Start planning for spring garden

Gardening isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind when the calendar page turns to January. But with the holidays behind us, there’s no better time to start planning and preparing our 2024 gardens.

Of course, that will mean different things in different places. It’s impossible to account for every microclimate in every region, but frost — or lack thereof — is the defining characteristic that should guide gardeners over winter.

What you can do now

In regions where frosts and freezes are common, gardeners should monitor for heaving, the lifting of plant roots and bulbs out of the soil resulting from the season’s freeze-thaw cycles. Pushed up out of the ground, even ever so slightly, they become vulnerable to exposure and could die.

Take periodic walks around beds and borders and push heaved roots back into the ground with your foot, then apply a few inches of protective mulch over them.

Keep off the grass. Walking on frozen or muddy lawns can injure grass and damage soil structure, which is difficult to repair.

Protect young trees from rodent nibbling by wrapping their bottom halves with plastic collars or mesh hardware cloth.

Gently remove snow from evergreen branches to avoid buckling and breaking. A long-handled broom is the best tool for the job.

Pile shoveled snow over perennial beds and borders (as long as you haven’t applied ice-melt chemicals). Roots will benefit from the added insulation.

Heating systems are as drying to houseplants as they are to humans. Keep plants away from radiators and heating vents, and mist them every other day or place a humidifier nearby.

In the Northeast and Upper Midwest, go on a search-and-destroy mission through the garden, inspecting tree branches, patio furniture and other surfaces for the egg cases of spongy moths. They look like gray or beige wads of used chewing gum. Each mass contains up to 1,000 eggs, so scraping them off now and dropping them into a bucket of hot, soapy water will reduce the next generation of the hardwood-tree-decimating insects. Wear gloves — it’s icky work.

In warmer regions, January is a great time to test your soil’s pH. A reading of 7 indicates a neutral pH. Higher than 7 is alkaline; lower is acidic. Learn what levels your specific plants require and, if necessary, amend the soil with dolomitic lime to raise its pH or elemental sulfur to lower it. Follow package directions.

It’s generally safe to transplant or prune established trees in the South now. And, as long as the soil is dry and workable, you can plant bare-root roses, bulbs, fruit trees, herbs and cooler-season vegetables like beets, broccoli, cabbage and lettuces.

Get a head start by sowing flower seeds in containers or flats. Wait until the end of the month to start warm-season vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.

General tips

This is a good time to take inventory of supplies and leftover seeds, noting what needs to be replenished. Take advantage of off-season sales and clearances.

Place plant and seed orders as gardening catalogs begin to arrive. The most popular selections will likely sell out quickly, and most retailers will ship at the correct planting time for your region.

If spotted lanternflies are present in your region, inspect tree trunks and branches, patio furniture, cars and other structures for their egg masses. The wax-coated blobs, which appear to be covered in mud, contain up to 50 eggs apiece. Scrape them off into a zipper-top plastic bag filled with hand sanitizer, then seal the bag and place it in the trash. Your contribution to this effort is vital to slowing the spread of this destructive insect.

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