Photo by Norman A. Plate; written by Johanna Silver
Grow a bay tree indoors. Although sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is not cold-hardy in the mountain region, it can be grown indoors as a container plant during the winter and moved outdoors for the summer. Look for seedlings in the herb sections of garden centers. Transplant into good potting soil in a 1-gallon or larger pot and place it in a sunny window. Water when dry; fertilize once a month. As the bay tree grows, prune leaves and stems for use as culinary herbs or to add fragrance to flower arrangements.
Spring bulbs such as daffodils and tulips are often sold at big discounts this month. Get them into the ground as soon as possible.
Start perennials from seed. Seeds of many flowering perennials need a period of moist chilling before they will germinate. Begin this process outdoors now. Following the directions on the packet, sow seeds in plastic containers (with drainage holes) filled with potting soil. Place the containers outside where they will be exposed to the elements. Keep the soil moist; whenever snow is available, pile it on the pots. After seeds germinate in spring and true leaves emerge, transplant seedlings into individual containers and continue growing them outdoors until they are large enough to transplant into the garden. A good source for perennial flowers is the Victory Seed Company.
Cover cactus and succulents. To protect South African succulents and small clumping cactus from rotting under snow cover, David Salman, president and chief horticulturist of High Country Gardens, recommends covering them with homemade plastic domes. To make one, cut the bottom off a 1-gallon plastic milk container, remove the cap, and place the jug over the plant. Anchor container to the soil with nails.
As you clean up flower beds, save attractive stems with dried foliage and seed heads and arrange them in half-barrels or other frost-proof containers. If the soil is frozen, thaw by pouring hot water over the surface, then insert branches of dried material. Good candidates include agastache, amaranth, artemisia, butterfly weed, false indigo, hydrangea, lavender, ornamental grasses, sea lavender, statice, yarrow, and yucca.
Terra-cotta and faux-stone (concrete) pots are susceptible to damage from freezing weather. Remove soil and scrub out pots, then store in a dry shed or a garage. If you don't have indoor storage, wrap pots in bubble wrap, place them in a heavy-duty garbage bag, and store them upside down in a protected spot outside.
Trees with trunks less than 4 inches in diameter are vulnerable to sunscald, a damaging form of sunburn caused when the low winter sun shines on tender bark. Paint the trunks with white latex, or cover them with a commercial tree wrap.
As you rake, save leaves in bags to use as mulch for flower beds. Use the leaves whole or grind them with a lawn mower. After the soil freezes, spread a layer up to 1 foot deep over beds.