Keep your green thumb active by tending to a few winter garden tasks.
Early-season vegetables: Early-season vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and leeks, can go into the garden a couple of weeks before your average last frost date. For an extra-early start, sow these seeds indoors five to seven weeks before transplanting outdoors.
Perennials: Get a jump on growing perennials by starting seeds indoors now (transplant them outdoors after your average last frost date). If you sow seed now, many varieties (blanket flower, coneflower, lupine, delphinium, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, etc.) give you blooms the first year.
Test Garden Tip: New growth emerges on hellebores in warmer parts of the Midwest this month. Prune older growth, cutting off leaves near the ground. It's easy to spot older leaves: They tower over young growth and have a darker hue.
When winter brings ice, landscape plantings can suffer. Here are ways to minimize the damage when ice coats plants.
For plants taller than 15 feet, stay out of harm's way. Falling ice can be extremely dangerous. Your best hope is that temperatures inch upwards to allow melting to occur. If you must be outside around ice-coated trees following an ice storm, wear a hard hat to protect yourself from falling ice chunks. Keep away from electrical wires that might be pulled down if branches fall.
For plants shorter than 15 feet, you can provide assistance if you think major limbs are in danger. Grab a hard hat and goggles. While standing to the side of ice-coated branches, tap the ends of branches lightly with a pole or broom to help ice break free.
Prune any broken or damaged branches when temperatures are higher and all the ice is gone.
Test Garden Tip: If snow cover disappears, inspect the garden for winter weeds. These weeds may have sprouted last fall and will race to flower and set seed as soon as weather permits. Likely suspects include hairy bittercress, henbit, and chickweed.
If broadleaf evergreens show signs of windburn along leaf edges, take advantage of an above-freezing temperature to make one last application of an antidesiccant (also known as antitranspirant) to inhibit water loss through transpiration. Do not spray if temperatures will fall below freezing within 24 hours following application. Check plants such as rhododendron, azalea, or leucothoe. Holly, boxwood, and conifers used as windbreaks may also show signs of windburn.
Reapply deer repellents if browsing is occurring. Rotating or alternating repellents can prove effective in deterring deer.
Late in the month, while plants are still dormant, spray them with dormant oil to eliminate overwintering insects and diseases. Follow label directions, but typically you'll need a day with temperatures above 40 degrees F and a postapplication forecast of eight hours without rain or freezing temperatures.
Dormant oil on evergreens can control scale insects. Do not spray evergreens showing signs of winter burn.
Use a lime-sulfur spray on roses to beat insects and fungal diseases. When applying both dormant oil and lime-sulfur spray, follow label directions carefully. Typically you'll apply the lime-sulfur first, wait 14 days, and then apply the dormant oil.
Test Garden Tip: Check perennials as soon as soil is bare to see if any plant crowns have been pushed out of soil. Tuck plants into place by stepping on the soil around the plant crowns.
Inspect stored bulbs for signs of rot or mold. Toss any damaged bulbs on your compost pile.
Dig into last year's garden journal to review plans you may have noted for this year. If you don't have a journal, consider starting one. You can even keep a journal electronically. It's helpful for knowing when certain plants bloom, harvests are ready, or pests appear.
Inventory your seed supplies so you know what to purchase this year. If you're placing a mail or online seed order, place the order as early in the year as possible to ensure the seeds you want will be available.
Test Garden Tip: Examine houseplants frequently for signs of insects or disease. Continue to give plants a quarter turn weekly to encourage even growth. Water only when soil is dry to the touch.
Pretty Plants -- Tuberous begonias are a colorful choice for pots, planters, and windowboxes in the shade. You can buy them in pots later on, but save money and get better selection by buying them as tubers and starting them now indoors. Plant the tubers stem side up in potting soil and keep evenly moist. Grow in your sunniest window indoors and plant outdoors once danger of frost has passed. Then, if you're really thrifty, save the tubers from year to year.