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Cleanup prepares way for spring

Here we are at the start of a new year - a blank slate, a new beginning to the gardening cycle. Poised at the starting line, what are the events that signal the renewal of the process of gardening?

For me, it is the finality of the holiday just past and the attendant cleanup that precedes the leap forward. It is hard to imagine that spring is so far away when we have some lovely, sunny afternoons and the gardening bug is starting to stir inside us. I like to take advantage of these tranquil spells between rainstorms, however brief, to finish last year's garden chores and to begin the forward motion of the new season.

Cleaning up means taking down the Christmas tree and recycling it in some form. If you have the space, they make wonderful additions to the brush pile. You don't have a brush pile? Consider creating one. They are simply made up of pruned debris piled in an unused part of the landscape, many times on top of the now vacant vegetable garden.

Used by many types of ground birds throughout the winter months, it can provide shelter from stormy weather and refuge from predators. As spring approaches and we begin planting, the branches can be cut down or shredded into mulch for the coming season. It is also a wonderful way to benefit from procrastinating. You will have to deal with it when you need the space for the garden. Until then, you can enjoy being lazy.

Speaking of birds, this is an excellent time to clean out any birdhouses that were favored by our feathered friends last year. We have the time to do this now, in advance of the mating season. Pull out old nesting materials and discard them. Scrub the inside with a stiff bristle brush and a 10 percent bleach solution to disinfect. Rehang the birdhouse in an area away from feeders and birdbaths at the proper height and you're set for that first brood.

If you didn't get a copper spray on the stone fruits in the home orchard in December, get out there during the next dry spell and protect those trees. Peaches, nectarines and almonds will all benefit from this preventive measure. Add a sticker/spreader to the spray solution to keep it stuck on the trees through the coming rains.

There should be 24 hours of dry weather after you spray to be sure it will be effective. If the weather turns bad and you don't see that telltale green sheen on the branches, you have no choice but to repeat the process as soon as the weather will permit. Clean your spray equipment thoroughly after spraying when using copper or you will be buying a new rig sooner than you'd like.

Did you pot up any bulbs this past fall for forcing in the home? The earliest varieties should be checked for growth right now to see if they're ready to come inside. If you see roots pushing out of the container drain holes, or tops emerging from the soil, you can bring in a few pots now to test how they'll grow. Typically, small bulbs such as crocuses or grape hyacinths need 10 to 12 weeks of cold weather to be ready to flower. Larger bulbs like tulips make take up to 14 weeks of cold storage to produce acceptable flower stalks. The stems will be short if the cooling has been insufficient, and long and floppy if they have been cooled too long.

Bring the pots indoors into a bright room (direct sun is best) with a temperature of 60 degrees F. They should bloom in 3 to 4 weeks. The really hardy bulbs, such as daffodils, can be planted out after forcing, but less vigorous types such as tulips and hyacinths are probably best discarded after enjoying their flowers. It may take years for them to re-bloom and reach their potential.

These first forays into the garden fuel our enthusiasm for the new garden year and get the excitement flowing. Start slowly if you've been hibernating. There's plenty of time for sore muscles later in the season.