University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter News Article


Charlie Nardozzi, Senior Horticulturist
National Gardening Association, and
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Testing seeds you’ve saved, making cuttings of African violets, brushing snow from shrubs, and watering properly are some of the gardening tips for this month.

Once you’ve trained birds to come to your feeders, make sure and keep them stocked with high quality bird seed and suet.  Poor quality seeds, which are often cheap, often don’t provide birds sufficient energy to survive our cold winters.  Birds also need water, which you can provide throughout the winter by using a plug-in birdbath heater. This plugs into an outdoor outlet, which should be grounded for safety.

African violets make great houseplants and will flower in winter if given supplemental light or bright northern light. To propagate new plants, take a leaf cutting, dip the cut end in a rooting hormone powder, and stick the cutting in a pot filled with vermiculite or sand. Cover the pot with a perforated clear plastic bag and keep the soil moist. In a few weeks you'll have new plants.

As with any houseplant, don’t overwater African violets.  A good way to water them is to put some water in the saucer, which can then be absorbed through the holes in the bottom of pots.  This also helps keep water off the leaves of these plants, avoiding spotting.  Just make sure the plants don’t sit in the water for more than an hour or two.

Remember when watering to feel the temperature of the water.  Often in winter it may come out of the tap quite cold, which can then shock the roots of your tropical houseplants.  Ideal for watering your plants in winter is water that is lukewarm, or just slightly warm to the touch.

If you save seeds from year to year, it's time to do a germination test so you'll know if they will germinate well this year, or if it's time to order new seeds. To do this, place ten seeds between two sheets of moist paper towels and tuck into a loosely tied plastic bag. Place in a warm area, and check every few days. If germination is less than 80 percent (8 seeds), consider purchasing new seed of that crop, or sowing more if you have them.

Snowfalls can be tough on trees and shrubs by weighing down the branches. Gently brush off most of the snow with a broom or by hand. Don't use a shovel, which can injure the branches. If there is ice buildup, it's best to let it melt because it's easy to break off the brittle branches if you try to remove it.

If you've noticed tiny black flies in your house, especially when you brush your houseplants, it's possible they may have fungus gnats. Though annoying when they flit about, the 1/8-inch long adult insects are harmless. Their tiny, worm-like larvae live in moist soil, and also cause little or no damage to plants. To control them, allow soil to dry out between waterings, cover the soil with a layer of sand, use sticky traps which you can buy at complete garden stores, or drench the soil with a biological control.

If your holiday flowers and foliage have white streaks on them, your plants may have thrips. These tiny, straw-colored insects feed by sucking the plant juices, causing the discoloration. If you see signs of thrips, begin spraying plants with insecticidal soap every three days for about two weeks. As with any pesticide, be sure and read the label and observe precautions (even for least toxic controls).

Before the main pruning season starts, take apart hand pruners and shears, sharpen the blades, oil the levers, and remove any rust. Pruning trees will go much faster and be easier on your hands when you use sharp, well-maintained equipment.

Speaking of tools, if the handles of your small tools are faded or wood, why not paint them so you can easily find them in the garden?  Among other tips for January, order seed catalogs and check sources online, then place orders early.  It’s easy to get carried away, so only order what you can realistically handle.

Early in the month, if disposing of your Christmas tree, why not put it out for the birds to use over winter.  Sweep up any needles for fragrant potpourri.  If disposing of wreaths and other greens, lay them on newspaper to dry, then collect their needles for potpourri as well.  You can then enjoy the smells of the holidays all through winter.

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