Month brings end-of-winter gardening tasks

On GardeningFebruary 12, 2014 

The second week of February is the time to finish up any winter pruning of fruit trees and grape vines, and use a dormant oil spray on roses or other leafless plants.

You can find safe and organic dormant sprays at garden centers now. They work by coating a dormant or leafless plant with a thin layer oil that will suffocate overwintering disease and insects. Follow instructions, don’t spray during windy or freezing weather and remember that the oil can stain walkways and cement driveways.

The end of winter also has local gardeners wondering which of their plants survived the freezing weather. Well, only spring will tell the tale of the survivors. Some plants such as hardy fuchsias and hibiscus may look dead and leafless until June before signs of life are detected.

Here are some reader questions with answers that should help you get growing.

Q: When is the right time to start mowing the lawn? We are new homeowners and our front lawn looks a bit shabby. Also, what type of mower to buy? — J.T., Tacoma

A: Congrats on the new home – now get growing.

In Western Washington you can mow when the ground is not frozen and the soil dry enough to run the mower without the wheels sinking into the turf and leaving ruts. If your soil is well-drained that means mid-February may be the time to shave a little off the top – but if your grass grows in the shade or in damp soil, wait until it dries out a bit more — usually by the end of March.

Invest in a mulching mower so you can recycle the grass clippings back onto your lawn – this returns up to one-third of the nitrogen to your soil – and leaving the clippings does not cause thatch build up.

You’ll also need to fertilize, add lime and perhaps level and edge the new lawn. Don’t panic, lawn care gets you outdoors exercising in the fresh air. Plan to make your first lawn fertilizer application in mid-March and keep reading this column for weekly yard care updates.

Q: Help! I now know I do not have a mole problem, I have a mouse problem and my lawn is sinking as my yard is riddled with burrows and tunnels from field mice. What can I do to save my yard? — P.A., Kent

A: Mouse traps to the rescue. The local field mouse or meadow mouse in our area is called a vole and this is the animal that goes underground to nibble on plant roots and devour bulbs.

Voles will colonize and use mole runways as their new underground highways and one way to discourage this is to bury dead moles in their own runways — nobody wants to move into a new home if the previous owners are still in residence. The best way to capture voles is a simple spring-type mouse trap.

Set the trap above ground just in front of the small opening hole in the ground. Put the mouse trap, or better yet two traps, spaced six inches apart so that they are situated at a right angle to the opening. Protect your traps from pets by covering the opening and the traps with a bucket.

You can prop one end of the bucket with a stone to allow the voles to enter.

Peanut butter seems the preferred bait, but a bit of cotton works as well – voles like cotton as a nesting material. There are mouse traps that catch the rodents alive, but be warned that rodents can be carriers of a serious disease as well as parasites – do not handle even a dead vole without gloves. Use a shovel to place your victims inside a plastic bag for disposal. Now be prepared to set a lot of traps. Voles reproduce at a rapid rate and if your lawn is sinking, you probably are hosting more happy mice than Disneyland.

Q: Is it safe to plant strawberry plants in February? I notice a local hardware store is selling strawberry plants for a very low price – but the plants themselves are in a tied bundle and not in pots. It is tempting to buy cheap. — S., Renton

A: Dig in and celebrate your dirt cheap score on bare root berries. You can plant strawberries, raspberries, roses, fruit trees and bare root trees and shrubs as soon as you see them for sale. Plants sold without soil around their roots are dormant and less expensive than potted plant material. Soak any bare root plant in water overnight before planting. Then be patient. You strawberries may stay dormant for another month or so before waking up and putting down roots in their new home.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.

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