will produce initially.
If necessary, thin out some of the seedlings so the rest have room to grow.
Bring the outdoors in
Even when the garden is asleep, there’s beauty to be found. Pratt likes to bring some of that show indoors to brighten his home in winter.
Walk around the yard and take clippings of anything you find attractive, and arrange those branches in a vase as you would cut flowers, Pratt suggested. Winterberry, pine, lacecap hydrangea and Japanese maple are good choices, but choose anything that catches your eye, he said.
You can also force some branches into blooming early inside your home. Any spring-flowering tree or shrub is a candidate, although woody plants with smaller flowers usually open their buds more fully than plants with larger flowers. Suggestions include forsythia, crab apple, flowering cherry, flowering pear, redbud and red maple.
Just take cuttings and then recut the stems underwater when you bring them inside to keep air bubbles from forming inside and blocking the uptake of water. Then put the cuttings in a vase and wait—and hope. The buds may or may not open, but you lose nothing by trying.
Do some weeding
Weeding isn’t most gardeners’ favorite chore. But weeding now can save you work in the warmer months, noted Denise Ellsworth, a horticultural educator with the Ohio State University Extension’s Summit County office.
Weeds can pop up in your yard and garden even in winter, she said. When a thaw exposes them, get out and pull them. Many of them can flower and set seed even in the cold, she said, so removing them as quickly as you can will thwart their spread.
(c) 2011, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.