Let’s start the new year off with a test: Do you know how to handle your garden this winter? Here are the most asked and most important questions of the season, with multiple-choice answers. (If you answer them all correctly, your thumb is green.)
1. I have a grafted weeping Japanese maple. It is only about 3 feet tall and every winter it holds onto dead brown leaves in the center of the tree. Should I be cleaning out and removing these dead leaves?
A. No, don’t bother your trees and shrubs in the winter. They are sleeping.
B. Yes, removing the dead leaves that cling to branches will keep your Japanese maple healthy.
C. It doesn’t much matter to the tree — use a rake or your gloved hand to clear the dead leaves if you want a cleaner look to the landscape, or wait until spring and the rains will wash them from the tree.
2. I have some hellebore plants that are starting to bloom and I am thrilled about the winter flowers. Do I need to prune the old leaves that surround the emerging flowers?
A. No, the flowers will bloom on hellebores even if you don’t prune last year’s foliage.
B. Yes, snipping off the old leaves will help the hellebores to flower longer
C. It doesn’t much matter to the hellebore plant — clip the leaves now to better view the blooms or let them stay until spring and then carefully remove the old leaves while not clipping the new young leaves.
3. I want to get an early start on spring. Can I till up my soil now to start a vegetable garden?
A. No, working the soil in the winter when it is still wet can destroy the tilth or air capacity of soil.
B. Yes, digging into the soil during cold, wet weather will show what a competitive gardener you are.
4. I have a poinsettia plant that still looks great, but I am done with Christmas (plus I need room to start my indoor seeds). Is a potted poinsettia worth keeping as a yearlong houseplant?
A. No, the leaves will yellow and the poinsettia will tug at your heart as it slowly declines.
B. Yes, keep your poinsettia alive by keeping the soil moist and it will continue blooming for months.
C. Either option is fine. There are no poinsettia police that investigate poinsettia abandonment.
5. I am always excited to see vegetable and flower seeds for sale in the winter. Does this mean I can start the seeds of my favorite veggies indoors so they’ll be ready to plant into the garden this spring?
A. No, you need to read the instructions on the seed pack or you’ll be stuck with overly-mature seedlings when it is still too cold to move them outdoors. Most gardeners start seeds indoors too early.
B. Yes, whoever plants seeds the soonest wins.
C. Just buy the seeds now and enjoy thinking about spring as you read and research about when would be the best planting time for each variety.
1. C: Either way your tree will be fine.
2. C: You’ll see the new blooms better by removing the old leaves, but the plant will be fine either way.
3. A: Don’t till, turn over or otherwise “work” your soil while it is cold and wet. Wait until it dries out in the spring.
4. C: Consider leaving the healthy poinsettia outdoors to decorate the porch. After one cold night it will be euthanized and you won’t feel guilty burying the frozen plant in the compost pile.
5. A and C: Don’t plant too early but don’t deny yourself the anticipation of a perfect garden this summer. Buying seeds in the winter is its own optimistic reward.Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.