University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Although it may not seem like it, spring is right around the corner, which means you need to take time this month to stock up on seed starting supplies, finish ordering seeds, and handle other indoor chores like repotting houseplants.

To get you in the mood for spring, force spring-flowering plants such as pussy willow, forsythia, and crab apple into bloom indoors.  Using a pair of sharp pruning shears, cut branches about 12 inches long, selecting those with a large number of buds. Once indoors, place the stem ends in lukewarm water.  For best results, totally submerge in water overnight in a big basin, utility sink, or bathtub to allow buds and stems to absorb water quickly and begin to break the cycle of dormancy.

Then place the ends in a bucket or vase of water, making a slit or two in the bottom of the stem before placing in the water.  Place the containers of branches in a cool area (60 to 65 degrees F) in bright but indirect light. Pussy willows should bloom in one to two weeks, forsythia in one to three weeks, and crab apples in two to four weeks.

Protect African violets and other tender plants from cold drafts.  At night move plants away from windows or provide protection from the cold by placing a piece of cardboard between the plants and the window.  Shades and curtains also can be used to prevent temperature and light extremes, which may injure plants.

Turn houseplants once a week for even growth, and don't forget to fertilize.  With the snow outdoors, more light is reflected than in summer, often causing plants to grow even more in winter months.  Thus, their fertilizer needs increase.

Check houseplants for insects.  Look for signs of movement on leaves signaling possible aphid infestation.  A fine web over leaves indicates mites.  Small, hard brown "lumps" on stems are likely to be scale insects while white masses where leaves join the stems are usually mealybugs.

To help prevent and control these pests, as well as to spruce up your plants, give them a bath in soapy water using a mild dish detergent.  For heavy infestations, apply insecticidal soaps and sprays, which can be purchased at garden stores.  Just make sure you don't spray household furnishings when treating!   If spraying over a sink or bathtub, clean these surfaces thoroughly afterwards.

Systemic insecticides work best, "systemic" referring to a product that travels throughout the plant's system.  Insects are killed when they feed on the sap. These insecticides are usually sold as granules.  When sprinkled on the soil surface, they are effective for up to two months.  Just use caution with these indoors, following all label precautions carefully, especially if you have pets that may chew on the leaves.

Don't wait until spring when you will be busy with other gardening chores to repair and repaint flower boxes, lawn furniture, and other outdoor equipment if you have the space indoors. Do it now while you have the time.  In addition, inventory your tools this month to see what needs to be cleaned, fixed, or replaced.

February also is a good month to catch up on your garden reading or spend time surfing the Internet for information on perennials, garden design, landscape techniques, and other subjects that you are interested in learning more about.  Or "travel" to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania or the estate gardens of the Hudson Valley via Internet, garden video, or an illustrated coffee table book on famous gardens.

Rent some garden videos at local libraries, or order some online. I especially like to watch videos on English gardens this time of year.  These can be ordered from England very easily online with a credit card and will arrive in only a few days.  Check out the offerings at the Royal Horticulture Society Bookstore ( or Two Four Productions (, the producer of most of these videos.  Just be sure if ordering a garden video from abroad to get the NTSC version, which works on our televisions in North America.

Other activities for February: sign up for a gardening short course; take cuttings of geraniums, coleus, begonias, and other indoor plants now to use as bedding plants in the spring; use sand, kitty litter, or granular fertilizer instead of salt to melt ice on walkways.

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