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Down the Garden Path

Q and A: Cold Weather, Holiday Plants and Firewood

Welcome to another year of gardening! You would think January would be a time for gardeners and homeowners to sit back a bit, yet questions keep rolling in to Master Gardeners and Extension Educators. Let's check out a few of them:

Q: With bitter cold weather, is there anything I should be doing or watching for outside in the garden beds?

A: Along with the late December cold came several inches of snow. Snow is a great insulator of temperature changes. Tender perennials covered in snow are quite safe for the winter. Snow drifts in the beds are a good thing, providing both winter weather protection and adding needed soil moisture next spring. As a bonus, snow protects the plants from the foraging rabbits. However, watch for snow drifts around your fruit trees. If they get higher than the trunk protection, rabbits will climb up and feed on unprotected bark and eat young branches. Knock down the drift so the trunk protection can do its job.

Q: I love enjoying all the holiday gift plants, but now what? I do not have the space or windows to keep them all alive.

A: Some of our gift plants are intended to be enjoyed and later added to the compost pile once the blooms have faded or when the poinsettia leaves are falling off and the bracts are no longer fresh. We should not feel bad about that. Some others like the amaryllis bulb, and Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, are ones that can provide years of enjoyment. When the arrangements or potted holiday plants are ready to be added to the compost pile, be sure to remove the floral wire and other bits. For our potted plants, there can be supports to remove and for sure remove the decorative foil and plastic pots.

Q: How much firewood can I bring in the home ahead of burning it in the wood burner/fireplace?

A: Limit the amount of firewood to what you will be burning in the next seven days. It is not the space it takes up, as much as the time the firewood will be warm. Any hitchhiking insects will typically take longer than that to become mobile again, leaving the firewood. The insects belong outdoors and won't really cause a problem besides the "creepy crawly" effect. If the wood pile is a distance from the home, an unheated garage can be used to store the firewood until you are ready to bring it into a heated space.

Q: My fireplace is not burning very well and the wood is properly seasoned.

A: Be sure you provide some combustion air from outdoors, especially if your home is well insulated. Leaving a window open, even just a crack, can make a big difference. A source of combustion air near the fireplace means you won't have that feeling of a draft, as you would if you opened the front door or patio door to let in some air.

Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. Stay tuned to more garden and yard updates with "Down the Garden Path" at and the "Green Side Up" podcast at