Are You a Fair Weather Gardener?

Most people do not spend a lot of time in the garden in January because the weather is usually wet and cold. However, there are dry periods and days interspersed throughout the month. I find it quite invigorating to work outside when the temperature is in the 40’s. When I am dressed warmly and creating heat from exercise, I am quite comfortable. There are many garden jobs itching to be done this time of year.


If you haven’t cleaned up all the broken branches and leaves blown in with our recent windstorms, now is a good time to finish the job. Are there perennial flowers which need to have the dead tops removed? I have tiny new winter weeds growing in beds which will be easy to remove now while they are small. I can cut them off with a sharp hoe in a few minutes.

Moving and Planting Trees and Shrubs

A common problem with almost all landscapes is to have plants installed which outgrow their space and intrude on walks, walls, or windows. January through March is the ideal time to move trees and shrubs while they are dormant. This is the best time to move shrubs which have overgrown their location, but you have another spot with more room. If shrubs are too close together, now is a good time to remove some of them, giving the remaining shrubs enough room to be attractive without shearing them into artificial shapes. Landscape contractors can move quite large trees and shrubs, using a “tree spade”. I am available to help you decide which plants are best to move or prune. There is no charge for a consultation. When shopping for new replacement plants, be sure to check the mature height and width. This is the size the plant will reach in 5 to 10 years. Ultimate sizes (after 12 or more years) can be as much as a third larger than “mature size” in the Pacific Northwest.

Dormant Season Pruning

January through March is also an ideal time to prune trees and shrubs except for spring-flowering shrubs. The flower buds for spring flowering shrubs were set last summer and fall and you might as well enjoy the flowers before pruning. It is easier and faster to prune deciduous plants while they do not have leaves. If you want to maintain the natural shape and thickness of shrubs, make individual pruning cuts, rather than shearing. Each time you shear a shrub, you multiply the number of branches by 3 or more. Cutting branches back to a side branch or removing them entirely to their origin keeps approximately the same branch thickness. Remember, I am not only available to prune shrubs, but to give you hands-on training to prune your own shrubs. Fruit tree pruning is one of my specialties.

Pruning Roses

January and February are the favorite months for pruning roses, although I sometimes prune mine in November or December. It did not get cold enough in December to send roses into complete dormancy. I expect to see buds breaking by late February. Except for climbers and tree or standard roses, pruning is quite simple. Pick the height you would like plants to start at and prune all branches down to that level. My preferred height is about 2 to 3 feet. Shorter floribundas get pruned a little shorter. I do not try to make every branch on a plant the same length. Make cuts just above a leaf scar. Try to find a leaf scar facing in the direction you would like the new shoot to grow. Remove weak or broken branches back to their origin. Standards and climbers need lighter, more selective pruning. Thin out some of the weaker growth and shape by shortening extra long branches. Plants which are taller than you want can be shortened.

Test Leftover Seeds

Do you have some old vegetable or flower seeds laying around in a drawer or on a shelf? Do you wonder if they are still any good? There is an easy test for seeds to see if they will still germinate before it is planting time. First, check the packet to see if there is a date anywhere. Color packets usually have the date near the top on the back. If seeds are not more than a year or two old, most will still germinate well. I have found decent germination on seeds 5 years old.

Count 10 seeds and place them in a row on the edge of a wet paper towel. Even a half a towel may be enough. Roll up the towel with the seeds inside and place it in a shallow pan. I have found that a 9 by 13 inch pan works well for up to a dozen rolled up paper towels. I place a strip of masking tape along the edge of the pan to mark the kinds of seeds. Add a little water to the pan to wet the towels every few days. If the left over packet contains only a few seeds, you can use fewer than 10 seeds. If the seeds are expensive or valuable, you may even want to plant them in a pot after sprouting.

Some seeds will sprout within a week, but some may take 3 weeks or longer. Usually, all the viable seeds of one kind will sprout within a few days of each other. If you use 10 seeds, it is easy to calculate the germination percentage by multiplying by 10. For most seeds, 70 or 80% is normal germination. If a packet only has 30 to 50%, you can still plant extra thick to get a normal stand. Mark the percentage and date on the packet so you will know how heavy to plant.

Winter Color

One of the nice things about our climate is that there is always something in bloom. If your garden is drab and colorless, look at other landscapes to see what is already in bloom. Several species and varieties of low growing heath (Erica) bloom in the winter and early spring. Blooming plants can be purchased in nurseries now. Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids (Hamamelis mollis and intermedia) are large shrubs or small trees which produce fragrant yellow to red flowers from December to March. Dawn or Pink Dawn (Viburnum bodnantense) is another large shrub to small tree which has fragrant pink flowers during the winter. Sweet Box (Sarcoccoca hookeriana humilis) has fragrant white flowers beginning in February.

I walked by some forsythia plants last week with a few buds starting to open. They will be in full bloom next month. If you remembered to plant pansies and flowering kale in the fall, you will notice more and more color as weather warms a bit. Primrose buds are also starting to show color. Blooming pansies and primroses will be available in nurseries this month and into spring. Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) usually has some bloom this time of year. This medium size perennial and its cousin Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) are popular in the northwest.