Jumpstarting Spring: Starting Seeds Indoors

After enduring months of bleak outdoor landscapes, the long ramp up to spring can be tough on gardeners — leaving us itching to get our hands in the dirt and just plant something. Inhospitable as the outdoors may still be for tender plants, there is a tried and true antidote for gardeners’ particular brand of spring fever: sowing seeds indoors.

Annuals get a great head start on flowering when they begin life indoors. Pictured above are ‘Profusion’ zinnia, which are very easy to grow from seed–even for beginners.  (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)

Cold Comfort: The advantages of seeds

Starting seeds indoors offers some significant benefits.  For one thing, buying seeds is a lot cheaper than buying plants, allowing you to indulge in those dramatic mass plantings and deep drifts you’ve been dreaming of –without breaking the bank.  For a minimal investment in a packet of seeds, you can populate your garden with plenty of new plants –and have enough left over to share with friends and fellow gardeners!

Seeds also afford you the opportunity to try out new or exotic varieties that you won’t find in mass market outlets or local garden centers.  Retail space is always at a premium, but especially in springtime. So plant purveyors tend to focus on a limited number to “regulars” that they know will sell.  By raising your own plants from seed, you give yourself a wider palette of plants to work with.

Given our somewhat short growing season here in the Mid Atlantic, jump starting plants inside can also nudge slow starters into earlier bloom and allow vegetables that wouldn’t ordinarily grow in our region enough time to mature.

The sleeping potential contained in each seed has the power to transform your garden –and your outlook– without blowing your budget.

In addition to all these good and practical reasons for starting seeds, if you ask veteran seed-starters why they do it, they will often tell you that there is just something magical about planting a small, hard fleck of possibility and watching it grow into a supple, living shoot.  No matter how many times you’ve experienced it, they’ll say, it never ceases to amaze.  So, if you haven’t tried it before, now is great time to start.  And if you have, well… it’s time to get growing!

Sow What? Plan before you plant

When it comes to choosing which plants to grow from seeds, the sheer volume can be overwhelming.  And every year, new and exciting hybrids and varieties are added to the mix.  Combine this with page after page of luscious photos and glowing descriptions, and you have a recipe for overbuying.  So, if you’re new to seeds, starting small is key.

But it behooves both rookies and veterans alike to take a close look at their garden before buying, and come up with some kind of plan – one that takes into consideration how much space you have and the conditions in your garden. (For help with planning, see: Basics of Flower Gardening and Planning a Vegetable Garden  from Rutgers.)

And don’t forget to take into account how much time (and space) you have inside for growing all those seeds…

Once you’ve established your limits, there are as many ways to research seeds  as there are gardeners. Whether you enjoy pouring over seed catalogs, watching gardening shows, or developing your Pinterest board–the time you invest in planning your seed-starting endeavor will end up saving you time, effort and cash later on.

Don’t pitch those packets! Seed envelopes contain everything you need to know about how to sow and grow the seeds inside.

Pushing the Envelope: Reading seed packets

As you peruse the wide selection of seeds available online and in garden stores at this time of year, take a minute to read the packets and/or accompanying plant descriptions. You’ll find they contain a lot of important information, some of which might be unfamiliar to gardeners new to seed starting.

When selecting vegetable varieties for example, check packets for the number of days until harvest to be sure your choices will ripen before frost. Many long-season vegetables must be started indoors in early spring. Similarly, many annual flowers need an indoor start if they are to bloom during the summer.

For detailed info on deciphering seed-starting lingo, check out: How to Read Seed Packets and Information on Seed Packets.

To get the most out of the information provided on seed packets, there are several pieces of information you need to know. One is your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, which often appears as a map with designated planting dates. Mercer County gardens are in either Zone 6b or 7a, depending on their location. To find out for sure which zone your garden falls into,  just enter your zip code on the USDA website here: Find Your Plant Hardiness Zone.

Timing is Everything: Picking the perfect time to start seeds

When it comes to determining the proper time to start your seeds, there are two important dates to know:

  1. The average LAST frost date for your area ( the date in the spring when you can finally be sure that you won’t get another frost)
  2. The average FIRST frost date in your area (the date in the fall when frost is likely to start killing sensitive plants).

Here in Central New Jersey, our average last frost date is May 10.  To be on the safe side, a good rule of thumb has always been to wait until after Mother’s Day to plant seedlings outdoors.

Our first frost is usually on or about October 15which is important to know when growing certain vegetables from seed, to make sure they’ll have enough time to fully ripen before frost. (Rutgers Fact sheet Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors lists how many weeks pass between seeding indoors and when transplants are ready for planting in your garden.)

Starting seeds at the right time helps seedlings develop into sturdy, well-branched plants, like these coleus, (Plectranthus scutellarioides.) Since coleus likes warm weather, plants started indoors should be planted outside 1-2 weeks after the last frost date. (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)

A common mistake new seed starters often make is starting seeds too early.  If started too soon,  plants tend to have spindly growth and may outgrow their containers before it is warm enough to transfer them outdoors.  The goal is to produce stocky, moderately sized plants that will recover quickly when planted outdoors.  To achieve this, it’s critical to start seeds at the proper time.

It All Adds Up: Seed starting math

To determine when to start your seeds, look on the back of your seed packet for the average number of weeks required to grow indoors or transplant outside, as well as the number of days to germination.  (These two numbers are often listed as a range.)  Add  the time required for germination and time indoors to transplant.  Then, on a calendar, count backward the appropriate number of weeks from your last frost date.  The result will be the appropriate date for starting that type of seed.  For an example, see below:


‘African Sunset’ petunias

The Annual Garden at Mercer Educational Gardens in Pennington  will include ‘African Sunset’ Petunias grown from seed this season.  

To determine the best time to start them indoors, Mercer County Master Gardeners took the “8 weeks indoors” listed on the back of the seed packet, and added the listed “7 days needed to germinate,”  for a total indoor growing time of 9 weeks (1 week to germinate + 8 weeks indoors.)

