Features and Occasionals

Not Too Cold to Consider

By Kay Denton

Contemplate your gardening future in January.

January is the Monday of months. The holidays have packed themselves into boxes until next year, and the inversion has plumped itself out over the valley for a long stay. However, in the spirit of encouraging optimism, please note that the days are getting longer. With that in mind, here is a potpourri of items for your gardening consideration.

Pointsettia pointers

Got a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) left over from the holidays? These plants actually have a life beyond New Year’s. Originally from southern Mexico and imported to the U.S. with the help of Joel Robert Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico, they have become traditional end-of-year decorations. First of all, they really, really like sunlight, but dislike drafts, temperatures below 65 degrees F. and too much water. Keep them in a warm, sunny location with damp soil. Fertilize six to eight weeks later with a basic, all-purpose solution at half-strength and repeat another six to eight weeks later.

Cut the plant back to roughly 8 inches in late April. Move it outdoors during the day when the weather warms up and consider transplanting it into a larger pot. The truly tricky part comes next October when poinsettias enter their vampire phase (my technical term for it) and require 14 hours of continuous darkness daily. Move the plant to a dark room or place a box over it. Simultaneously, they also need six to eight hours of warm, sunny daylight. After two months of this regimen—voila!—bright, cheerful holiday plants.

The tree, after Christmas

Both Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County pick up Christmas trees to compost. Placing them by the curbside is one option. Another is to place it in your yard for the birds to use throughout the winter—either propped up, whole, or just the boughs on the ground. Chop it into smaller pieces for your compost pile when spring arrives or to put into the City’s brown yard waste bin.

Tidy up

I never finished my fall clean-up; dead sunflower, bamboo and tall brown-eyed Susan stalks are still standing. If you’re like me, sunny weekend days (after skiing or snowshoeing, of course) are meant for tasks such as this. It tidies up the yard before the next onslaught of snow and decreases the amount you need to do when spring arrives.

While you’re at it, check perennials to make sure the mulch still covers them. Tidy up any broken stems and tamp down places that have heaved up due to temperature fluctuations.

Write and reflect

Start a garden journal—or find your old one and add a January 2012 entry. Use it to diagram the locations of existing plants and trees, areas that need attention (or, which might after a long winter), and a To Do list for each season. For example, I have a few branches on my Austrian pine that need to come down before they bonk someone on the head. Late winter or early spring are good times for sawing, while moving day lilies around is better a little later in spring. The journal can also help you consider variables such as height, spread, color and time of bloom so that you begin spring with an action plan.

Contemplate losing the lawn

Kill your lawn. Seriously. Kentucky bluegrass may look nice and remind some of us of our Eastern roots, but it gobbles up water and requires a fair amount of maintenance. January is a good time to consider substitutes. Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) grows up to six inches, doesn’t require mowing and needs watering only every two to three weeks once established. It’s a pale green and very soft to the touch. It grows from seed, sod and plugs and spreads by sending out runners. The downside is that it doesn’t fare well in shade or high-traffic areas. Buffalo grass is often planted in a mix with blue grama (Boutel­o­ua gracilis) that can grow up to 15 inches, is drought tolerant, needs little fertilizer or mowing and produces nice looking seed heads. Like buffalo grass, it doesn’t tolerate much shade or high-volume traffic. But, planted alongside paved or gravel pathways, either or both work well to provide a water-wise grassy scene.


It’s obviously not a good time to plant shrubs, but it is a good month to evaluate the location and look of your current yardscape. A lot of us have dealt with wayward shrubs that grew unexpectedly bushier or in odd directions. Play around with ideas in your gardening journal to determine if another spot would be better for the butterfly bush that suddenly blocks the view outside your living room. While you’re examining shrubs and bushes for damage and dry soil, look over your trees, too. Trees planted in the fall may need some supplemental water, and even established trees with western and/or southern exposure might need a little replenishment. You can also think about what vegetables you want to grow and where.

January may seem cold and inhospitable, but it’s really the month to lay the groundwork (no apologies) for all the gardening fun ahead. Enjoy!

Kay Denton writes and gardens in Salt Lake City. She is a longtime CATALYST contributor.

This article was originally published on December 28, 2011.