Now is the time to analyze your garden

Opinion: There is no reason why your garden should lack winter colour.

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January is the perfect time to walk through your garden to get an early sense of how your plants are faring. This winter we have experienced more extreme weather patterns, so it’s important to check all your trees, shrubs, perennials, small fruits, fruit trees and, yes, even your lawn.

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Are they healthy-looking? Is the soil retaining too much moisture and possibly causing rot problems? On the other hand, do your plants have enough moisture-retaining materials around them to tolerate the upcoming weeks of increasingly hot, dry weather? Are your trees and shrubs clean or do they have moss and lichen growing on their stems? Do your shrubs and trees need hard pruning to remove dead and diseased wood or just a little thinning to allow in more sunshine and better air circulation.

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Have you tested the pH level of your soil? Is your grass thick with moss? Can you walk across your lawn without getting soggy feet? After heavy rainfalls, does water pool on certain areas of your garden? What does your garden offer for colour at this time of year? What does it provide in the way of nectar and pollen to support beneficial insects year-round?

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Now is one of the most important times of the year to deal with these critical issues because they will affect how well your plants perform through the year ahead. For example, the level of acidity in your soil can drastically affect your plants’ growth. If you live on the West Coast and have heavier soil, winter rains can cause the soil’s pH level to drop, thus making the soil too acidic and resulting in many plants not being able to pick up essential nutrients from the soil.

The only way to know for sure about the pH level of your soil is to do a pH test. Simple test kits are available at garden stores. Most plants are relatively happy when a soil’s pH measurement is between five and eight. If the pH indicator shows a result lower than five, an application of lime will help adjust the pH level back up to a better range. If you live in a very dry climate and your soil’s pH is very high, sulphate nutrients will usually help bring it down.

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Bright shots of colour, like from this hamamelis, are so welcome in our winter gardens.
Bright shots of colour, like from this hamamelis, are so welcome in our winter gardens. jpg

As a general rule, most plants, including lawn grasses, really benefit from the application of lime at this time of year. Garden soil will be much improved with the addition of lime because calcium is so vital for most flowers, vegetables and small fruits. Fruit trees also perform better with an application of lime around their drip lines. The appropriate application rates are shown on each bag of lime. As an example, a 10 kilogram bag of Dolopril lime will cover 2,000 square feet or 200 square metres. However, it’s also important to note that acid-loving plants, like blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas and most conifers, aren’t lime lovers, so don’t get lime too close to them.

Soggy lawns need attention as well. The very best thing you can do now, or as soon as the lawn firms up a bit, is aerate. Both hand and machine aerators are available. Whichever option you choose, the objective is to completely remove plugs of soil from the whole lawn area to allow for better drainage. Follow this up by applying a quarter-inch layer (about 0.6 centimetres) of washed sand. Your lawn can be aerated in both spring and fall to really improve its drainage and overall health.

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Acid-loving azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and blueberries also require good drainage, and they would benefit greatly from the slightly acidic nature of fine fir or hemlock bark mulch worked into the top three to four inches of soil around their drip lines. In fact, any plants or trees, deciduous or evergreen, that have water settling around them will be helped by soil aeration and an application of bark mulch.

When trees begin showing signs of life and you give them a feeding of slow-release nutrients, such as a well-balanced 14-14-14 fertilizer, they will be helped tremendously over the growing season. Any trees that tend to stress out later in the year from heat and drought will do better if you have worked fir or hemlock bark mulch and organic matter, like Sea Soil, deep into their drip lines.

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If you see moss and lichen on your deciduous trees, shrubs and fruit trees, now is the time to apply dormant spray, which is mostly organic. The outside temperature should be well above freezing when you spray, and the weather needs to be dry at least eight hours after applying the dormant spray.

Aerating and then adding sand to your lawn will improve drainage and support strong root systems.
Aerating and then adding sand to your lawn will improve drainage and support strong root systems. jpg

Dormant spray kits are a combination of liquid lime sulphur and horticultural oil that, when applied three times before the buds open, will go a long way to cleaning up moss, lichen and other issues. The lime sulphur works on the many fungi and diseases found on our trees, and the horticultural oil goes into the cracks and crevices of the bark to help control the eggs of harmful insects.

A word of caution: Do not use this oil and sulphur blend on nut trees, maples or viburnums. For peaches, nectarines and apricots, use Bordo copper spray as it’s very effective for controlling peach leaf curl. When the dormant season is over, keep the lime sulphur and the horticultural oil out because, when used at the ‘growing season ratio’, it’s a very safe and effective disease and insect control for so many of our plants, including roses and flowering shrubs.

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When you’re out assessing your garden, please pay close attention to the structural health of your trees’ branches. If any trees have dead or diseased wood or broken branches, it’s time to prune them out. It’s also important to thin out thick masses of growth and to prune back trees that have become overgrown.

Except during extreme cold spells, the dormant season is an ideal time to prune deciduous shade trees and most evergreens. Some notable exceptions are flowering deciduous shrubs, like forsythias, mophead hydrangeas and flowering quince (chaenomeles), as well as budded plants, like lilacs, that will bloom in spring or early summer. Pine, spruce and true fir trees should be pruned later, after the candles and buds have popped. I find that Japanese maples perform far better and have fewer disease issues if pruned during their growing season. It’s also very important to check carefully for any nesting birds that have laid eggs. Please wait until they have left before pruning.

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There is no reason why your garden should lack winter colour. Many beautiful winter flowering trees, shrubs and perennials, including winter heather, hellebores, hamamelis (Chinese witch hazel) and Lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle), are available to add rich vibrancy and interest to your garden.

Though the weather may be cool and damp, a bit of time analyzing your garden now will reap many rewards in future.

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