They then counted 9 weeks back  from our last frost date of May 10, and arrived at a seed start date of March 8.

 


Down to Earth: Soil for starting seeds

Seeds should be planted in clean, fine potting soil– generally no deeper than the width of the seed itself. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

Choosing the right potting soil is another important part of successful indoor seed starting. The most convenient choice is to purchase a commercially available soilless mix, one specially formulated for starting seeds. Most contain a mix of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and usually some fertilizer. Soilless mixes are also sterile and reduce the risk of losing seedlings to soil-borne diseases.

You can create your own seed starting mix too (a recipe is contained in Rutgers fact sheet Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors ) but know that using soil directly from the garden is not recommended, because it may contain insects, weed seeds, or disease organisms that could damage or kill young plants.

Pot luck: Choosing containers for seedlings

Peat pots can be planted directly into the garden, which keeps developing roots intact. But make sure the edges of the pot do not stick up above the soil, since the exposed area will act as a wick and cause moisture to evaporate rapidly from the pot.

Almost any clean container can be used for starting seeds provided it’s at least 2 inches deep and allows for good drainage.

Some gardeners like to save money by reusing yogurt containers, milk cartons, aluminum pans, and clear clamshells from the produce department. A 6-ounce plastic, non-waxed, paper drinking cup also makes an easy and inexpensive starter container.  Before using for up-cycled containers for seeds, be sure to poke some holes in the bottom to allow for proper drainage. Otherwise, soil can become saturated, which encourages diseases in the seedlings. One way to minimize the chance of overwatering seedlings, is to be sure to start them in small containers.
In addition to using recycled containers, there are a lot of choices available for purchase, including:

  • Plastic trays (flats) that are 10.5 in. X 21 in. X 2 in. deep
  • Small pots and pellets that expand when you add water made of compressed peat
  • Plastic cell packs (inserts or market packs) with square or rectangular plastic cells joined together and sized to fit into a plastic flat. The individual cells range in size from ½  to 4 inches in diameter
  • Plug trays in sturdy one-piece plastic flats that are divided into individual cells

Hit the Dirt: Planting how-to’s

Regardless of the type of container you choose, fill it three quarters full with seed-starting mix and sow the seeds. Be sure to place seeds at the planting depth recommended on the seed packet. Plant one or two seeds per individual container or, if using flats, you can plant in rows that can be thinned or transplanted into individual containers following germination.  Be sure to label the flats to avoid confusion, using a pencil or water-resistant marker.  (It’s easy to forget which sprouts are which.)

When seeding a tray or flat, plant in shallow rows 1 to 2 inches apart. Sow the seeds uniformly and thinly in the rows. Be sure to label each row right away with plant type, variety and date of planting.

Water Ways:  Keeping seedlings moist

Once the seeds have been planted, the container should be watered from the bottom by placing it in a shallow pan of water and waiting until the surface of the mix is moist. This method avoids overhead sprinkling, which can carry away smaller seeds.  The pot should then be removed from the pan and allowed to drain.

It is important to keep the soil moist at all times, watering again from the bottom as necessary since seeds and seedlings are extremely sensitive to drying out.

Placing the container in a clear, plastic storage bag until seedlings emerge will help keep the soil moist. This will also increase the humidity and help keep temperature stable. The plastic should not be in contact with the soil, though. Be sure to remove the plastic cover as soon as sprouts appear.


A Fungus Among Us: The danger of damping-off

While seedlings should be kept moist, they should never be kept continuously soaking wet, since this condition can lead to “damping-off,” a fungus disease that is deadly to young plants. The fungi that causes the disease – –PythiumPhytophthora and Rhizoctonia– – can quickly kill an entire batch of seedlings.  If an infection occurs, dispose of the plants and growing medium, wash containers and tools to remove any debris, and soak them for 1-2 minutes in a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water.  Then rinse with clean water.


The  Heat is On:  Keeping seeds warm

The consistent warmth provided by electric heating mats –like the black and green one visible above– can be very beneficial to certain types of seedlings, leading to better germination rates and stronger root systems. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

In addition to moisture, seeds need warmth to germinate. For the best results, keep seedling pots in a location that is between 70 to 75 degrees F.  Spots like the top of a hot water heater or the top of the refrigerator offer enough warmth to aid germination.

Or you can purchase heating mats that are specially designed keep germinating seeds warm. You can find them in larger garden centers, and online. Be sure to only use mats that are designed for seed germination and follow manufacturer’s directions carefully. Using a thermometer or thermostat in conjunction with seed mats will prevent overheating seeds and soil.

Let there be Light: Simulating spring sun

Better results stem from growing seedlings under fluorescent lights( rather than to relying on natural light alone.) Lights should be positioned very close to seedlings –2 to 4 inches above them is best. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

Once the seedlings emerge, remove plastic bags or covers and give the seedlings as much light as possible so they can grow into stocky well-branched plants.

While it’s possible to grow seedlings without supplemental lighting, the fact is: you will have much better success growing under lights compared to relying solely on natural light from windows.

There are many types of lights that can be used to grow seedlings indoors. They range from fluorescent “shop lights” to the newer LED light systems.  What’s best for you depends on your space and budget.  For the most part, standard fixtures with a combination of cool white and natural daylight tubes provide adequate light are relatively inexpensive.

It’s important to keep lights no more than 4 inches above the tops of your seedlings. As close as 2 inches is ideal. Lack of light is the major cause of elongated, skinny stems which results in frail and floppy plants. Hanging lights from chains or pulleys makes it easier to keep them at the optimal distance as plants grow.

Plants need 12 to 16 hours of light daily, but don’t leave lights on all the time.  Plants need some dark periods too for proper development. Adding an inexpensive timer to your light set up can help ensure plants get the right amount of light and darkness.

Numerous plans for easy-to-build light stands are available online, including this from University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension: Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home  and this Do-It-Yourself PVC table-top light stand from the University of Maryland.

