Growing Concerns: Last minute chores and gifts for gardeners

Whidbey winters are full of surprises. As I write, one remaining sky blue delphinium is blooming in the garden. So is the ink-colored salvia, as well as a gang of tough little yellow calendula beneath the mailbox. Even in the rose garden, a few bedraggled blossoms cling to leafless canes, testament to thusfar mild December weather.

It’s fun to see summer flowers blooming out of season, but there’s still work to be done before the year is out. Rare is the gardener who doesn’t have chores remaining on his or her December to-do list.

Here are a few last-minute tasks that may have been overcome by holiday madness. If you take just an hour a day in your winter garden, you’ll accomplish much and get fresh air and exercise, too. Besides, it feels so good to scratch another job off your list!

If you haven’t already done so, dormant spray roses and fruit trees with lime sulfur or copper fungicide. The effort you make now will pay off next year. Peach trees, in particular, should be lime-sulfur sprayed to protect against peach leaf curl. This is necessary even for Northwest varieties.

Check landscape plants under the roofline and other rain- protected areas to ensure they’re getting enough moisture. If the soil is dry, water deeply.

Are there spring-flowering bulbs in the garage, still waiting to be planted? Get them in the ground now to avoid kicking yourself in March.

Got spruce? Check them for spruce aphids. They’re doing their damage right now, but you won’t see denuded branches until early summer. Hold a piece of white paper beneath each branch and tap the branch. If tiny green specks sprinkle the paper, you’ve got aphids. Blast them full on with the garden hose. This will usually get rid of moderate infestations. Keep monitoring your trees all winter long. If aphids return, use insecticidal soap or horticultural oil sprays. Caution: oil spray will discolor blue spruce.

Put on a pair of waterproof garden gloves and yank those winter weeds. They’ll bloom and go to seed if you don’t get ‘em right away. They’re not as difficult to pull now that the ground is moist.

When you’ve ousted the weeds, mulch beds to help keep weed seeds from sprouting. Fresh mulch looks good, too. Avoid mounding mulch around the base of trees or shrubs, however. Rodents just love burrowing into those nice, warm piles and snacking on tree bark.

Rake up fallen leaves and cut back withered stalks of spent perennials. Put them in the compost pile and give it a good turn.

Gardening gifts

You can still find great gifts for gardeners without crossing the bridge. There are choices to fit every budget right here on the island.

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, you can recycle wood ashes by spreading them on your vegetable garden at the rate of 1.5 pounds per square foot a year. That’s a lot of ash! However – and it’s a big however – you don’t want to do this if your soil pH is over 7.0 or if potassium levels are high. And if you don’t have a soil-testing device, you just don’t know. So there’s a stocking stuffer for that wood-burning, vegetable-growing gardener. Purchase these simple-to-use gadgets at local nurseries for under $10.

This is the best time of year to plant trees and shrubs. Keep the gardener’s needs in mind, however. If his or her garden is totally shaded, don’t buy a sun-loving variety or vice-versa. If space is limited, stay away from something that will get too large. Be wary of high-maintenance selections, as well. Your local nursery professional can help you make the right choice.

Plant people can be picky. Take me, for instance. I have definite leanings toward certain plants and usually prefer to choose my own tools. I’ve always admired those pricey Felco pruners, but they come in “sizes,” and I want to give them a squeeze before buying. A nursery gift certificate is the perfect present for us persnickety gardeners.

If your gardener friends don’t mind crowds, buy them tickets to the always-fabulous Northwest Flower and Garden Show at the Seattle Convention Center Feb. 9-13. Tickets are available at The Greenhouse Nursery for $16. For an additional $39, include round trip bus transportation from The Greenhouse to the Convention Center Feb. 11 or 12.

Gardeners whose hands are in the dirt all summer might enjoy having nice nails during the off season. How about a gift certificate for a manicure? Or ease their sore muscles with a professional massage.

Local bookstores have wonderful books for gardeners. Folks who are on the computer when they’re not in the garden may appreciate a gift of gardening software.

What gardener doesn’t appreciate songbirds? Whidbey Island has wonderful wild bird shops. There are feeders and feed, birdbaths, books, bird and garden-related art, binoculars, and more. One of the most useful gadgets I own is a birdbath heater that keeps water at 40 degrees, even on the iciest of nights.

Don’t forget to look for gifts at the local farmers’ supply and hardware stores. You’ll find items you might not expect, like big, beautiful glazed pots, mason bee houses, wind chimes and tough work gloves.

If the holiday budget is bankrupt, you can still show appreciation for the gardener in your life by writing your own certificate for services, such as three hours of weeding or a month of lawn mowing.

On behalf of all 96 of your Island County Master Gardeners, I wish you the happiest of holidays and a verdant new year.

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