We are still cleaning up after the big ice storm last December, which hit Bradford pears especially hard. Sad as it is to lose mature trees, there are important lessons here. Though Bradfords are beautiful in an over-the-top kind of way, these trees are horribly prone to splitting in Zone 7's climate. There are better choices for our landscapes, beginning with native tree species such as redbuds (Cersis spp.), Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginiana) or serviceberry (Amelachier spp.) (I like Autumn Brilliance, A. x grandiflora).
Mulch, Water, and Protect. Keep your garden is well mulched to keep soil temperatures even and protect roots. Remember that autumn leaves work fine as mulch. For most purposes, 2- 4 inches (5-10 cm) of mulch is plenty. Route any excess to paths or the compost pile.
Shield Plants From Hungry Critters. Keeping determined rabits and deer away isn't easy. Commercial repellents and strong smelling homemade 'scent sacks' (mothballs, smelly soaps) might help. If not, barriers are probably needed, either chicken wire cages or even fencing.
Plant Patrol. Watch out for 'heaving', when your pansies, coral bells and other plants pop right out of the ground after cold snaps. Simply press roots back into their proper position as soon as you notice.
Fruit Tree Tip. If you have fruit trees such as peaches, pears, apples or plums, spray now with dormant oils to reduce insect problems later in the year. However, wait to prune fruit trees and grapes until later in the winter, after the worst cold has passed.
Order Up! Don't just ogle those catalogs—get that order in! Check online, there are some wonderful heirloom and organic seed sources out there. When you order, carefully look for things that do well in our region (especially during long muggy summers). But be sure to try three new varieties this coming year.
Pea Planting. Soak seed overnight and sow direct in your vegetable garden. Start them under row cover fabric, but once up and growing they laugh at the cold. Also, plant cool weather leafies including leaf lettuce, spinach, greens and chard, especially under row covers, a short row or two every couple of weeks.
Cole Crops. Toward the end of the month, you can plant flats of cole crops (like broccoli) under lights indoors for spring transplanting in March. But it's far too early for warm season crops and flowers, so wait a few weeks before starting tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer flowers and the like.
Keep Ahead of Winter Weeds. Most, like henbit and chickweed, are relatively easy to pull or hoe while still small. It is easier now to untangle honeysuckle vines from leafless shrubs. This is also a good time to root out invasive exotics like Autumn olive (Eleagnus spp.), privet and English ivy.
Grass Tip. Hot season grasses, like Bermudagrass, are dormant now and should not be fertilized. For cool season grasses like fescues, a top dressing of 1/2 inch of compost or application of an organic fertilizer such as Espoma 'Plant-tone' (5-3-3) will encourage healthy growth. Remember, clover in a lawn is a natural source of nitrogen.