Room to Grow: Moving seedlings to larger containers

As seedlings grow, they must be potted up into larger containers to give them enough space to develop. Avoid the common mistakes of keeping seedlings in flats too long, which can hinder their growth.

The ideal time to transplant young seedlings is when they are small and there is less danger of setbacks from root shock. This is usually about the time the first “true leaves” appear above or between the “cotyledon” or “seed” leaves, which are the first leaves to appear. (The seed leaves  are visible in the photo below.)

Dig the seedlings out of the mix with a small trowel or spoon. When transplanting, always handle the seedlings by the leaves, being careful not to damage the fragile seedling stem or root system. Then transplant them gently into their new containers.

When planting in flats, like these parsley plants, seeds can be planted in rows. Once each plant has four leaves, thin seedlings by pulling out all but the healthiest plant. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

Ready for the Great Outdoors: Hardening off

Seedlings are ready to transplant outdoors when their roots have filled the pot in which they are growing. Check instructions on the seed package for any specific details on when and how to transplant.

Before planting the seedlings in your garden, allow at least a week for them to become adjusted to the outdoors. Each day, place them outside in a sunny spot for a few hours, and then bring them back inside. Gradually increase their length of time outside.

It’s best not to set out tender seedlings on windy days or when temperatures dip below 45 degrees F.  Even cold-hardy plants will be hurt if exposed to dramatically colder outdoor temperatures.

After a week, seedlings should have adjusted sufficiently to the outside world to be ready for planting in the garden. When planting seedlings outside, pay attention to the spacing indicated on the seed packet.

Seedlings should be planted at the same depth at which they were growing indoors, except for tomatoes, which may be planted deeper.   For more info on planting vegetable seedlings, see the Rutgers fact sheet Planning a Vegetable Garden FS129.

If possible, try to transplant on a cloudy day to minimize wilting or transplant shock. Once the seedlings are in the ground, firm the soil around the root ball, and water immediately with a solution of water and starter fertilizer.

After about 6 weeks indoors, these beautiful kale plants are ready for the real world.  (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)


Seeing is Believing: Stellar seed starting videos

For great step by step seed starting videos, check out these featuring University of Maryland Master Gardener, Kent Phillip:

Seed Starting: Part 1 – Timeline

Seed Starting: Part 2 – Materials

Seed Starting: Part 3 – Planting

Seed Starting: Part 4 – Care of Seedlings

Seed Starting: Part 5 – Transplanting

 

 

Garden Wars:  Dealing with Deer

 

IMG_0681When it comes to garden pests, deer have long been Public Enemy No.1 here in central Jersey. Their unrelenting browsing disfigures trees, reduces shrubs to nubs, and obliterates our lovingly-tended beds and borders. With deer populations soaring and native habitats shrinking, deer have become a source of constant frustration for many gardeners.

So what’s a Garden State gardener to do about this gnawing problem?

While there is no simple formula for battling deer damage, don’t raise the white flag just yet.  Try some of these deer defying tactics instead.  They might be all you need to make peace with the local herd.

Don’t give up on gardening just because deer have been snacking on your landscaping.  While nothing is foolproof, there are strategies that can moderate deer damage.

Dine or Dash? It Pays to Plant Smart

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As a general rule, deer tend to avoid anything in the onion family, which includes these allium. (Photo by David Byers)

To help New Jersey residents make smarter choices about the plants they install in their gardens, the folks at Rutgers Agricultural Experiment station have put together the ultimate tool for gardening in deer territory.

They’ve indexed hundreds of popular plants—all of which grow and thrive in our area– and rated them by deer resistance.  But the best part is: you can tailor their list to unearth exactly the type of plants your garden needs!  Were your annuals annihilated?  Your perennials pulverized? Using the Rutgers online tool, just search for “annuals” (or perennials, trees, shrubs, etc.) and voila: a list of deerly-detested plants pops up.  Or maybe you’re considering adding a certain plant to your garden and are wondering if it is destined to be deer fodder?  You can search for it by name (using either the common name or the Latin name) and see its degree of deer delectability.

So why not do a little “browsing” of your own for a change!  Click the link below to delve into Rutgers’ deer diet database:

Plants Rated by Deer Resistance

For a printable, quick-reference list of the Rutgers info, download: Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance

Zinnia

Zinnia, are among the plants rated as “Seldom Severely Damaged” by deer. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

Azalea

Azalea  are listed among plants rated “Frequently Severely Damaged” by deer.  (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Now that you’re armed with an arsenal of deer-distained plants, does that mean any plants tagged with the dreaded “Frequently Severely Damaged” designation are off limits?  Hardly. It just means they’re best planted with a little “additional protection.”  What kind of protection?  Read on…

On Guard: Fencing 101

The most effective, long-term solution for thwarting Bambi and his plant-munching kin is definitely fencing. No other tactic is as successful at eliminating deer from the garden.  That said, fences only work if properly built and maintained.

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Fear the Fence: Even though deer can easily jump fences under 8 feet tall, they are normally hesitant to jump into small plots, or spaces that don’t allow them to see their landing spot–for fear they won’t be able to get out. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

To successfully thwart deer incursions, fences should be at least 8 feet high, kept taut, and have no gaps.  And it goes without saying that the fence must completely enclose the area you are trying to shield. Forget about fencing only one side of the property or thinking a small or remote break will go unnoticed. If there are any open sections, rest assured deer will find a way through.

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An obvious–though commonly missed– component of effective deer fencing is to make sure gates are always kept securely closed. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

On the Fence About Which Enclosure You Need?

There are many types of deer fencing available–from solid stockade barriers to nearly invisible plastic mesh screens.

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Wire fencing is long lasting and highly resistant to damage. It is also expensive to purchase and install, but can be a cost effective way to protect valuable plantings. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

Which style you choose depends on: your budget, the size of the area you are trying to protect, and the level of deer damage in your area.  Also, if your property is in any way hilly, preventing gaps can be a challenging but necessary issue to address.

Regardless of the type you select, deer fencing must be properly anchored to the ground. Unlikely as it may seem, given the choice, deer are more likely to crawl under a fence than to jump over it.

