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Get organized while waiting for that very last cold spell

(ran East, South, West, Seminole editions)

I was inclined to believe that our recent cold snap would be the last, but after speaking to some Tampa natives, I have some doubt.

They are adamant that each winter is getting a little later here, so they won't be surprised if we get more cold weather. It gave me pause, so I have decided to wait before trimming off the dead plant material from the recent freeze.

The number of plants I lost surprised me. Many of the perennials seem dead, although I won't pull them up just yet. I still have hopes that the roots are healthy.

I did cover one of my plants during the coldest night. I have a bougainvillea that I've been babying. I wrapped the head of the plant in sheets but am not sure it helped much. The leaves are all wilted, but I'll just leave it alone for a while.

Each time I look around the yard I see a little more cold damage. Many of the ferns growing under a large oak in the back yard are damaged. The tree's canopy usually protects them. I plan on just pulling up the ferns that were damaged. They will quickly fill in the area.

My begonias were also damaged. The top leaves look a little mushy. I used the hose to rinse them off and watered them well. They don't look good, but I've no doubt they will survive. I'll wait until about mid March to start fertilizing the annuals in my yard.

I have decided to have my front lawn replaced, having tired of fighting the Bermuda grass. I have sprayed it twice with an herbicide to kill everything. I'll wait about a week more and see if there's anything living left.

If not, I'll have the dead sod dug up and replaced. Once Bermuda gets started, it's almost impossible to get rid of without killing everything around it. Having fought the unwanted guest for many, many months, I've decided to take care of it once and for all - I hope.

Here are some other thoughts while waiting for warmth:

+ Herbs: If I have lost some perennials to the cold, that will give me a few more places to tuck in some herbs.

I have found the challenging climate of Florida to be quite agreeable to a wide variety of herbs.

Now is a good time to get a plot prepared for herbs, or at least plan on tucking a few here and there in your garden. They are also wonderful grown in containers.

A few that love the cool winter weather and will do well moving into summer are basil, dill, oregano, thyme, chervil and lavender. If you wait until mid March, when we're fairly sure our cold weather has passed, you can plant just about any herb you'd like.

+ Orchids: I moved them inside for a few days when freezing temperatures were predicted. I had them all hanging in my dining room, so was reminded that it had been a while since I had cleaned and cared for them.

I remove all dried up or yellowed leaves and any flower stems left over from the last bloom. I then wiped all the foliage with Listerine, as I have read it kills the bacteria. I have used it before with no adverse effects. I also watered each plant well. I have moved them back outside and sprayed them all with a dilute solution of water-soluble fertilizer.

+ Garden soils, especially in new flower beds, are frequently infertile. Flower beds should be fertilized before planting or at planting time with a soluble fertilizer. Use a complete fertilizer such as 6-6-6 or similar analysis fertilizer. Fertilizers should be applied early in the growing season and repeated monthly.

+ Geraniums: I don't have any in my yard right now, but I often get questions about them.

They are a beautiful addition to a flower garden or a container and will last many seasons if given the proper care. This is a good time of year to plant them, and you will find many colors available in the garden centers.

To get the most from geraniums, avoid using them where there is overhead watering or where they can get wet in our afternoon rains. This is difficult in most yards. I have found that they do well under a maple tree. The canopy is quite open and allows lots of filtered sun to reach the plants. Or a covered patio, or under the eave of a house is perfect; just make sure they get lots of sun.

Plant as early as possible; geraniums can take a light frost if they have had a chance to adjust to cool temperatures. Late plantings generally are short-lived.

Keep geraniums in pots where they get better air circulation and you can keep them slightly drier than in the garden.

Always mulch any plantings of geraniums in the ground. Most of their disease problems originate in the soil, and when rain splashes dirt onto the leaves, geraniums begin to decline quickly.

Geraniums grow best in full sun. They will tolerate partial shade, but usually will grow tall, producing few lateral branches and flowers. They should be spaced 18 inches apart in flower beds. To avoid disease problems and to give a well-groomed appearance, old flower heads should be removed.

Geraniums grow best in soils that provide good drainage and aeration and retain moisture and nutrients. Florida's sandy soils should be amended with organic matter. Incorporate 2 to 3 inches of organic matter into planting beds to increase the water- and nutrient-holding capacities of the soil. Organic materials like leaf mold or peat moss should be thoroughly mixed into the soil.

Water geraniums during dry periods to prevent wilting, eventual yellowing and dropping of leaves. Keeping the soil wet encourages snails and slugs that chew the foliage, and wet soil invites root-rotting organisms.

Just like other beauties in the garden, geraniums may take a little extra care, but their prolific flowers are worth the effort. Now is the time to get organized and ready to provide that bit of extra care to our garden favorites.

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