These greenhouse plants look forward to the strengthening winter sunlight. Photo by Susan Safford
Keeping busy in January
Islanders have noticed the clouds of winter moth (Operophtera brumata) flying around headlights and porch lights on mild evenings since early December. In the spirit of accuracy, not just to add to the sense of impending damage, it should be noted that some of the multitude of small, light-colored moths are fall cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria). The fall cankerworm is similar to the winter moth in several respects and is also a serious defoliator. To be experiencing anxiety about what this will mean at hatch-out in the spring is completely understandable, since we had already such an enormously caterpillar-ridden 2005. For those who want to be better informed, I would direct your attention online to the University of MASSachusetts Extension's Greeninfo page
www.umassgreeninfo.org/fact_sheets/defoliators/wm_id_man.html where there is a very good display of descriptions and comparison photos of the two species, as well as an inventory of control measures, such as they are.
After reading about winter moth and fall cankerworm, go to the bottom of the page to learn more about other garden and landscape pests of the beetle and caterpillar variety. For me, this is what winter and being inside at home means: time to catch up on garden-worthy topics and reading, and the leisure to absorb what I have read. Many of the accompanying photos are by UMASS entomologist Bob Childs. He will be here at Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury on Jan. 24 giving a talk on these defoliating moths to the recently formed Vineyard Plant and Landscape Association. Watch for announcements.
Indoor plants will be responding shortly to the increasing strength of sunlight. This means that plants that have been in a dormant rest period, like the hibiscus, pomegranate, agapanthus and fuchsia in my sunspace, can be "started up" now, watered and fed in the usual way. However, it is okay to leave in a dormant state anything you don't immediately want to deal with again. I have a couple of geraniums from which I'll withhold water and food for now. They will rest until later on, when they can be fed and watered and have cuttings taken if I want.
It also means that on clear, sunny days, if we have them, the temperatures will be hotter and water needs will be greater. Watch for outbreaks of aphids, scale, and whitefly: providing good ventilation helps to keep temperatures and outbreaks down. Control them with applications of insecticidal soap, sprayed early in the morning or on cloudy days to avoid leaf burn. Plan to make a repeat spraying a week later; and even after that, keep a watch for these persistent pests. They seem to be capable of spontaneous generation. An equally obnoxious problem for me is preventing cats from using larger size pots as their litter box. The cats are so reluctant to go outside at this time of year that they will hide and skulk, and then end up scratching away in a large potted plant in desperation. Yuck.
Dreams of summer
Catalogues are beginning to arrive and pile up. I know there are many gardeners out there who take pride in getting their seed orders filed before their income taxes. I am not all that well organized; there is so much material piling up to read, weigh and compare.
The past few issues of Gardens Illustrated, the beautiful English publication from the BBC which I am now re-reading and combing over more carefully, have carried an on-going series of illustrated articles on plant propagation by Carol Klein. She has demonstrated leaf cuttings, cuttings taken from tender plants, root cuttings, seed saving, division of bulbs, and division of rhizomes and tubers. While on the subject of propagation, another well-illustrated and written source of information is Ken Druse's "Making More Plants" (Clarkson Potter, New York, 2000, 256 pages). Winter, while we are physically out-of-the-garden, is such a good time to conduct operations of this sort, where you can just play with your plants and their possibilities. It is a good idea to have a bag of clean sand or vermiculite and one of soil-less mix inside at room temperature, instead of frozen solid somewhere outdoors in a stack, in the event that one is hit with the desire to repot everything in sight, if division madness strikes, or if there is seed to be sown.
Winter's outdoor tasks
Outside, there are still leaves that have blown in from the outskirts to rake up. We have a leaf-catching corner by the kitchen door that collects everything the air currents stir up. It will need emptying all winter long. Gardeners poking about outside will notice that many of the narcissi, and possibly some other spring blooming bulbs, have started to send up their foliage. Sorry to say, this does not mean that spring is around the corner; although, if it did mean that bloom-time was here, the narcissi would all be ready to go, as would the Helleborus argutifolius. But no, they, and the snowdrops, have many days to endure before they start their all-out push.
With the ground open and as yet uncovered by snow, there is still time to mark the boundaries of driveways and planting areas adjacent to roadways that are serviced by snowplows. It is easy to blame the plow operator for damage to sod or bed, but it is also easy to push in markers that will guide them when snow is over the hubcaps and obscuring everything. The great thing about deep snow-cover is that it is a wonderful insulating mulch-blanket for plants. But the weight of plowed or dug snow piled on top of woody plants can break them; plus, they are more brittle during cold weather - so exercise care where you fling the snow from cleared areas. The long-range forecasts that I have heard for this winter are actually calling for mild temperatures over all, however.
I thank an alert reader who caught a misquote in the last column of Garden Notes, where I attributed to Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, the statement that "Eating is an agricultural act." These are actually the words of the eminently quotable Wendell Berry, farmer, poet, author, and agricultural polemicist who was being quoted by Mr. Petrini in the pamphlet in which I came upon the quote. (Anything by Mr. Berry is worth reading, by the way.) I look forward to the day when multitudes more are uttering the same words, that "eating is an agricultural act," whether or not they know they quote Mr. Berry. I suspect that he would whole-heartedly agree. But correct attribution is more than a journalistic nicety and I apologize for the inaccuracy.