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PROTECTING PLANTS AND OTHER FEBRUARY GARDENING TIPS

By Dr. Leonard Perry and Lisa Halvorsen n
Extension Nursery and Greenhouse Crops Specialist
University of Vermont

Mother Nature may be taking a snooze this time of year, but that doesn't mean you can. February brings its share of challenging chores for gardeners, many relating to the weather.

If snow cover is light in your area, you may need to add extra mulch, such as a thick layer of straw or evergreen branches, to protect landscape plants. Just make sure you don't put straw around woody plants if mice are nearby as they'll nest in the straw and strip the bark off the plants, which often results in the death of plants. You also can place wooden teepees over precious perennials or windbreaks around trees and shrubs for protection.

If snowfall is heavy, keep your roof raked between snow storms to prevent problems with ice build up that may not only damage the roof but the landscape plants growing under the eaves. When raking the roof, try not to pull that load of snow directly onto landscape plants below the eves as the force of the falling snow can crush plants and break branches unless already covered by a deep layer of natural snowfall. Again, teepee-shaped wooden frames may be your best protection.

To prevent injury to plants from the settling snow, gently scoop the snow away from the plant with a shovel. Then, with gloved hands, carefully remove the snow from the branches.

When shoveling your walks and driveway, put the snow on your perennial plantings as this is a good insulator. Just avoid, if possible, piling several feet of snow on them when plowing since it will take so long to melt in spring. And don't dump snow on them if harmful salt is mixed in.

Pay extra attention to the needs of winter birds. If you are feeding them, check feeders every few days and fill as needed. Black oil sun flower seed and white millet will attract cardinals, goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, purple finches, white-breasted nuthatches, and other Vermont birds to your yard. Corn on the ear, shelled, or cracked is a favorite of many other species including blue jays and mourning doves. Put out suet cakes for the woodpeckers.

Don't forget to clean the feeders periodically as moldy seed can make birds ill. Flush out old seed and debris then scrub with a mixture of water and chlorine bleach (one ounce of bleach per gallon of water). Rinse well and allow to dry before adding new seed.

In between cleanings, when refilling hanging feeders, shake to dislodge compacted seed. Dump out wet clumps of old seed. Sweep hulls off platform feeders daily.

If possible, provide a source of water for the birds. A heated birdbath is ideal. Purchase one with an automatic shut-off valve or heat cycling on-off switch, which will prevent damage to the birdbath if goes dry.  Use a grounded, three pronged outlet to prevent the possibility of electrocution. Avoid birdbaths that have an uncovered heating element as this could burn the birds' feet if they land on it. Placing a flat piece of shale over the heating element (even a covered one) will provide a warm rock for birds to perch on to rest or drink and will prevent any accidental injury.

To prevent cats, raccoons, squirrels, and other animals from knocking over the birdbath when trying to get a drink, make sure the bath is securely situated. If your birdbath has a hollow base, you can fill it with sand to prevent tipping, for example.

This Valentine's Day forget the usual bouquet of roses, and give your spouse or special friend a gift that keeps on giving. Order a rose bush from a mail order catalog or your local garden center with a delivery date at planting time.  A couple of red ones to consider are Champlain, one of the Explorer series out of Canada, which is hardy in the warmer parts of Vermont, and Mister Lincoln, a classic red hybrid, which is not hardy in most of the state but would make a great rose and shrub for the season. There are many more hardy shrub ones to choose from, so ask the experts at your local full service garden center. Or consider giving your special someone a lilac bush, rhododendron, or other easy-to-grow ornamental shrub?

For apartment dwellers, choose a flowering potted plant like an azalea or cyclamen. An African violet may be the perfect choice for an office colleague as its compact size makes it suitable for a desk or window sill. It also thrives under artificial light. But whatever you select, be sure to include a card with instructions for care.

Of course, if you prefer to give cut flowers, you aren't limited to long-stemmed red roses. Tea roses are a nice alternative, and a little less expensive if budget is a concern. You can order them in the usual Valentine Day colors plus cream, lavender, and peach.

Or give flowers with a coded message. White roses stand for love and beauty, red ones for passion, and yellow for friendship. Yellow tulips mean you're hopelessly in love. Want to let someone know that you are a secret admirer? Then send gardenias, which represent secret love.

Ask your florist to create an arrangement of red, white, and pink blooms, such as red tulips, white carnations, and pink roses, in an attractive vase. Or go for something more exotic, like a bouquet of freesia, alstroemeria, or red anthurium accented with glossy green foliage.  Just expect to pay a little more for these more unusual, out-of-season flowers.

If the recipient is a gardener, say "Happy Valentine's Day" with a small wicker basket filled with packets of vegetable seeds, gardening gloves, and other garden-related items--row markers, for example. Or give a certificate for a massage--to be used during planting time after "gardening" muscles get worked for the first time since last summer.

Although it's still too early to start most seeds indoors --exceptions include begonias and pansies, which take a long time to grow--if you're in the mood to grow something, plant a mini-orchard on your window sill.  Just don't be too disappointed if the trees fail to produce good fruit.  These indoor gardens are more for entertainment than for food.

Plant fresh apple seeds in a well-drained soil mix. Water regularly, provide plenty of sun, and repot as necessary to accommodate growth.  With any luck, by early summer your tiny trees should be ready to plant outdoors.

February is also a good time to do some cyber-gardening. The best place to start is with one of the Internet search engines like www. google.com . Just type in your subject, and click on any of the sites listed to read more on your selected topic. This is a good way to learn about new flowers, fruits, and vegetables; "travel" to many of the fabulous gardens in the world; or get ideas for your next garden. To learn more about perennials, visit Perry's Perennial Pages at http: // www.uvm.edu/~pass/perry/

If you want to "talk" to other gardeners, join a discussion list.  Check out Garden Spiders Web http: //backyardgardener.com/ where you will not only find links to discussion groups but to plant databases, societies and associations, and additional Internet resources on gardening.

Other activities for February: make plans now to attend the Vermont Flower Show to be held the first weekend in March at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center, S. Burlington; buy a new houseplant--something you've never tried to grow before; stock up on supplies and hang grow lights for starting seeds next month.



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