Deer are opportunists and will push through any breach they find, so it’s important to examine fences frequently and fix any holes or gaps.

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Fencing made of plastic netting is generally less expensive, and less visually obtrusive. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

There are some types of deer fencing that you can install yourself, but others–like high-tensile wire fences—require special skills and might be best left in the hands of experienced contractors.

While deer fencing can be expensive, you may find that the one-time cost of a permanent 8-ft. fence is well worth the price given the peace of mind and years of damage-free gardening it can provide.

To learn more about deer fencing, see:

High-Tensile Woven Wire Fences for Reducing Wildlife Damage

How to Build a Plastic Mesh Deer Exclusion Fence

Low-Cost Slant Fence Excludes Deer from Plantings

 

Amping up Deer Deterrence

Another type of deer exclusion is electric fencing. Built specifically to handle deer, high voltage electric fences can prove very effective in keeping them out. As with any fencing, proper installation and maintenance are key.

Before you consider this type of exclusion, you should know that the use of electric fencing is generally not an option in residential areas, although it is often permitted in rural locales.

portable-electric-fencing

Portable electric fencing consists of conductive strands of stainless steel and nylon cord which are kept separated by plastic supports (b) a foot apart to form a “mesh-like” barrier. Fiberglass posts (c) are coupled with 5-inch steel spikes to allow them to be hand pushed into the ground to support the fence. (Illustration from Rutgers’ Portable Electric Fencing Fact Sheet #888)

Under the right circumstances, electric fences can be both effective and cost-efficient.  But for safety and effectiveness, it’s best to have electric fences constructed by an experienced contractor.  The price of electric fencing can vary widely depending on the style of fencing used and the size of the area that needs protecting, so it pays to shop around.

For best results, electrify the fence immediately after installation and keep it electrified at all times. If an electric fence is turned off for several days, deer may learn to go through it.

Stop Gap Measures: Portable Electrics 

In addition to permanent electrified fencing, there are also portable electric fencing systems that can provide temporary protection for crops, gardens and landscaping. Most often used in smaller areas, they offer the advantage of being easy to move around, dismantle, and reassemble as needed.

For more information, download Rutgers factsheet FS888, Portable Electric Fencing for Preventing Wildlife Damage

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Deer fences of any design must be checked regularly. Repairs to damaged or broken fencing should be made promptly to prevent any gaps that might allow deer to squeeze through. (Photo by Calleen Parson)

Net Gains: Protecting Individual Plants

Electrified or not, the biggest drawback to full-on deer fencing is cost. But in areas where deer density is less intense, a more cost-efficient approach might be to only “fence in” those plants that tend to get hit the hardest. Young trees, for example, are particularly sensitive to deer damage and often do not survive intensive deer browsing.  Individual trees can be protected from damage by surrounding them with tree shelters or wire cages that keep vulnerable trunks and lower branches out of the DMZ (Deer Mutilation Zone.)

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Young trees are particularly sensitive to deer damage. Protect trees below “browse line,” from ground to lower limbs.

You can remove this type of fencing once trees have branched beyond the reach of deer, or you can leave it in place to keep bucks from using young trees as their personal scratching posts when removing the felt from their antlers in the fall.

Admittedly, tree shelters and wire cages are not the most attractive additions to a home landscape, but if the damage you’re experiencing is extensive enough, and the plant you are shielding is important enough, you may be able to “look past” the wiring in order to keep your prized plant alive.

For the Birds: Help for Low Growing Plants

Another low-investment way to protect vulnerable plants and shrubs is through the use of flexible plastic or “bird” netting. Like wire caging, it too provides temporary protection for vulnerable plants but it is often less noticeable (especially from a distance) than enclosures made of hefty metal wire.

Lightweight and less substantial than wire mesh, plastic netting tends to works best in areas where deer browsing is relatively light.  It is typically used to cover low-growing shrubs, groups of plants, or seasonally-harvested berries and fruit.  To keep netting from blowing away and to avoid gaps, use wooden stakes or zip ties to anchor the netting over plants.

For additional information on  the use of bird netting, as well as other types of deer fencing, see: Deer Damage Management Techniques —  Exclusion Methods.

Scent-sible Solutions: Using Deer Repellents

If exclusion is not a viable option for you, repellents can be a comparatively low-cost way to steer deer from your prized plants.  Repellents basically use either an unpleasant taste or odor to teach deer to avoid the yucky stuff in your yard and search out less noxious noshes elsewhere.

Repellents come in a variety of forms –from homemade concoctions to commercial ready-to-use sprays. Some are applied directly to plants and repel deer by taste. Others deter deer by scent, and are meant to keep deer from a specific area rather than a specific plant.

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One deer repelling technique used by Master Gardeners at Mercer Educational Gardens, is to string absorbent barrier tape around the perimeter of each garden. The tape is then sprayed with deer repellents. Stakes ensure that the tape stays taut and is held right about deer nose level –30 inches from the ground.

Regardless, of the type or technique you use, repellents are most effective when applied before damage occurs. They also work best over relatively small areas when deer populations are on the low side.

Re-application is key for all repellents, since they tend to wear off over time and wash off quickly with rain and snow.  But even with good upkeep, deer tend to get used to repellents over time, so it’s a good idea to switch to a different type of repellent — or at least one with a different active ingredient–at least once a year.

Many gardeners find that a combination of odor- and taste-based repellents provide the best benefit.  For more information see:

Deer Control in Home Gardens – Repellents

Using commercial deer repellents

Repellents can reduce damage, but will not entirely eliminate damage. Deer will eat just about anything when food sources are limited.

Scare Tactics

Another strategy that might be worth a try involves devices that attempt to spook deer.  Things like motion-activated sprinklers, strobe lights, and even radios have been known to send deer high-tailing for more peaceful parts.

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Skittish by nature, deer will often turn tail and bolt when faced with loud or startling sights and sounds.

