Despite this week's record-setting warm temperatures and premature showing of crocus and tulips, most homeowners now would like to shift their attention away from the landscape to holiday festivities and indoor plants. Some still have last-minute chores to tackle, but the tasks are few and easily handled. For novice and advanced gardeners alike, here are some reminders, including a last-ditch opportunity for taking hardwood cuttings.
If you didn't over the Thanksgiving weekend, give the lawn a final cutting this weekend at the third lowest wheel height setting. Bag clippings along the way so they won't lay on the lawn until early May awaiting bacterial decay.
Chrysanthemums are usually mulched in early December, so lay down a thick layer of shredded bark mulch over the plants now. Prune stalks back to within six inches of the soil if not done already, then mulch to keep plants frozen in place for the winter.
Mulch spring bulbs that sent up vertical shoots this week, piling on shredded bark to enclose all stalks. Water mulch afterward and cover with ground limestone in an effort to reduce soil temperatures.
This is absolutely your last chance for planting new spring bulbs; otherwise they may not live to flower next spring. If you cannot plant now, consider using a plastic trash can as a substitute. Use an electric drill to make 24 half-inch holes in the base of the trash can. Inside the container put down one inch of stones or pebbles for drainage, then two inches of a 50-50 mixture of sharp sand and peat humus over the stones.
Then plant your first tier of bulbs, but they must be all of one kind, such as all red tulips. Plant the bulbs an inch or more apart, coming back right away and covering the bulbs with the same 50-50 soil mixture. After the bulbs are barely covered with soil, come back with another two-inch layer of the same soil. Next, plant your second tier of bulbs, maybe blue hyacinths. Repeat the procedure as before, covering the uppermost layer with two inches of the same mixture.
As you plant each tier of bulbs, use a sheet of paper to mark down each layer. In the closing days of March, you'll remove one layer of bulbs at a time, planting them immediately in the garden for April flowers. By identifying each layer as you plant, you will know each bulb and its color.
Having completed your planting, move the trash can outdoors into full sun, but in an area with good drainage where the trash can won't topple over during the winter.
Apply two gallons of warm water over the soil at the top, most of which will drain out of the plastic container. The trash can should stay outdoors all winter with the cover off. When it rains or snows, moisture will collect inside the can.
Consider taking hardwood cuttings now from woody shrubs, especially deutzia, honeysuckle, lilac, spirea, viburnum and wisteria, but also currant, grape, gooseberry and quince.
If mild temperatures continue, cuttings may be taken anytime, but if temperatures decline, take cuttings only in late afternoonbefore sunset. Try to take cuttings at temperatures above freezing. Take cuttings from healthy lateral shoots, avoiding leggy growth. Cuttings should be up to eight inches long and showing a handful of nodes for spring growth.
Sterilize a sharp knife first in a 1-to-5 solution of chlorine bleach and water. When pruning, go immediately below a node about an eighth of an inch and make a slanted cut through the woody tissue. Next, at the top of the cutting, make a flat cut at the end. This way, when you plant, you'll know which is the bottom (slanted cut) and the top (flat cut). Playing it safe, dip both ends of the cutting in a saucer of water, then in Ortho's Multi-Purpose Fungicide to protect against disease. Dip the base (slanted end) in hormone powder, too.
Gather a dozen cuttings together, making sure all slanted cuts are at one end. Tie cuttings together with soft cord. Make as many bundles as needed.
Take a large plastic container, filling it halfway with pre-wet milled or compressed sphagnum peat moss. Stand each bundle of hardwood cuttings in the peat moss, with the flat end of the cutting resting on the peat and the slanted end (the so-called base) in the air. As for a site, the garage will probably do inasmuch as temperatures should be in the 34-40 degree range (not freezing) for four weeks while the cuttings remain in the container. Once during the month, come along and spray-mist warm water over the peat moss in the container.
After the four-week cycle, keep cuttings tied in the same bundle, but plant them slanted end down in the same sphagnum peat moss (moistened) in the same container. Keep cuttings cool, but do not let them freeze.
By the third week of March, cuttings can be transplanted to the garden. Plant so that the entire cutting is in the soil, except for the uppermost leaf bud, which is one-half inch above the soil. Scatter a tablespoon of composted cow manure over the soil for each cutting, then mulch the soil with pine bark nuggets to conserve moisture. Spring-planted cuttings are vulnerable to dry soil, so you will have to water weekly to guarantee sufficient moisture at all times.
Shut down all valves indoors for outdoor water faucets, open outdoor faucets so excess water drains away, then close the faucets.
Drain all garden hoses, then coil and tie them up for winter storage in the garage or shed. Soaker hoses should be taken up from the bedding garden, cleaned and stored.
Fill a large plastic container with sharp sand, then thrust each hand tool repeatedly into the sand to remove all traces of rust. When the metal surface is clean, wipe down with a clean cloth moistened with clean engine oil to put a protective film on the surface, then stash them in a plastic trash can liner, sealed at the end and stored in the garage. Shovels, spades and other garden gear also should be cleaned of rust, oiled and stored for the winter.
Clean window boxes and throw away the old soil.
With holiday cactus, put a crayon mark or masking tape on the outer wall of the pot nearest the window that provides indirect light for the plant. Do this before you water the cactus so that you return the pot the precise way it was before the watering. Simply line up the crayon mark or masking tape with the window.
Without this precaution, the plant is unlikely to be returned to the room in the same position; when this happens, the swelling buds bend toward the light and usually sever the stems in the process, resulting in the dropping of flower buds overnight. By so marking the pot wall, this problem is easily circumvented.
Also keep holiday cactus in the coolest possible room to preserve any blossoms that have opened, and to delay the opening of flower buds now swelling. Cool room temperatures could delay flowering until almost Christmas.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).