Jan’s online garden hints

Jan’s January Tips
-Before you order new seeds, try this simple test to see if leftovers are still good: Spread 10 large or 20 small seeds from the packet on a damp paper towel. Roll up the towel like a scroll and store it in a closed plastic bag. Check daily for sprouted seeds. If nearly all sprout, your seeds are still fine. If only half sprout, don’t buy new seeds but plan to plant twice as many as normal. If few or none sprout within two weeks, it’s time to toss the old seeds.

-Give your Christmas tree a second life in the garden. Cut the branches into 8- to 10-inch pieces to use as protective winter mulch for perennials or strawberries. Or tie the tree to a fence post to provide winter shelter for birds.

-Give houseplants periodic showers in the kitchen sink to wash off dust and to prevent an outbreak of red spider mites. Flush excess salts from the soil by allowing the water to run freely through the pots for several minutes. If a pot is too heavy to carry, scrape away the top several inches of potting soil and replace it with fresh.

-Use yellow sticky traps to detect houseplant problems with white flies, aphids or fungus gnats. (Buy ready-made traps or make your own with yellow plastic lids or plates and a sticky product called Tangle-Trap.) If your houseplants are infested with large numbers of these small pests, spray them with insecticidal soap.

-Minimize midnight raids of bird feeders by opossums and raccoons by using animal-resistant metal feeders or filling feeders with only the amount of seeds that the birds can eat in one day. Check feeders for moldy or rancid seeds; if necessary, empty the feeder and scrub with hot, soapy water. Dry thoroughly before refilling.

-If you’re tired of shoveling snow from the driveway, resolve now to plant shrubs this spring to serve as a living snow fence.

Dogwood-red-stem-with-yew2Visit a public garden to glean ideas for plants with colorful fruit or attractive bark that could liven up your own landscape next winter. Some Midwest favorites for colorful fruit include blackhaw viburnum, winterberry, Winter King hawthorn and disease-resistant crabapples such as Purple Prince and Adirondack. Bark beauties include lacebark pine, paperbark maple, red-stem dogwood, amur chokecherry and Heritage river birch.

Vegetables, fruits and herbs:

-Prevent disappointments in your summer harvest by ordering disease-resistant varieties whenever possible.

-For a tangy addition to sandwiches or tossed salads, sow seeds of curly cress in a pot indoors. Set the pot in bright light and keep the soil moist. Begin harvesting in about 10 days, when the plants are about 2 inches tall.

-Check stored apples, potatoes, onions, and winter squash. Remove any that show signs of spoiling. Also break off and remove any potato sprouts.

Flowering Plants:

-When paperwhite narcissus bulbs stop blooming, toss them out; they aren’t winter-hardy in the Midwest. Save other forced bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths and tulips to plant outdoors in spring, but don’t expect blooms for a year or two while they recover from forcing. For now, pinch off faded flowers and continue to treat these bulbs as houseplants until the foliage withers and dies.

-Bring potted bulbs still in cold storage out now to force early blooms indoors.

-Take cuttings from begonia, coleus, impatiens or other plants you’re overwintering indoors. After removing the lower leaves of each cutting, root it in water, changing the water every day or two. Take geranium cuttings, too, but root them in damp sand, not water.

Around the yard:

-To reduce the need for deicing salts, which can harm outdoor plants, remove snow from the sidewalk and driveway before walking or driving on it. Never use sodium chloride, also known as rock salt. Substitute a product made with calcium magnesium acetate, which is less harmful to plants than rock salt. Better yet: Instead of deicing salts, sprinkle calcined clay (sold in bags to aerate soil or condition sports fields) on your concrete surfaces.


-Check evergreens after a heavy snowfall or ice storm. Prune any damaged branches to prevent further tearing. Use a broom to brush snow from the ice on the water garden. Also stomp around trees and shrubs to eliminate hiding places for rodents that might otherwise feast undetected on the plants’ tender bark.

-Renew deer and rabbit repellents. Alternate among several different products.

-To avoid wearing a path in the lawn, don’t walk on frozen grass blades.

-When the proverbial January thaw arrives, slowly trickle water on the ground around boxwoods, hollies, rhododendrons and other evergreens.