But more often than not, scare tactics only work for a short period of time.  After that, deer become accustomed to them and don’t even flinch. Sometimes though, scare tactics can give you just enough protection to allow a young plant to become established or a specific crop to be harvested.

A word to the wise: When it comes to using noise-makers, permits may be required in some areas. Check with local ordinances before installing them and–at the very least–clear it with any near-by neighbors.

 Yelp Help: Using Dogs to Control Deer

Deer prefer calm, quiet areas for grazing– so a loud, barking dog in the yard can sometimes be enough to drive them off. Dog deterrence is most effective when combined with those “invisible” dog fences that allow pups to freely patrol an area and harass  intruders as they attempt to move through.

Of course, dogs are only effective at discouraging deer when they are out and about at the same time as the deer. Given that deer often feed during the wee hours, in order to successfully ward off any late-night intrusions, dogs must have access to the yard at all hours.

Good as dogs can be at sending deer packing, in practice, a combination of deterrents might be more effective than relying on Fido alone.

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Dogs can be very effective at repelling deer, provided they spend most of their time outdoors– and are actually interested in driving off deer. (Some dogs are more “vigilant” than others.)

Committing to Co-existing with Deer

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Deer are a fact of life here in New Jersey, but by experimenting with different deer deterring strategies, you can enjoy your garden AND co-exist with any doe-eyed visitors that may wander your way.

Regardless, of the type of deterrence you deploy, when it comes to dealing with deer there are no quick fixes.  So it pays to pick your battles.

Reconsidering how much damage you can live may be the first step in deciding which of the above methods will work best for your yard.  It may be worth approaching deer damage with the same attitude you adopt when addressing other garden challenges– like weeds, insects or even noisy neighbors.  Sometimes just changing your level of tolerance can go a long way toward a more peaceful gardening experience.

It may also help to know that things aren’t always as grim as they sometimes appear:

  • Even though deer damage can look devastating in mid-winter and early spring–when browsing is at its most intense–in many instances, plants will eventually rebound.
  • Corrective pruning can often minimize tree distortion; and, in the case of antler damage, as long as the bark has not been rubbed off around the entire trunk, there’s still a chance that the plant will be able to heal itself.
  • In the spirit of live and let live, there may be some circumstances in which you can plant some “extras” that you wouldn’t mind “sharing”

 Balancing Those Near and Deer

In the heat of “the battle for the backyard,” we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that deer are appearing more frequently in our yards because we have taken over much of their territory and removed many of the native plants that they need to survive.

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Photo courtesy of Mercer County Wildlife Center

To be responsible gardeners, it’s important that we strive to balance the environmental consequences of what we do in the garden with the needs of the larger ecosystem—always seeking to do the most good while inflicting the least harm.

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Photo Mercer County Wildlife Center

To learn more, see:  Responsible Gardening.

For additional info  about deer in New Jersey, download: An Overview of White-Tailed Deer Status and Management in New Jersey

 

Divas of December: Winter Blooming Plants

By the time December rolls around, many gardeners are already starting to feel a void now that their gardens have gone to sleep.  Luckily, there is a dazzling array of winter flowering plants that are available at this time of year – each guaranteed to wake up indoor landscapes and lift the spirits of any furloughed gardener.

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From garden centers to big box stores to grocery stores — winter blooming plants seem to be everywhere in December.  But not all offerings are equal.  Since most winter flowers have been brought into bloom under tropical conditions closer to their native habitats, plants that didn’t receive the best of care along the way won’t last as long as those that were treated more protectively.

When buying winter flowering plants, keep the following in mind:

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Examine holiday plants before purchasing. Well cared for specimens will last longer and bloom better.

  • Look for healthy, robust, insect-free plants.
  • To keep plants flowering for the maximum amount of time, be sure to pick out a plant with a few buds that are still closed or are just starting to open. If a plant is fully bloomed out when you first pick it up, there won’t be any buds left to sustain future flowering. While still beautiful, expect bloom times for these plants to be shorter.
  • When transporting plants on cold days, be sure to protect them from the weather. Make sure plants are shielded with plastic or paper plant sleeves or paper bags. Tropical winter bloomers are subject to chilling injury when hit with temperatures much below 60°F.
  • Avoid carrying them outside for any longer than the quick trip from the store to the car. And never leave plants in the car or trunk for any length of time in cold weather.
  • One you’ve gotten your plants home, unwrap them right away and be sure to keep them out of the chilly path of opening doors or from touching frozen windowpanes. Plants kept in drafty areas may experience early leaf drop. Equally important is shielding them from heat as well as cold. So keep plants away from fireplaces, appliances, radiators, and ventilation ducts too.

For maximum bloom time, many winter flowering plants do best with cooler night temperatures. You can either move your plants to a cooler spot at night (like away from leaky windows) or turn down room temps at night (and save some energy to boot!)  A drop of only 5 degrees –from a daytime 70°F to a somewhat brisker 65°F at night– has been shown to extend flowering time.

Florally Festive: Holiday Poinsettias

December’s most recognizable flowering plant would have to be the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).  A surefire source of vibrant indoor color, this true Christmas plant now comes in hundreds of different varieties.

Poinsettias are very sensitive to hot or cold drafts. Even a brief zap of cold are can cause the leaves to drop prematurely. (Photo by Linda Park)

Aside from the ever-popular red, colors now include burgundy, pink, salmon, yellow, cream, and white; as well as speckled and marbled varieties.  And plant breeders continue to develop spectacular new varieties every year. (To see some of this year’s new introductions take a peek inside Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse: Poinsettia’s Fill Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse)

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The showy, colored parts of poinsettias are not actually “flowers” but are in fact modified leaves or “bracts.” The true flowers, are the little yellow centers of the plant. (Photo by Linda Park)

Care and Feeding: A Poinsettia Primer

If cared for properly, poinsettias will hold on to their cheerful beauty for at least 3 months. Here are a few poinsettia pointers:

Light: Poinsettias prefer 4 hours of direct sun daily. Once in bloom, they tolerate bright, indirect light.

Temperature: At night: 50-60°F. During the day: 65°F and up.

