Chores for the dreary winter | Home and garden

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Even though “The Bleak Midwinter”, a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872, is a Christmas carol, it still seems most appropriate for January or February, the “dark midwinter” months.

But these months are not all dark. I love hearing the shouts and squeals of joy from the kids sledding in our neighborhood. I love seeing a few green tips popping through the snow as early spring blooms begin to unfurl from dormant bulbs.

I even love the gardening chores to do in the next few weeks. At least they make me happy as I sit in my warm family room with a cup of tea and a good book, and think about what needs to be done. Like household chores, some tasks are hard and tiring, while others are easier on that old body. The University of Maryland Extension Service has many suggestions for winter chores (extension.umd.edu/hgic), including checking and removing branches from dead or broken trees and shrubs; browse seed catalogs; plan new projects such as worm bins, compost bins, rain barrels or stormwater management; walk lightly; and prepares to plant spring seeds.

Checking trees and shrubs for broken branches. Dead and broken branches can be removed at any time. Fruit trees should be pruned at the end of winter, just before bud break, although the UMD Extension Service advises against pruning on mild winter days, “as this can stimulate growth and cause a premature loss of dormancy”. You may want to research your particular type of fruit tree to determine the best time to prune.

Ordering from seed catalogs: Research native plants that grow well in your area; check if the plant will provide habitat and food for wildlife. Do you keep a garden journal? Check out what worked/didn’t work last year. Now take the time to think about the gardens of the past year – write down your observations to build on your successes next spring.

Looking for a new gardening challenge? This is a good time to do your research. Try vermiculture – make a compost bin or vermicomposter that you can keep in your home (https://extension.umd.edu/resource/indoor-worm-composting-or-vermicomposting). Gardener friends swear to me that it doesn’t stink. Or determine a good place for a compost bin in your garden (https://extension.umd.edu/resource/how-make-compost-home). Find out how to install and use rain barrels. These can save you money on your water bills and provide water for your plants during droughts. Do you have a low, muddy spot in the yard? Review rain gardens and how they can help direct rainwater to slowly seep into the ground, rather than being diverted to the nearest storm drain.

Tread lightly (on the lawn): Just as walking on your garden compacts the soil and makes it more difficult for perennials and annuals to pass through, walking a lot on the frozen lawn can damage grass crowns and slow growth next spring. Did you know that Maryland’s Law Fertilizer Law prohibits even residential property owners from fertilizing between December 1 and March 1? Also, you should not use chemical fertilizers containing nitrogen or urea to melt the ice around the house.

Checking the soil for spring planting: Another encouraging note in the midst of today’s dreary winter is that all this freezing and thawing is helping to make the ground passable. Press it into a ball; if it crumbles easily, you can plant seeds of early spring crops such as lettuce, spinach, radishes and other fast-growing early spring salads. By the time they sprout and push through the ground, nighttime temperatures should hover at least a little above freezing (no promises, though). It can also be a good time to work rotten manure (not fresh!) or compost into vegetable and flower beds, if you didn’t do that last fall.

Frederick County Master Gardeners seminars and other activities, except those held outdoors or in locations other than the extension office, are still canceled until further notice. When the COVID restrictions are lifted, we will resume our free seminars on topics ranging from growing herbs and vegetables to managing stormwater. You can find more gardening information and advice online at the following sites:

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