By Leonard Perry, UVM horticulturist, and Charlie Nardozzi, garden consultant
Providing birds with water by means of heated birdbaths, starting herbs indoors, and choosing the best poinsettias are some of the gardening activities for this month.
Keep birdbaths ice-free and filled with fresh water. Heated bird baths, and heating elements made to insert into bird baths to keep them from freezing, are available at many garden supply stores and online. Make sure if using such electrical devices that they are plugged into properly grounded outlets using safe, outdoor extension cords.
To encourage birds to visit your garden this winter, set out feeders near evergreen trees or shrubs so birds have cover while they feed. If you or your neighbors have bird-chasing cats, or if raiding squirrels are a problem, hang the feeders higher off the ground and away from trees and structures. (Make sure the bears are hibernating before feeding the birds, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department recommends waiting until there is at least six inches of snow on the ground.)
Spend a few dollars more on high quality bird seeds, such as black oil sunflower, to appeal to the most birds and give them the nutrition they need.
Start seeds of basil, chives, sage, or other herbs for a winter windowsill herb garden. If you don’t have a sunny windowsill, consider setting up a light garden using fluorescent bulbs suspended a few inches above the tops of plants.
As nights grow colder, make sure houseplants are away from window glass to prevent chill damage. Or close shades and curtains at night to help insulate them against the cold.
When shopping for poinsettias, look for ones with healthy green leaves all the way to the bottom of the plants. For longest life, choose a plant with the flowers not yet open–these are the rather inconspicuous yellow lumps at the center of the brightly colored bracts (actually these colored parts are modified leaves). Visit a greenhouse to be awed by masses in bloom, and to find some of the latest varieties such as with marbled or spotted bracts. Make sure to keep the plant covered and out of cold on the way home, and away from drafts once home, as poinsettias are quite sensitive to cold.
If friends or others in your family garden, think about shopping for holiday gifts at a garden supply store or even hardware or home store. New hand tools, good pruners, gloves, weather instruments, and garden magazine subscriptions are some of the many items you might consider as gifts. If not sure what to get or what they have, then gift certificates are always welcome. If money is tight, consider a gift certificate of your own time this coming year to help with mowing, planting, weeding, building a raised bed, or other activity.