Winter Garden and Landscape Chores

— Written By Tamara Carawan
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Gloved hands pruning a bush with pruning shears.

Winter is an excellent time to prep those garden spaces for spring planting and to perform routine maintenance in the landscape.

One of the easiest chores to perform is a soil test. If you have not conducted a soil test within the past 2-3 years, then consider taking one utilizing the North Carolina Department of Agriculture Agronomic Division. Sample turn-around time is about 3-4 weeks in January, which still provides enough time to make applications of lime ahead of planting. Soil pH plays an important role in ensuring crops can access nutritional elements from soil. Excessively high or low pH values will hinder crop growth. Fertilizer recommendations will also be made with the soil test, but these applications should be held until a few weeks before planting.

Soil testing is also important for turf and landscape plants, which can suffer from improper soil pH or lack of fertilizer. Although we may apply various fertilizers during the year to our landscapes, it would be beneficial to perform a checkup utilizing a soil test every few years. Lime can be applied most any time of year, but large applications of nitrogen should be retained until growth begins in the spring.

This is especially important for centipedegrass. Do not be in a hurry to apply fertilizer to your centipede lawn in early spring. Wait until the first of May before you apply nitrogen to centipedegrass, and then only apply 0.5 pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet. This may be the only nitrogen application that centipedegrass will require all season long. Also, pay attention to the products you choose. Weed and Feed products that combine a herbicide and fertilizer application into one can have limitations during spring green up. Follow product labels carefully to reduce the possibility of injury to turf.

Winter dormancy pruning can be conducted during the next couple of months. Fluctuating temperatures may create some early budding, but this should not hinder your pruning efforts. Plants such are apples, pears, and peaches need a good pruning during the winter to maintain proper form. To learn more about pruning of fruit trees, review the Extension publication ‘Training and Pruning Fruit Trees in N.C.’. You can also find several videos from Extension Tree Fruit Specialist Dr. Mike Parker for peach and pecan tree care through our NC State Extension YouTube Channel. Remember to hold off on heavy pruning of spring flowering shrubs like Azaleas and Camellia. Wait until they have flowered then proceed to make those cuts. Pruning of these plants early may result in removal of flower buds. Summer flowering plants like Crape myrtle and evergreen shrubs can be pruned immediately. However, try not to remove more than 1/3 of the canopy of any plant during one year. Light, corrective pruning all year long is much easier than large heavy pruning during winter. Winter pruning generally invigorates plants, so look out for a large flush of new growth in the spring. For specifics on when and how to make those pruning cuts, visit the NC State Extension publication ‘General Pruning Techniques’.

Planting of trees and shrubs can be conducted almost year-round with containerized plants, but establishment is much easier when planting occurs during cooler parts of the year. With less demand for canopy growth, plants can focus energy on root development before the spring warm-up begins. Remember not to plant too deeply and encourage root growth by pruning back restricted roots systems that occur in containers. For more planting tips review the NC State Extension video series from Dr. Barbara Fair, Extension Horticultural Specialist

Lastly, be mindful of tilling soil in winter. Those who wish to get a head start on early vegetable production should wait until soil is sufficiently dry before cultivating. Tilling of wet soil will quickly create a hard plow layer that can be difficult for plants to grow through. Cabbages, carrots, peas, onions, rutabagas, and asparagus can be planted during the next few months. The colder the temperatures the slower the plants or seeds will grow. Protect young tender growth from hard freezes while plants become established. This is best accomplished through lightweight row covers that offer a few degrees of protection by helping to retain soil temperature gained during the day. For more information on vegetable gardening, review the Extension Vegetable Gardening website. Located on this site is information for planting dates, insect and disease recommendations, and even recommendations for gardening with youth.

For more information on any of these subjects, please contact Daniel Simpson at 252-745-4121 or daniel_simpson@ncsu.edu.