Make compost through the winter for your spring supply
Consider using a free-standing plastic composter to compost in your garden. Continue putting organic material from the kitchen in the composter during the winter. Since it keeps the material secured, dogs and other animals cannot get into it.
Compost is the end product of composting; a process for which organic matter is collected, mixed and allowed to decompose. Compost can be used to amend soil, or as a mulch layer on garden beds and around trees. In nature, deciduous leaves create a mulch layer that eventually decomposes.
Like human-made compost, this natural recycling process returns nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure, and it is one reason why native plants growing in natural ecosystems usually do not need more fertilizer than nature provides. Composting reduces the amount of garden debris that ends up in landfills and improves your garden's soil.
• Start annuals that need a little more time, such as pansies, violas, petunias, snapdragons and lobelia. Read the seed packets to determine the amount of time the seed will take to germinate and develop to the stage that is appropriate for planting outside.
While garden centers offer many favorites, you will have many more choices if you make the effort to grow your own. Use grow lights to ensure success. A florescent light hung on a chain works best as you can adjust the level to keep the light at an optimum 8 to 12 inches above the seedlings.
Providing bottom heat for the seedlings will also improve results. Heat mats or cables can be purchased at your local garden center.
Thin seedlings as needed (especially after the first set of leaves forms) to prevent overcrowding and keep the best plants. Just remember when sowing to include a few extras, but not too many.
• The recent snowstorms have put a nice blanket of snow over gardens. This is generally good for your garden so there is nothing special to do other than monitor for rabbits, which can now reach higher into plants, and deer, whose tracks will be easy to see.
The snow came in dry and light, so it is unlikely to have piled up on any of your evergreens and caused problems. Go ahead and gently sweep excess snow off any evergreens that are overloaded, and avoid trying to remove any snow that is frozen on the plants.
Try not to pile snow too deeply on deciduous and evergreen shrubs to avoid breaking branches. This is not always possible, and I have two evergreens at home that were flattened with heavy snow and sprang up just fine once the snow melted.
No need to worry about piling snow on herbaceous plants and ground covers unless the snow is saturated with ice-melting salt, which can damage all plants.
• Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org.