GIMME SHELTER- Plan-ting ahead: off-season gardening tips

Diane Relf
Horticulture specialist, Virginia Cooperative Extention

Q: With all the warm weather we've been having, I can help thinking about the spring planting season. What can I do now to get ready?

A:You may not think of January as a month to be thinking about gardening, but getting ahead on a few things can make the spring planting season alot easier. Here are a few things to think about in the off-season:

Sterilize your tools, pots, and anything you use around your plants. Use one part household bleach to nine parts water. Soak for about 15 minutes, rise, and let dry.

Do some reading on trickle irrigation this winter. Installing a trickle system will save you time and water and increase your garden yield.

Overhaul your garden sprayer. Inspect leather washers and the plunger and replace any worn parts after thoroughly oiling new leather. It may be difficult to locate exact parts for your sprayer model. By starting now, you'll have them by gardening season.

Now is a good time to take advantage of off-season specials on garden tillers or attachments.

To clean crusty clay pots, soak them in vinegar to help remove salt deposits. Soaking in a dilute solution of bleach (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) will kill micro-organisms. We do not recommend combining any household chemicals for cleaning purposes, so complete the cleaning in two steps. For heavily crusted pots, scrub with a steel wool pad after soaking for 12 hours.

If you have some time this winter, paint the handles of garden tools red or orange. This will preserve the wood and make the tools easier to locate next summer when you lay them down in the garden or on the lawn.

Protect liquid insecticides from cold weather to preserve their effectiveness. If any product is stored below the manufacturer's suggested minimum storage temperature, it loses its potency. The most important factor in determining if the product is usable is the complete absence of crystals. If crystals remain after the product returns to room temperature, do not use the product. Dispose of it according to the directions on the label.

Move garden ornaments, such as urns or jars, into the garage or basement to prevent damage during the cold winter season. If containers are too large to move, cover them to prevent water collecting in them or turn them upside down during the winter so water will not collect and freeze in them causing breakage.

Make your own biodegradable seedling pots from newspapers. For a 3-inch pot, cut a three-layer-thick section of newspaper into a 9-inch square. Divide the paper into nine equal squares, either with a pen or by folding layers into thirds, unfolding them and folding into thirds the other way. Make a cut from along one of the fold lines in each of the four corners to the fold that marks the center square. Bend the flaps up, overlap and staple them and the seedling pot is ready. The pots can be planted in the garden when the seedlings are ready to set out.

Another method for making biodegradable pots is to cut strips of heavy paper such as grocery bags to match the height and diameter of the pot you want. For example, a 2-inch -quare pot would require a strip 2 inches wide and 8 inches long. Add approximately 1 inch to the length for overlap. Glue the strips in circles to form a bottomless pot. Fit these into a wooden or plastic flat with sufficiently high sides to give good support and fill them with soil.

Add garden record keeping to the list of New Year's resolutions. Make a note of which varieties of flowers and vegetables do best and which do poorly in your garden.