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Gardening: Starting a new year in the Northwest garden

gardening by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
Once January arrives, the drizzly peace of the winter garden can offer reviving energy.
   If the winter garden shows obvious bare areas or views that would be best screened, visit nurseries to select broadleaf evergreens. Winter looks stark, scraped, and brown in gardens with harsher climates, with only the occasional conifer for relief. Broadleaf evergreens are the stars of winter here. These versatile plants retain leaves year round and give maritime Northwest gardens texture and interest all winter.
   Portugal laurel, Prunus lusitanica, is a beautiful shrub that can be pruned down to about five feet or allowed to grow naturally into a 25-foot tree. Like its relative the English laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, Portugal laurel produces handsome white flowers in June if the branches are left unpruned. Think of the tall laurels as excellent screens and trees rather than tormenting them by pruning into hedges and brushes. Several smaller varieties of laurels, such as Zabel's laurel, Prunus 'Zabeliana,' which stops growing at a convenient three feet, are better suited to use where a smaller shrub is required.
   Many other broadleaf evergreens brighten winter gardens. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, isn't really a bamboo, but instead has feathery foliage with bright red winter berries. Deeper winter color–soft russet and burgundy tones to green leaves–adds to the seasonal interest. The taller nandinas grow to about six feet, but there are dwarfing cultivars with shorter habits. Heavenly bamboo is said to be traditionally planted at the doors of Japanese houses: The man of the house, upon exiting the door, tells his troubles to the heavenly bamboo plant. (If followed here, perhaps this plant's presence in the garden could encourage household harmony!)
   January and February are still good months for transplanting woody plants in the garden. Rhododendrons and other established shrubs can be moved up to about early March without difficulty. Keep a record of transplanted shrubs, because they will need extra water during the summer for the next two years at least. Even a plant that required little watering must get attention when it's transplanted and the roots are disturbed. Plants in containers from nurseries can be installed almost any time; early winter is a fine time to do it. Plant and transplant on any day the temperatures are above about 40 degrees. And hope that your holiday gifts included microwaveable heated earmuffs!
   Spring bulbs in pots should be checked this month for shoots. If bulbs such as tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and crocus have been in pots for at least 11 weeks, shoots will begin to show at the tops of the pots. Move mulch away from these shoots to allow them to strengthen and green up. If the weather presents a sudden freeze with temperatures below about 30 degrees, tuck the mulch or other protective covering around the potted bulbs again.
   A pot of narcissus such as "February Gold" brought into the house and placed in a light, cool location will grow rapidly and bloom in about three weeks to give a welcome early spot of spring. Spring bulbs in the house will last much longer if they are kept as cool as possible. They can be set on an outside porch to prolong bloom if the temperatures are above freezing.
   Reading seed catalogs consoles flower and vegetable gardeners on freezing days when it's far too early to consider starting seedlings inside the house. (Save that for mid-March!) When reviewing catalogs, think of trying a few new annuals, perennials or vegetables. Check for "All-America" selections that have been tested for vigor and beauty in trials at several locations across the U.S. One testing station for new varieties is in Corvallis, OR., and another is in the Skagit Valley. One All-American selection for 1996 is a petunia, "Purple Wave," with brilliant single flowers held on two- to four-foot stems, yet still staying about six inches tall! If the garden needs something immense, a new sunflower aptly called "Paul Bunyan" promises 15-foot-tall plants. Slugs don't stop foraging just because it's winter. The emerging bulb foliage makes great fodder for them, so keep up the hunting efforts. When using slug baits, remember that baits need to be placed inside covered stations to prevent children, pets, and birds from getting access to them.
   Check houseplants for insects and wash the leaves of dust. Infestations of aphids, mealybugs, and scale can erupt in warm houses and multiply when least expected. Mealybugs in particular are difficult to control; use a registered houseplant insecticide and keep wiping them off with an alcohol-soaked Q-tip. (No rum or gin for the houseplants, though!)
   Cut branches of early spring flowering shrubs for forcing inside the house. (I always think "forcing" is a rather violent term, and prefer to think of the process as "persuasion.")
   Cut branches cleanly with sharp pruners; it's not necessary to pound the woody ends with a hammer. Place the budded branches of forsythia, ornamental almond, kerria, or winter hazel in deep water in a light spot.