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story.lead_photo.caption Special to the Democrat-Gazette/JANET B. CARSON Tulip bulbs must chill for six to 12 weeks to look their best.

JANUARY

Happy New Year! 2018 was a year of extremes, from an extremely dry January to a wet February and an even wetter fall, but overall we had a pretty good growing season, with plenty of flowers and vegetables.

The camellias of late fall and early winter have never looked better, and many spring-blooming plants are loaded with flower buds. We ended the year with a cold, wintry November, a spring-like December, and now winter weather has shown up again (at least in the northern tier of the state).

Who knows what is in store for us for the next few months? It is always best to be prepared for anything in Arkansas.

Our plants should be in pretty good shape if cold weather does occur. In 2017, fall and early winter were so dry that many plants struggled in January 2018. With ample moisture in the ground and thus within the systems of our plants, there should be a good buffer from freezing weather.

• If temperatures do drop well below freezing, plant tissues will be extremely brittle, so avoid much contact with frozen plants. If we get ice, leave them alone until they defrost. If you find any broken branches, prune immediately to prevent further damage from jagged stems or dangling limbs.

• If we do get snow, lightening heavy loads gently, from the bottom up, can help bushes or small trees. If you see burned leaves, ignore that type of damage until spring is here. The damaged tips can protect the rest of the plants. If you were to prune out damaged leaves, you would expose the plant to further winter injury.

• Many gardeners are reporting that spring bulb foliage is actively growing in their yards. This is not unusual for early blooming daffodils and crocuses. The early cold in November followed by more mild weather in December may have them a bit ahead of schedule, but ignore it. I was asked by one gardener if this early foliage should be cut off, and the answer is a resounding no. That is the only set of leaves those bulbs will have. Cutting them off would be removing their food supply. Bulb foliage is very cold tolerant, and they should be fine. If you don't see any foliage, don't worry either. Some bulbs are later blooming than others.

• If you still have bulbs to plant, do so ASAP as they need the winter chilling hours to perform their best.

• Many gardeners are growing vegetables year-round. Our mild December has been a boon to the cool season broccoli, cabbage and kale. Fall-planted garlic is also thriving. During another mild week of weather, consider a light application of fertilizer. Just as with other ornamental winter color, avoid much activity around the plants when temperatures dip below freezing, and consider a little covering -- row covers, boxes or upturned pots if temperatures are predicted much below 28 degrees. High tunnels or other unheated covered gardens are popping up all over the state and help extend gardening seasons.

• You can begin planting English peas and snow peas later this month.

• Now is also a great time to take inventory of what worked for you and what didn't last season and to plan out your garden for 2019.

• Pansies, violas, ornamental kale and cabbage and other winter annuals have added quite a bit of color this winter. Pansies and violas will continue to bloom until hot weather arrives, but don't forget to fertilize every three or four weeks -- when we get a warm spell.

• We are in the middle of the transplant season. If you have hardy trees or shrubs that need to be moved due to size limitations or sunlight needs, now is a great time to move them. November is usually an ideal time to get plants moved, but the heavy rains kept many people from these chores. Make sure to pick a day that is not too cold and that you have the new hole dug and ready for planting before you dig up the old plant. Protect the root system from drying winds or freezing weather, and do consider adding a little supplemental water if it doesn't rain. Roots can begin to grow and help the plants re-establish themselves before the hot summer. Plants are much more resilient when they are dormant.

TERM OF THE MONTH: 'CHILLING HOURS'

A plant's chilling hour requirement is the number of hours the plant or bulb must be exposed to temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees.

There are several common models used to calculate chilling hours with each one defining what a chilling unit is a little differently. Some count any hours below 45 degrees, while others only count hours between 32 and 45 degrees. And to muddy the water even more, when temperatures are below 32, no chilling credit accumulates, and in some models they deduct chilling hours when temperatures go over 60 degrees.

Why is that important to know?

Plants adapt to a climate by knowing when to go dormant in the fall and when to begin growth in the spring so that they can survive. Northern gardeners worry about winter hardiness, and while Southern gardeners worry about that, too, it is often for a different reason.

Sometimes, mild winters lead to early growth -- which a late freeze can damage. But Southern gardeners also have to worry about how much cold weather they get for certain plants to do well.

Spring-blooming bulbs need to go through a chilling process for six to 12 weeks while they are dormant, to allow their stems to stretch and their flowers to open. Most of the stone fruits, along with apples and pears, have a specific number of chilling hours they have to achieve to break dormancy and for their flower and leaf buds to develop normally.

For that reason, many of our common spring-blooming bulbs -- such as daffodils and tulips -- don't grow in the tropics, because they don't get cold enough.

Northern varieties of apples and pears need more chilling hours than we get in Arkansas so don't produce as well here either. Companies selling fruit trees to Southern gardeners usually list the number of chilling hours needed for that specific variety to produce well.

As a general rule, Arkansas averages between 900 and 1,000 chilling hours. If you want to see specific crops and what chilling hours they need, here is a shortcut link to some additional information: arkansasonline.com/105chill.

Write to Janet B. Carson at P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, Ark. 72201.

jcarson@arkansasonline.com

HomeStyle on 01/05/2019

Print Headline: Breaking Ground

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