By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications
STARKVILLE – Although most lawns and gardens look brown and dead through the winter, a lot of activity is taking place underground as plants prepare for the growing seasons.
Lelia Kelly, consumer horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said roots are continuing to grow and develop underground when the plants are dormant above ground.
“That is why experts recommend fall planting for trees and bushes,” Kelly said. “Roots have time to establish before spring when active top growth begins.” Since beds look dead in the winter, it can be easy to forget the life below and hurt this underground growth.
“You should avoid any digging or cultivation around plants that could damage the roots. If you plan to work in your garden during the winter, mark where your bulbs and perennials are so you don’t step on or uproot them.”
If possible, gently work in a layer of organic matter such as compost, rotten sawdust or peat moss around established plants. Adding organic matter will improve the structure and biological activity of the soil, Kelly said.
While beds are still bare of spring growth, cut back old perennial foliage in preparation for new growth and remove leaves or other debris on the crowns of the perennials.
“Take advantage of any nice days to get outside and begin tidying up your landscape to make way for the emerging spring bulbs and flowering plants that will soon begin their spring show,” Kelly said.
Flower or weed?
By mid-February, spring bulbs were blooming throughout the state, and bulb foliage had emerged and begun actively growing. When plants are just beginning to come up, even experienced gardeners can find it difficult to tell a weed from a desirable plant.
“Over time, gardeners can become familiar with the common weed seedlings, but novice gardeners can refer to weed identification guides that give pictures or drawings of common weed seedlings,” Kelly said. “Another way to solve the problem is to cultivate a relationship with a more experienced gardener and invite that person over for a little help with weed and flower seedling identification.”
Kelly said gardeners who find themselves responsible for a landscape that someone else planted should be patient through one full growing season to learn what has been planted and where the sunny, shady, wet and dry places are in the landscape.
“Waiting and observing the landscape also can help the new homeowner determine where paths, seating areas, plant screens or other landscape features are needed,” Kelly said.
Wayne Wells, Extension turfgrass specialist, said lawns look brown and bare through the winter, but this is the perfect time to get work done on them. Wet winters are ideal for checking drainage problems.
“Take pictures of where water stands, and when it dries up, you can take care of those drainage problems,” Wells said.
Remove any leaves remaining on lawns as these hold moisture, which attract insects and create ideal conditions for disease. Winter is also a good time to do a soil test.
“You should do a soil test of your lawn every three to four years,” Wells said. “The local Extension agent can send the soil in to be tested at the Extension lab, and you will get back information on your soil pH and recommendations on how to improve it.”
Lime takes several months to react fully with the soil, so Wells said winter months are a good time to apply lime if the soil test recommends it.
Clean and tune up lawnmowers and yard equipment in preparation for the heavy use of spring and summer. Late winter or early spring also is a great time for trapping any moles feeding in the lawn, Wells said.
Many weeds germinate in the fall, grow through the winter and complete their life cycle in early spring, so the best time to get rid of them is while they are young and actively growing. It is also time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent summer annual weeds that will soon be germinating, he said.
Seek advice now from local garden centers, farm supply co-ops and Extension offices for how to control weeds and improve lawns. The Extension Service offers the publication Weed Control Guidelines for Mississippi online at http://msucares.com/pubs.