Water: Poinsettias need to be kept consistently moist –which means soil should not allowed to become too soggy or too parched. Never allow soil to dry out completely but it’s OK to allow the surface to of the soil to dry a little before giving them a thorough watering. Never leave poinsettias in standing in water, leaves can rapidly yellow and drop.

Soil: A lightweight, peaty mix.

Fertilizer: No need to feed plants if you plan to discard them after they finish blooming. But if you’re planning to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant afterward, feed it monthly with an all-purpose house plant fertilizer.

 

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Since most poinsettias come in a plastic pot a good way to judge when they need water is to use the weight of the pot as an indicator: A well-watered pot will be noticeably heavier than one that is too dry. (Photo by Linda Park)

Are they “poison”–settias?

There has been much discrepancy surrounding the toxicity of poinsettias.  For many years, they were considered to be “poisonous” plants.  But over the years, studies have shown that no deaths or serious injuries have been attributed to poinsettia ingestion.  That said, poinsettias–like numerous ornamental plants– are not intended for human consumption and swallowing the leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Best to use commons sense and steer kids and pets away from houseplants in general. For more information on the toxicity of houseplants, including poinsettias, refer to the Rutgers Harmful Plants Gallery.

 

Getting Poinsettias to Rebloom

Among the most frequently asked questions regarding poinsettias is: “Can I get them to bloom again next year?”  The short answer is yes. If you want to keep the plant for next year, maintain the poinsettia as you would any other houseplant throughout the winter: give it good light, regular watering and a monthly treatment of fertilizer. In very early spring, cut it back by about 2/3 to promote bushy new growth. Then either grow as houseplant or move it outdoors during the summer.

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Although maintaining poinsettias through a second season can be done, most people tend to discard or compost them after the holidays and start with fresh plants the following year. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

Poinsettias are photoperiod (day-length) dependent, so in order to recolor the following winter, they need a period of long (about 14-hour) nights to trigger color development in the bracts. So starting in mid-September, bring plants inside and put them in a room where no lights will be turned on at night, that –combined with naturally decreasing daylight during the fall –should be enough to promote good holiday color the following year.

Cascading Tubes of Color: Holiday Cacti

Although normally quiet, mild-mannered plants, a holiday cactus can really make a splash once the weather turns cold—offering floods of 3-inch, tubular flowers in saturated shades of red, fuchsia, pink, salmon and white.

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Holiday cacti come in a dazzling array of colors. They are easy to care for and often very long lived. Whether Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter cacti, these winter bloomers are among the few holiday plants suitable for growing all year long.

Although often referred to simply as a “Christmas cactus,” the fall- and winter-blooming succulent you see on the shelf could actually be one of three different types of holiday cacti: Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) or Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri.)

What’s the difference?

  • Christmas cacti have flattened leaves with rounded teeth
  • Thanksgiving cacti have pointed teeth
  • Easter cacti have pointed teeth with fibrous hairs in the leaf joints

Under normal conditions, each type will bloom closest to the holiday suggested in its name. And while they generally thrive under similar growing conditions, Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti need short day lengths and cool temperatures to set their flower buds, while Easter cacti will bloom just fine during normal length days.

Going with the Flow: Flowering Cactus Care

Here’s what you need to know to keep the cactus color coming:

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The flowers on holiday cacti are formed on the tips of the flat, leaf-like stem segments.

Light: Keep your cactus in bright indirect or curtain filtered sunlight. Full sun is acceptable from September to May inside, but be sure to place plants in partial shade if you put them outdoors in summer.

Temperature: At night: 60°-65°F (unless setting buds, then 55°F or lower at night.) During the day: 70°F and up.

Water: Although a member of the cactus family, a holiday cactus should not be kept dry like its relatives. It is especially important not to let soil dry out too much during flowering. Keep plants evenly moist while budded and blooming, but allow it to dry out between watering during its “rest period” between bloom times. Water only enough to keep stems from shriveling while buds are setting in fall.

Soil: Equal parts potting soil, peat, and coarse sand or vermiculite or an African violet mix.

Fertilizer: Apply monthly from March to November. Do not fertilize while resting.

Figuring out Flower Failure

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Although a member of the cactus family, a holiday cactus should not be kept dry like its relatives but should be watered whenever the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch.

A somewhat common but highly disappointing problem is the tendency of holiday cacti to drop unopened flower buds.  Possible causes include:

  • Allowing the plant to dry out
  • Soil that is compacted or poorly drained
  • Low light
  • Low humidity
  • Drafts or other sudden changes in temperature
  • A change in the way the plant is facing (a change in its orientation to light)

The most common disease of holiday cacti is stem and root rot, in which plants appear wilted and dull gray-green; stem leaves may also fall off.  The best way to prevent your cactus from succumbing is to avoid over watering.

Keep it Growing: Supporting Next Year’s  Flowers

Holiday cacti are not demanding plants, and pretty much “thrive on neglect,” which may be partly responsible for their reputation as long-lived plants.  To ensure they bloom around Thanksgiving or Christmas next year, keep plants evenly moist and fertilize monthly with a 15-30-15 houseplant fertilizer during the growing season.  In late spring, move them outdoors to a partly shaded location.  In the fall, when frost threatens, bring them back indoors.  Since day length and temperature regulate the flowering of Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti (Easter cactus does not need a cool winter rest period) keep them in a cool room during the fall (below 70°F) where they will receive no artificial light (too much light and too high a temperature at this time will prevent buds from forming.)  Once buds are set, keep night temperature between 60-70°F and day temps around 70°F.

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Amaryllis require some care and attention throughout the year, but those beautiful trumpet shaped flowers are a great reward in the long months of winter. (Photo by Theodora Wang)

Brilliance from Bulbs: Growing Amaryllis

The tall trumpeted flowers of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) are truly regal and their ability to burst into bloom in mid- winter make them a natural for banishing winter blahs.  Flowering on 1 to 2 foot stalks (scapes) amaryllis produce giant, 6 to 10-inch trumpet-shaped flowers. Although red and scarlet are the most popular colors, flowers may be pink, white, salmon, apricot, rose, bicolor or picotee (petals with a different edge color) and come in both single and double varieties.

