True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Old Janus has reared his ugly head again. The Roman god Janus had two faces, one seeing forward and the other back, as is apropos for the first month of the year. We’ve already looked back (last week) and so let us help Janus by looking toward the future. 

The immediate future is, of course, this month. I could leave you alone to your crosswords and reading or, more likely, the noise pollution of the television set. However, being the curmudgeon I am, I will make an attempt to tell you what you should be doing this coldest month of the year. There is enough to keep you busy. 

The haulm of last summer’s golden glory in your garden by now has weathered down to such a state that most of it is easily dealt with. Such as summer phlox stalks and those of other sizable perennials yield to less effort than they would have done even a month ago. Deal with all that on any open day that is livable. I try to get it done before January is up, because my flower borders are full of bulbous plants that crank up sometimes in February. I don’t want old bedraggled growth to obscure them. 

Well, leaves. If you didn’t get them all back in the fall, go to it now. It is more comfortable to man a leaf blower, or rake, when you’re properly dressed for the job when it is cold, than it was when the temperature was higher. Thick coatings of leaves harm lawn grass by smothering it, so get them now. Better late then never. 

Pruning is a winter chore that is often put off until new growth emerges in spring. A good rule of (green) thumb is to prune in winter things that flower on new wood from mid-summer on, with one caveat. Some marginal shrubs and trees, and here I am thinking particularly of crape myrtles, might be sensitive to winter pruning when temperatures could dip dangerously low sometime in the next couple of months. Wait until, say, early March, for them. And do not, NOT, cut the tops out of them anytime. It’s crape murder. 

About the best feature of crape myrtles, taking the year through, is the attractive bark on older ones. ’Natchez’, crape myrtle, for instance, features cinnamon, brown and gray mottled bark on older trees which, incidentally, can reach 25 feet tall if not butchered back.

Shrubs and trees that flower early (i.e. forsythia, azaleas) should be pruned if needed immediately after bloom. They form buds in summer for the following year’s flowering, and if pruned too late in summer you will be cutting off the buds for the next year. 

If you’ve stood the browned up flowers on your paniculata hydrangeas as long as you can, it is fine to cut them back. They flower on new wood from mid-simmer on and will provide flowers even on bushes that have been cut back. The soft wooded, bigleaf, hydrangeas, on the other hand, which are mostly blue, flower on old wood and winter pruning destroys the flower buds at the ends of the stems. 

Mulching is an invigorating winter chore. Even with the ground frozen, it does much good in keeping the soil at a constant temperature, alleviating alternating freezing and thawing, which is common in our climate. That condition causes heaving of some young perennials, allowing roots to dry out. January is also a good time to top dress your beds and borders with organic matter such as manure, peat moss, compost and leafmold. 

Get all that done this month and I will leave you alone. 

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