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Skaggs: Maintain your plants during the wintertime
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The weather is cool, and the holiday season is in full swing. And while, I know many of you have other things on your mind, here are few tips for the home and garden.

After raking leaves, don't send all your hard work up in smoke. Leaf fires stink and the downwind neighbors can get especially angry if their windows are open. The smoke from leaf fires can irritate the eyes, nose and throat of healthy adults, but can be much more harmful to small children, the elderly and people with asthma. Instead, compost those fall leaves and produce a valuable organic soil amendment of which you and your garden will be proud.

Dumping ashes in the garden will add nutrients, mostly phosphorous and potassium, but remember to do this in moderation as it also makes the soil more acidic. Scatter ashes in a thin layer over a large area, and lightly till if possible.

Green wood will burn but seasoned wood has a higher heating value. That's because heat is lost as the moisture in the wood changes to steam that then escapes and allows the wood to burn. Green wood sizzles, fizzles and spits as it burns. It takes six to nine months for green wood to season.

If you get annual flowers on your mind next spring, remember they will do better in a rich, organic soil. Raised beds amended with organic matter work well for annual flowers. Yet another reason to compost those fall leaves.

Tulip and Dutch iris bulbs need to be planted in cold soil so they don't send up shoots before the roots are established. If tulips are planted deeply, they will produce large, uniform flowers for many years.

Examine the limb structure of your shade trees. Remove dead, diseased and storm-damaged branches. If left on the tree, these weakened limbs can cause damage by falling on buildings or passers-by.

When selecting camellias, choose hardy varieties and always keep them well mulched. A sheet over open flowers on a frosty night should prevent damage, but when we have a hard freeze, nothing will help except maybe an electric blanket or a portable greenhouse?!

If bird feeding has been a favorite activity this winter, order trees and shrubs that provide cover and small fruits for your feathered friends. Consider species such as crapapple, hawthorn, holly, dogwood and pyracantha that can help lure hungry birds from cultivated fruits if planted on the opposite side of the yard.

Winter is a great time to put together a maintenance calendar for an existing landscape or vegetable garden. This will assure that they're cared for properly and remain attractive and productive.

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County extension coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.