Bring on the Bloom: Amaryllis Care

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When grown indoors,  bulbs will bloom in about 8 weeks.  After they go dormant, they can be brought out every winter to bloom again.

Amaryllis can be purchased as bulbs or plants, in or near bloom. If purchasing bulbs, be sure to leave 1/2 of the bulb above soil when potting. Bulbs should bloom about 1 month after planting.  Once the large bud emerges from the bulb, here’s what they need to flourish:

Light: Bright, direct light: East, west or south window.

Temperature: At night: 55-60°F. During the day: up to 75°F.

Soil: All-purpose mix.

Water: Keep evenly moist from November to August, then let dry for at least a month or two until the foliage yellows and dies. Resume watering after a dormant period of 2-3 months.

Fertilizer: Feed monthly from January to August with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.

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Plant amaryllis so the top inch of the bulb is above the soil.

Post Bloom Care

To ensure years of repeat blooms, keep the plants actively growing after they have finished flowering.  Once the flower fades, cut back the flower stalk to about two inches above bulb. Then keep the plant moist and fertilized throughout the winter.  Allow it to dry down between watering to prevent root and bulb rot.

If desired, plants can be moved to a bright location outdoors from May to August.  At the end of the summer, let plants dry for at least a month or two until the foliage yellows and dies. Resume watering after a dormant period of 2-3 months (this dormant period is essential for bulbs to rebloom.)

Often the bulb will signal that it is coming out of dormancy by sending up the very tip of a flower stalk or leaf at the cut neck of the bulb. Then it’s time to place it back in a sunny window and resume watering.

 


Houseplants make great holiday gifts! Why not include some of our care instructions along with your present and keep both the gift plant and newly gifted recipient happy and healthy.


Grow a Winter Garden

Just because winter winds are howling outside, it doesn’t mean the pleasure of watching flowers break into bloom has to be put on pause until spring.  The plants described here are just a few of the fiery florals that are available to warm up the cold, dark days ahead. So why not add a little flower power to your interior plantscapes this year?

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Poinsettia, Christmas cactus and amaryllis are just a few of the plants that offer spectacular indoor blooms. Consider the  vivid hues offered by orchids (pictured above) or the softer shades of camillia, and violets . See our links below for more details. (Photo by Linda Park)

For more information on these and other winter flowers, see :

African Violet Care

Orchids on the Windowsill

FORCING BULBS FOR INDOOR BLOOM

Falling into Place: Fall Tasks to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter

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Photo by Betty Scarlatta

Another gardening season has come to a close, but there are still a few things left to do before it’s time to hang up your trugs and trowels till spring.  And while it may be tempting to just call it quits, getting around to some of these tasks now will make your gardening life easier in the spring –when your list of garden to-do’s will be even longer than it is at this time of year. So grab a sweatshirt, pull on your warm hat – -and get on out there!

Check out our checklist for what needs to be done now to help your garden weather the winter ahead:

green-ckConstruct a compost bin or pile

Things are piling up –in a good way! A compost bin not only makes fall cleanup easier by corralling yard debris, it offers a big garden payoff once these materials break down. A win-win! Recycling fallen leaves and other garden waste into compost yields “garden gold” aka, compost: a rich dark,  soil amendment that improves soil and helps plants grow.  If you don’t already have one, fall is a great time to start a compost pile. For how-tos, see: Composting at Home.

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Not sure which type of composter is right for you?  More than 20 different composting methods are on display at Mercer Educational Gardens. Each bin is maintained by a Master Gardener team and displays advantages and disadvantages right next to it. The site is open dawn to dusk, and offers self-guided tours so would-be  compost creators can determine which type best suits their needs. Photo by Joe Scarlata.

 

green-ckCompost backyard leaves.

Leave the leaves on the lawn: Why not skip the rake altogether this year and instead, use the mulching blade on your lawnmower to grind up a thin (up to 4”) layer of leaves and leave them on the lawn? If the layer of leaves is too thick, you can remove most of them from the grass and compost them separately. (They will decompose more quickly if you put them through a shredder or run them over with a lawn mower first.)  Oak leaves or other non-packing leaves can be used as mulch around roses and other shrubs.  For more, see: Using Leaf Compost, or download  Backyard Leaf Composting.

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Skip the rake and leave the leaves! Mowing over fallen leaves with a mulching mower or a mulching attachment, chops leaves into smaller pieces that break down easier. Photo by Catherine Horgan

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Destroy any plants in poor condition.

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When cutting back plants in the fall, avoid adding plants with known diseases or pest problems to the compost pile. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir

Banish the blight: Get rid of any plants that are are diseased, insect-infested, or in otherwise poor condition. Prune back any perennials prone to disease, and pull out any weeds you find so weed seeds don’t get a chance to germinate and take over any open ground in spring. Chop up any healthy garden residue and add it to the compost pile.

Just remember to destroy, and not compost, any diseased or infested plant material.

green-ckLeave some spent plant material for wildlife.

Welcome winter visitors:  Support a wholesome ecosystem by not doing too good of a job “cleaning” this fall. Leave healthy stems and grasses in place for wildlife. Perennial stalks and ornamental grasses not only add interest to the winter landscape but also serve as hiding places for insect-eating toads and loads of over-wintering beneficial insects.

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Leaving some grasses and stems not only provides winter interest, but can also serve as additional winter mulch, and help trap blowing snow and leaves. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

And don’t forget the birds! Birds love to feast on the seeds of certain common flowers like coneflowers and black-eyed Susan. So why not leave them a wintertime treat and give yourself something to look at in the garden during the winter months?

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Overwintering birds rely on the seedheads of dried perennials, like these black-eyed Susans. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson.

While you’re at it, consider hanging up a bird house or two, and setting out some feeders to provide food and shelter for overwintering flocks.

