In January and February there is less work to be done in the garden, making these cooler months a great time to plan for the upcoming spring. As gardeners, there are many things we can do to improve the environment and ecosystems around us. Consider adopting one or more of the following resolutions for your garden in the New Year.
Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your landscape. Fruit trees, berries, herbs, and vegetables can be beautiful additions to your landscape when intermingled amongst annuals and perennials. Mixing vegetables, herbs, and fruiting plants with flowers increases diversity in the garden and provides the type of habitat that beneficial insects and pollinators prefer. It also enhances the beauty of the garden by bringing new textures and colors to the landscape.
Choose fruit varieties that are low maintenance and easy to grow at the coast. Figs, muscadine grapes, rabbiteye blueberries, blackberries, and persimmons all grow well in southeastern North Carolina with minimal care and few pest problems. If you must grow pears, choose a variety that is resistant to fire blight (a common disease in our area) such as seckel, moonglow, kieffer or magness. Avoid planting crops such as peaches, nectarines and apples, which will require a lot of pesticide sprays to produce a quality crop.
Plan to grow vegetables year round. In our coastal counties, you can grow some type of crop every month of the year. During winter, row covers can be used to protect semi-hardy cool season crops like lettuce, broccoli, and spinach from severe frost. Hardy cool season crops that can grow outside all winter without protection include kale, carrots, and parsley. Wait until early April to plant warm season crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and basil. Careful planning can provide you with a year round harvest and reduce your grocery bill. Stop by the New Hanover County Arboretum (6206 Oleander Drive) to see what we are growing this winter. The arboretum is open free year round during daylight hours.
Minimize your water needs. Improve the water holding capacity of your soil by adding organic matter. Mulch exposed soil in gardens and flowerbeds to suppress weeds and maintain soil moisture. When designing new plantings, choose plants that will be drought tolerant once established. Some examples of drought tolerant ornamentals include crape myrtle, Chinese hollies, juniper, rosemary, Mexican bush sage, and most ornamental grasses.
Commit to composting! Composting is a sustainable way to deal with garden waste and household food scraps that provides you with a valuable soil amendment. Amending soils with compost increases their ability to hold water, thus improving plant growth and productivity. It also boosts plant health, reducing the need to spray for pests and diseases.
Harvest, store and use your rainwater. Use cisterns or rain barrels to collect the water that runs off the roof — use this water first to irrigate your lawn, garden and container plantings.
Consider adding chickens, rabbits or other small livestock to your yard. If you are up for the additional responsibility and commitment chickens, ducks, guinea hens, rabbits or other small livestock help cycle nutrients in your garden. Carefully managed poultry can control insect pests and weeds while providing nitrogen and phosphorous to improve soil fertility.
Support pollinators! Bees pollinate many of our vegetable crops but need a variety of flowers to feed on throughout the year. The loss of native habitat for pollinators makes the efforts of gardeners even more important. Strive to have at least three different varieties of flowers blooming in your yard each season. Bees are particularly attracted to blue, yellow and white flowers.
Be innovative! This is a great time of year to grab a cup of coffee and pick up your favorite plant catalog. I find inspiration in garden magazines and I love to learn about the new varieties growers are introducing to the industry.
Have fun! Gardening along the coast can be a challenge but by choosing the right plant for the right place you can be a successful gardener. When I first moved to the area I was still trying to grow things from the piedmont that I loved but they just never survived. I finally came to the conclusion that I had to forgo those beloved plants and discover new favorite plants that were better adapted to the coastal climate and soil conditions.
For help with plant problems, weed identification or other gardening questions, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions and pictures via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link; or contact your local Cooperative Extension center: in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Susan Brown is the consumer horticulture agent with the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.