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Winter resolutions for sleeping gardens

Samantha Nash
For some people, the colder months of the year can seem to stretch interminably. For gardeners, though, this period can be a time of opportunity.

For some people, the colder months of the year can seem to stretch interminably. For gardeners, though, this period can be a time of opportunity.

When those with a green thumb grow restless waiting for the ground to thaw and greenery to return once again, there are many tasks that can engage their interest and help prepare for the oncoming growing season.

One garden-related activity that does not require spending time out in the cold is preparation for the return of monarch butterflies in spring. While it's best to plant monarch-friendly milkweed in early spring (from cuttings) or late fall (from seed) if temperatures are reliably above freezing, aspiring lepidopterists can still sign up for monarch tagging and order kits through Monarch Watch.

Carrie Hennessy, a horticulturalist at Johnson's Nursery in Menomonee Falls, discussed these butterfly ideas and winter gardening activities at a Jan. 23, 2016 presentation to Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

"Except for the arduous journey that takes them there, I'm very envious of the monarch butterflies that get to hang out in the mountains of central Mexico, upside down in hibernation, just chilling until they wake up and begin their long journey north again," said Hennessy.

Hennessy shared many more ideas for winter gardening best practices. For example, while trees and perennials spend the season in a state of dormancy, they may still require maintenance to return in full health when the weather warms. Evergreens can strain under the weight of heavy snow, resulting in damaged or broken boughs; excess accumulation should be gently removed using a rake or broom.

Warmer, sunnier winter days are often a welcome respite for humans and animals, but these conditions can prompt tree sap to start flowing, resulting in frost cracking when temperatures dip and cause that sap to freeze and expand. A tree that sustains such damage to more than three quarters of its exterior may be unable to recover, but a light-colored flexible tree guard can protect against frost cracking (as well as from rutting deer).

Winter can offer an occasion to expand indoor green space, as well. Tropical house plants, succulents and terrariums can all provide a splash of color and life to a home or office. Cooped up gardeners may also want to use the seemingly slow passage of time as an opportunity to start seeds and plan for spring planting.

"I say instead of a New Year's resolution, right now let's make a spring resolution. What things do you wanna accomplish in spring? This is the time of year that you should sit down and think about that," said Hennessy.