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Residents of this bird house will be sitting pretty this winter, snugly surrounded by plenty of native trees, plants and grasses. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

Keeping a heated birdbath or other water source filled and thawed will be a boon to birds when other water sources are frozen solid.

green-ckStore tender bulbs, plants, and seeds.

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In the fall, dig up canna rhizomes, cut the stems back to 2-3 inches, and let them dry. Leave them in a box in a cool part of the house where they will not freeze, such as a basement where the temperatures range between 40-50 degrees.

Annual retreat: Hold on to a little bit of summer by bringing less-than-hardy plants inside.  Store summer-blooming bulbs like dahlia, gladiolus, and canna (see also: Cannas )  in ventilated plastic bags in a cool, above-freezing spot.

You can also pot up your geraniums, wax begonias, lantana, rosemary, and other warm weather bloomers and grow them indoors. (See Keeping Geraniums Over Winter.)

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Many summer bloomers like geraniums can be potted up in the fall, overwintered indoors and then replanted in the spring. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir.

Tender annual flower seeds from this year’s garden can be collected, stored, and used next year. (For more info, download: Grow Your Own Vegetable and Flower Seedlings.)

Don’t bother saving seeds from hybrid varieties of annuals, perennials or vegetables though. Hybrid plants grown from seed might not have the characteristics of the original plant.

green-ckMow lawns until growth stops.

Before the lawn starts to yawn:  Keep on mowing until around Thanksgiving. This final mowing can be 2” to 2 ½” high. Don’t remove the clippings unless the mower is also used to pick up fallen leaves.

Give the lawn its final fertilization in November or early December and eliminate the need for spring fertilizing until May. This also helps reduce the incidence of lawn diseases that are influenced by heavy nitrogen applications in early spring. Many fall turf fertilizers contain a higher level of potassium, which is important for winter hardiness and disease resistance.

 

green-ckPull away any mulch around trunks of trees and shrubs.

Stop the (mulch) madness:  Mulch that touches the trunks of trees invites fungus and insect problems, causes abnormal root growth, and may harbor “varmints,” such as voles, which eat tender bark and roots in winter. Maintain a “doughnut of mulch” around trees by keeping at least 4 inches between the mulch and the trunk. For more info, see: Problems with Over-Mulching Trees and Shrubs and Mulch for the Home Grounds.


Planning on buying a potted or balled and burlapped Christmas tree and planting it outdoors after the holidays? Be sure to dig the hole before the ground freezes. Place the soil in a box and store it where it won’t freeze. Then cover the hole with a plywood sheet or fill the hole with leaves or mulch until after the holidays when you’re ready to plant it.

green-ckProtect small or marginally hardy plants

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Winter injury can occur on a broad range of evergreen and deciduous plants like these arborvitae. To prevent breakage, wrap them with soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape. Photo by Betty Scarlata.

Support your local trees and shrubs:  Protect any plants or broadleaved evergreens that might be prone to winter burn. Try using a burlap screen supported by stakes to surround and protect them. Just be sure to put the stakes in the ground before the ground freezes in November. The burlap can be tacked to the stakes when the weather takes its inevitable turn in late December.

Multi-trunked or multi-stemmed evergreens, such as tall juniper, arborvitae, boxwood, and yews may split under the weight of wet snow or ice.  Lend them some support by wrapping soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape around them.  Board shelters (a-frame structures like the sandwich boards used to advertise local delis) can be used to cover shrubs that are prone to snow damage–especially plants sited under the eaves of the house where they can get clobbered by snow sliding off the roof.

green-ckTest garden soil

Time to get testy:  Fall is a great time to have soil tests run. (Just be sure to collect soil samples before the ground gets too hard to dig.) Test results will arm you with important information like the proper pH and nutrient levels for lawns and gardens and since the recommendations are customized to your yard, will spell out exactly how to amend your soil for a better garden next year.  Word to the wise: If test results indicate that your lawn needs lime, do not apply when the ground is frozen or snow covered.  (See: Soil Testing for more information.)

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Properly storing tools and equipment, like garden hoses, will make them easier to work with next year and last longer.

green-ckClean and store garden tools

Tool time: Clean, oil and repair garden tools and store them indoors. Drain the gas tank of the lawn mower and other gas-powered equipment after the last use or run the mower until it runs out of gas. Drain and store garden hoses and watering equipment. Turn on older outdoor faucets, then turn off the water from the inside line to prevent pipes from freezing. (Some hose bibs turn off inside the house, so water drains out and pipes are not in danger of freezing.)

 

green-ckStart planning for next year

Sweet dreams for a long winter’s nap:  Once you’ve put your garden to bed, it’s time to cozy up inside and…start thinking about next year!  When winter winds are howling outside, gardeners can nurture  budding garden dreams by digging into some wonderful garden books and lingering over plant and seed catalogs, (a place to start: Mail Order Vegetable Seed Sources for the New Jersey Gardener)

 

Looking to up your garden game? Check out some gardening seminars and workshops over the winter and expand your gardening know-how for the season to come. (A great one one to try from Rutgers Master Gardeners:  Refresh. Renew. Restore. A Garden Symposium)

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Winter reading can provide just the inspiration you need to get through the frosty days ahead. Need a recommendation? Call the Master Gardener Helpline or join us for our annual garden Symposium in March where you can peruse the book sale for our garden must-reads. Photo by David Byers.

There are lots of other horticultural events and workshops throughout the winter that can fill you with inspiration and help you get through those long gray months when spring seems so far away. Browse our Upcoming Events section for a look at what’s next.

Ready to take your gardening skills to the next level? 

Why not become a Master Gardener and share your love of gardening with your whole community?

Find out how here:  Become a Master Gardener

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Join us! Master Gardeners volunteer their time, talent and passion for gardening to make the world a greener place. Among our labors of love is maintenance of Mercer County Educational Gardens, (above) a living affirmation of the beauty of  responsible gardening. Photo by Joe Scarlata.

 


References:

Preparing the Garden for Winter