Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: I thought that the stems of redtwig dogwood would be bright red during the winter, but their color is disappointing. Is it the cold climate, or what?

A: It is not the climate. Do you cut prune the dogwood every year? The brightest color on any shrub appears only on young stems. To keep your dogwood an intense red, cut a third to half of its stems to the ground late this winter, including all the biggest ones. Next year's new stems will be brilliant red a year from now. Repeat the same kind of pruning every year to keep the red color.

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Q: I am out of patience with winter and ready to start gardening. Are there any seeds that I can plant this month, or is it too soon?

A: It is too soon for most seeds, but there are some that can be started right now. If you have any leftover seed of lettuce or Asian greens, start pots of microgreens to perk up winter salads. Containers need potting soil only two inches deep. Scatter seeds an inch apart and press them gently into the surface. Cover the pot with clear plastic until the seeds sprout. Greens will be two or three inches tall and ready to eat in about two weeks. Cut them when the first true leaves unfold above the pair of seed leaves.

Plant slow growing flowers like petunias any time now.

Start a pot of parsley for indoor harvesting, but expect its seeds to appear only three weeks after planting. Parsley seed has to grow up before it can sprout.

For colorful house plants this winter and outdoor plants for shady spots next summer, start some coleus. They are easy to grow from seed, even for beginners, and they quickly grow big enough to be worth looking at.

If you are willing to transplant to a big and then a bigger pot, a tomato plant can be started now. It will require extra work from now until summer but will eventually earn you bragging rights for the earliest ripe tomato ever. Try starting a tomato in a two-inch pot, then moving to a six-inch one. When that pot is full of roots and needs watering every day, move the tomato to a five-gallon bucket or a big tub. As the weather warms, the tomato can gradually acclimate to the outdoors if you are willing to wheel it out and back in every day.

The archenemy of winter seed sprouting is damping off disease, a fungus which kills sprouting seeds and seedlings in a matter of hours. Because the fungus thrives in cold, wet soil, keep it away by growing seedlings in a reasonably warm part of the house. Although the soil must stay damp, do not let it become soggy. What ended the damping off problem for me was a small, quiet fan near the seedling area. The fan runs 24/7, keeping the air moving just a little. That has been enough to prevent fungal diseases.

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Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.

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