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Only a small speck of snow on this sun-kissed walking path in January in the Midwest.

Oh, the Weather Outside is ... Mild

January 11, 2012

The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The sky is a vibrant blue.

I'm wearing a light jacket and gloves. There's a very slight chill in the air but the warmth from the sun wipes that away before it can even bother me. This weekend, taking a walk with my dog in the park, the pathways were rather full of others doing the same. They were smiling and jogging and taking in the scenery. Most of their heads were free of the typical tassel-topped hats that are signatures of the season.

Though the leaves aren't on the trees yet and my spring bulbs aren't shooting up, the anticipation and excitement of the new season are so tangible I can practically taste them in the crisp air. And seeing the light in others' eyes and the skip in their steps tells me they are feeling the same.

There's just one problem with initiating my spring countdown: It's January. Early January. In fact, Christmas and New Year's are still so fresh in my mind they haven't had time to register as memories yet. And even though Mother Nature and her birds and her cloudless sky tell me otherwise, unfortunately it's not quite time yet to pack up my snow shovel and boots.

During particularly harsh winters, the sun, wind and cold can desiccate evergreen foliage, damage bark and injure branches, buds and roots. Snow and ice can break tree branches. Salt used for deicing sidewalks, driveways and streets can burn plants. Deer continue munching on tree bark and branches as their winter food source.

Current U.S. snow cover as of early to mid-January - nearly 50 percent less than last year at this time. Photo: The Weather Channel

But what happens during a mild winter? According to The Weather Channel, brown ground is the rule rather than the exception so far this January in the Midwest. Across the country, many areas are experiencing the same. According to NOAA, a mere 15.8 percent of the lower 48 states had snow on the ground Jan. 10; last year at this time it was 62 percent.

So, while your winter weather may not be so frightful, there are still some things you can do in your landscape to ensure your trees and plants survive whatever additional curveballs Mother Nature might throw their way. (And there might be some coming your way very soon: The Weather Channel predicts winter will finally arrive this weekend for the Midwest. For parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan may even see the heaviest snow of the season.)

One basic task that is always good to include on your winter preparation list is proper mulching. This is defined as a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch around trees and plants. "Proper mulching will help reduce injury from plants heaving out of the soil due to winter's freezing and thawing cycle," explains Shawn Fitzgerald, a landscape horticulturist with The Davey Tree Expert Company. This is especially true for perennials and plant material installed in 2011. "Proper mulching maintains an even soil temperature and retains soil moisture."

While leaf buds are a lot more patient through Mother Nature's warming and cooling temperatures, flower buds are not. A common problem during mild winters are flower buds tricked into blooming by the warmth because they have already received sufficient cold stratification, explains Greg Mazur, The Davey Tree Expert Company's Tech Advisor. For instance, sightings of plants and trees in bloom were reported in Tennessee following unseasonably warm December weather. For some plants, this could limit their spring blooming potential.

Unfortunately, there's not much a homeowner can do to avoid this problem. In some cases, one can use dormant oils or anti-desiccant sprays to coat tender plant tissue, protecting flower buds and premature swelling of leaf buds. But a gardener must apply these types of products beginning with the onset of three or four days of temperatures more than 50 degrees when nights don't drop below freezing.

While we can't change the fact that Mother Nature can be indecisive and unpredictable, we can change one thing: Our patience level. Do your best to protect your landscape from winter's fluctuating temperatures and enjoy the challenging and fun world of gardening. Let winter have her time and give our landscapes their rest. Spring will be here before we know it!

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