Cleaning birdfeeders, giving your houseplants proper water and checking your inventory of seeds and supplies are some of the gardening activities for this month.
It's midwinter, and birds have been visiting your feeder for months. However, unless you've been cleaning your feeder regularly, it could be making some of these wild birds sick. To minimize the spread of disease, empty and disinfect the feeder monthly with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Clean droppings off the perching area and make sure your bird food isn't moldy. If you don't like to use bleach, a household disinfectant cleaning product such as Lysol works too, diluted half with water. Allow to soak for 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
Credit: Donna Dawson
If your indoor fig (Ficus) tree is starting to drop leaves, it may be due to your watering schedule. This includes the common Benjamin fig and rubber plant. Don't over water, and don't let the plant stand in a saucer of water for an extended length of time or its roots may be damaged. On the other hand, don't let soil dry out completely either. Try to keep the soil evenly moist, watering thoroughly then allowing the excess water to drain. Wait until the soil dries out slightly to the touch before watering again.
If your houseplants are growing tall and leggy, they probably need some supplemental light. Use lights to help compensate for short days. You can use fluorescent tubes or most any spot lamp. Best are those listed as "full spectrum" or "daylight" or similar wording. I like to use light fixtures that clamp onto a bookcase or similar extending surface. Place the lights 4 to 6 inches above the tops of the plants, and keep them on for about 16 hours a day using a timer available at hardware or home stores.
African violets make great houseplants and will flower in winter if given supplemental light as noted above for leggy houseplants. To propagate new plants, take a leaf cutting, dip the cut end in a rooting hormone powder and stick the cutting in a pot filled with vermiculite or sand. Cover the pot with a perforated clear plastic bag and keep the soil moist. In a few weeks you'll have new plants.
It's time to dust off the seed-starting equipment. Take inventory of trays, pots and six-packs from past years and discard any that are cracked. Reduce risk of disease by soaking them in a solution of 10 percent bleach and water, or half-strength household disinfectant, then air dry.
Do a germination test on stored seeds to see how viable they are. Place 10 or 20 seeds between two sheets of moist paper towel and tuck into a loosely tied plastic bag. Place in a warm area, and check every few days. If germination is less than 80 percent, consider purchasing new seeds of that crop.
Winter is the time you'll get seed and plant catalogs in the mail if already on lists or look for such in magazines and online to order. Looking through these, and through websites online, is a great way to spend many hours during our short winter days and long, cold nights. Look for new introductions but, as for any plants, make sure they'll be hardy in your area unless annuals. Most these sources discuss hardiness and show the hardiness zone map, which you also can find online (www.planthardiness.ars.usda.gov). You can see online, too, how some of the newer annual flowers have performed in Vermont (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/aaswp.html).
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