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Winter Gardening Tips

by Janet Eckhoff

Gardening is my obsession. I even dream about it.

My husband and I moved to Cape Cod from Detroit, three summers ago, where we had lived most of our lives. We bought a house in Yarmouthport with an overgrown, neglected garden. There were 20 foot rhododendrons in the back garden that we couldn't see for the weeds. But after three summers of hard labor, my garden is shaping up.

I transplanted my lovely Asiatic lilies, which had thrived in Detroit, but they that have not done well in my Cape garden. My next door neighbor, Mary, who is an accomplished gardener, has hydrangeas that are so blue they almost hurt your eyes to look at them. I have yet to match that color.

Although I was a certified Master Gardner in Michigan, I learned that gardening is less a science than a continual learning experience. Much of what I read online contradicts other articles or experts. Gardening is a learn-as-you-go process.

Gardening on the Cape is very different to gardening in Michigan; we have different soil here, ocean salty air, and winters that tends to get much less snow.

I checked the temperatures for mid-Cape vs. Detroit and found that on average, the winter monthly low temps are about the same, but the high temperatures average 5 or 6 degrees higher on Cape Cod. This makes it possible to keep gardening tasks going on throughout the winter on Cape Cod.

So what can you do on those balmy days when you feel that unexpected urge to get out into the garden? You can pull weeds!

Some weeds are all easy to pull, like Chickweed, Nutsedge and Bittersweet, which are profuse in my garden and continue to grow all winter. In some cases, when you pull a weed, the frozen root dies, which this gives you a jump on spring clean-up.

You can also continue to mulch the leaves that turn late in the season and seem to continue to fall well into January. There are so many benefits to mulching leaves rather than raking and carting them off to the dump. Use the mulch to enrich your garden bed soil and rejuvenate your lawn. A two inch layer of well-mulched leaves should eliminate sunshine and cut down on weeds in the spring.

Another difference I've noticed, compared to my Michigan garden, is that tulips come up beautifully the first year on the Cape but peter out the second and third years. In my house in Grosse Pointe, I had tulips that were 10 years and older, that came up year after year.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that even after I'd pulled certain annuals out the Cape Cod flowerbeds in the fall, like Dusty Miller and Impatiens, they came back again the next year.

Winter is also a great time for visualizing additions and changes to your garden. On cold days, it's lovely to sit by the fire and drink a good cup of tea (or wine) and peruse gardening catalogs.

I keep copies of any orders I make, along with photographs and catalog pictures, because the bulbs and plants arrive in a box with a small label and no photograph. When I get my shipment, months later, I don't always remember exactly what I ordered, or where I thought the plants should go.

I think most people anticipate spring on Cape Cod, and I know I am always disappointed that the end of March and all of April are usually dismal months here. It is still cold and blustery, with a few nice days to tease us with the coming of better weather. But this is the perfect time to start some seeds in-doors.

All you needed are a few planting trays, some decent soil and a source of light. It's great if you have grow lights, but it is also fun just to put your seeds on a table under a window so that they catch four hours of direct sunlight a day. That way you can monitor their progress and take pleasure in the new green growth as it pops up.

Once you see those early shoots you know that spring is sure follow!

Photographs Courtesy of Janet Eckhoff

Janet Eckhoff became a full time resident of Cape Cod in 2010. She has spent a week in Brewster, at Ellis Landing, with girlfriends for 30 consecutive years and feels at home here.

A retired General Motors marketing executive, Janet received her Master Gardener certification in 2004. She is a member of the 'In the Weeds' gardening crew for WeCan. She also provides volunteer strategy and marketing perspective for CWO magazine.

Janet has been married for 34 years to her husband Bob, and they have one son, Tristan, who is in nursing school at Brockton Hospital in Brockton, MA.

Janet and Bob live in Yarmouthport with their 12-year-old golden retriever, Jazz, and a calico cat named Darla.