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The landscape is quiet and empty this time of year. Now is the time to concentrate on long-term planning and the overall design of your landscape. It makes sense to look around and brainstorm your 3-5 year plan.
Landscapes are alive, therefore they change over time. A great design maximizes the benefits of various elements while allowing flexibility for drastic change if necessary. A storm-downed tree, unexpected plant losses, drought or extra precipitation affecting the vigor of an entire bed, predation or even robust pest populations are examples of natural fluctuations that require flexibility and dictate overall landscape performance. Planning a large project such as a pond or new driveway requires time to research, make inquiries to local service providers, compare prices and thus optimize the value for your landscaping dollars. A sketchpad and pencil, a digital camera and even a consultation with a professional designer is a great step to take this time of year.
Dream, photograph and sketch your ideas. Write down your priorities (low maintenance, cutting flowers, attracting wildlife, fruit production, showing up the neighbors, installing a retaining wall or gazebo… there are countless ideas you can prioritize for your short-term and long-term goals. Organize your ideas on paper to decide what is most important and then list the less-important tasks before contacting a professional for help.
Winter is also a great time to read about gardening, vicariously enjoying others' gardens through magazine articles, and books from the local library. Catalogs, the internet, friends and Home & Garden Shows are great sources for ideas as well. I keep a HUGE file of photos and descriptions of plants I like, so each time I plan a new bed, I can dig out photos and notes to select what will go best in the location. There are surprising number of plants that thrive over a wide range of soil and climate conditions, so it is not difficult to create dramatic changes with minimal effort simply with plant choices alone.
This pastime dovetails effectively with the preceding tasks of brainstorming and planning your long-term landscape goals. Books and garden magazines are great sources of inspiration for new ideas and plant varieties. When the weather is unfavorable for outdoor activities, take the time to peruse old standards such as Sunset Magazine’s Western Gardening Book, the Time Life Series on the subject and even Lowes’ more recent treatise on gardening techniques and trends.
Journal to record things in your landscape you may not notice otherwise. Are the birds feeding on particular fruits this time of year? Are specific plants standing out or are there some showing signs of deterioration indicating they might need to be moved? Is a neighbor’s cat using your favorite shrub as a scratching post? If you don’t walk through your landscape sporadically and take notes, you might not notice what‘s happening until it’s too late to enjoy or prevent further damage in some instances.
The biggest practical activity in the landscape this time of year is upkeep. If you didn’t get things raked up and composted, there’s little you can do about it once snow covers it, but it is important to keep up with organic debris: removing late dropping leaves, dead grass, broken twigs and even large branches that drop in a storm. These minor tasks help keep the landscape tidy and healthy. Cleanup serves to minimize the spread of pathogens and disease. Numerous bacteria, virus, fungi, molds, and even animal pests harbor and overwinter in matter that accumulates in drains, at the base of trees and in protected areas throughout the landscape. Removing such debris keeps problems to a minimum for the subsequent growing season.
I like to wait until late winter for any vigorous pruning… just a few weeks before bud break in March or April. Then the first spurt of growth concentrates on healing the wounds. If pruning cuts are left exposed through winter, they serve as entry points for insects and disease pathogens as well.
It’s not too late to make an appointment with arborists to assure you get priority during optimal pruning season during the next couple of months. Once you accomplish larger pruning and removal tasks, you can get a clearer idea of what further changes you would like to initiate during the coming year.
If you are a grafting enthusiast, this is the time to be cutting scions (pieces of branches usually 6-12” long with fat, healthy buds). Dip these treasures in a 1:10 ratio of bleach water to kill pathogens and store them in separate plastic bags along with a “barely damp” paper towel. Keep scions in your refrigerator until later in the spring when sap is flowing in March or April. That’s the ideal time to use them.
It’s a good time to check on your shrubs and see if they are suffering from winter desiccation. Winter breezes can have a devastating effect on small twigs and the needles or scales of evergreens. With water bound up in solid form, plants are unable to replace lost water until temperatures rise, but by then, it may be too late. If you suspect any of your shrubs might benefit from additional care to help them survive the winter, carefully wrap them with sheets of burlap and twine to hold it in place. The additional windbreak can make it possible to keep hybrid tea roses alive in areas they succumb to winter’s tentacles or to keep evergreens from failing in high wind areas that would normally leave them brown skeletons by spring.