Frosted lawns and trees
Cracking crystals in birdbaths
Hunker down in sleep
As holiday decorations are put away and life returns to a chilly normal, January provides some surprising opportunities to benefit your garden with little effort on your part.
If you are like me and enjoy the flavor of fresh asparagus in the spring, this is the time to plant. Before planting asparagus crowns, be sure to select a long term site. My mother discovered a patch of asparagus on her Upstate New York property that had been growing continuously for nearly 100 years! Your asparagus plants will need 2-3 years to get established, but then you will be set for a lifetime of delicious spring stalks that taste better than anything you can find in a supermarket. To plant asparagus, dig trenches that are 8-10 inches deep. Lay out the crowns at 18” intervals and cover with 2-3” of soil and compost. As the plants start to grow, cover them with more soil and compost until the trenches are filled.
Bare root trees
January is also a good time to plant bare root fruit trees. Bare root trees should be planted as soon as they arrive to avoid letting them dry out. When shopping for bare root trees, be sure to inspect the root system and reject plants with knotted or diseased roots. If a tree speaks to you and you simply must have it, cut off any damaged or diseased roots with a sharp tool, cleaning between each cut, and cross your fingers. Your tree will need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day, so select a site accordingly. You will need to dig a hole that is two times the width of the root spread, but no deeper than the roots themselves. Improper planting depth is the main reason trees fail. Be sure to keep any graft unions 2-4” above ground to avoid crown rot. Fill the hole with soil and aged compost and be sure to avoid air pockets that will dry out the young root system. Water regularly (unless it rains) until the roots are established. Contrary to popular belief, there is no need to add special soil amendments to the bottom of the hole before planting.
If you decorated a Christmas tree this past year, rather than kicking it to the curb, now is the time to remove all the lights, decorations and tinsel, and put it to work in your garden. If you have a wild area, you can lay the tree down and let nature do all the work. Initially, your tree will provide shelter for small birds. [I once had a goldfinch escape a hawk for 40 minutes, hopping around the interior of my discarded tree. The hawk finally gave up and the goldfinch survived.] If you feel energetic or want to burn off some of those holiday calories, you can cut the branches from your tree and use them as mulch. Pine needles and twigs decompose very slowly, but they will eventually add their valuable nutrients and improve soil structure. [Contrary to popular belief, pine boughs do not acidify soil.] Larger branches and the trunk will take longer to decompose, but they are worth the wait.
January is also the time to start monitoring your citrus trees for ripe fruit and mummies. Mummies are diseased fruits that have become shriveled and/or moldy. Remove these disease carriers as soon as they are seen. You will know your oranges are ripe when they taste good. Looks can be deceiving, so you simply need to pick one that looks ripe and have a taste. The variety of orange makes a big difference in ripening time. The big Navel oranges come ready first, from November to June, while the thinner skinned Valencia oranges should be harvested from February through October. You can leave oranges on the tree for a surprisingly long time. Ripe fruit will feel heavy in your hand but may not pull away from the tree easily. Oranges do not continue to ripen after they are picked, so don't be in a hurry.
While the colder temperatures may have slowed the rate at which your compost pile breaks down, you can still keep adding to it from your kitchen and yard scraps. This goldmine of nutrients provides countless benefits to your soil and the environment. Just remember to turn it occasionally. You may also want to protect the pile from leaching rain with a tarp (I use my plastic kiddie pool, since the dogs have no need of it in winter).
January is also the time when seed and plant catalogs start arriving in the mail. Rather than going hog wild and buying everything that looks good in the photos, use the enclosed plant information to determine which plants will actually thrive in your microclimate, provide food you will eat, and plants you will enjoy caring for in the coming spring and summer months.
If you have established trees and roses, January is an excellent time for pruning. The only exception is apricot, which must be pruned in summer to avoid eutypa dieback. Each species of tree has characteristics that make different methods of pruning more effective than others. To learn more, visit the UCANR site. This is also the time to start collecting scions for grafting. Sonoma County Master Gardeners provide an excellent resource that explains how to save scion wood.
While most pests are gone or dormant in winter, you can reduce the likelihood of spring soft scale infestations by spraying your trees and shrubs with horticultural oil now.
In most places, January soil is best left alone. Wet or frozen, this is not the time to be digging. Your plants and soil will benefit from mulch, however. Mulch holds the day’s warmth and improves the soil for spring plantings and new growth. Just be sure that mulch stays several inches away from trunks and stems, to prevent fungal disease and pest infestations.
January is also the perfect time to clean, repair, and sharpen your garden tools. Santa Clara County Master Gardeners provide an excellent video about how to sharpen pruning tools. It is much easier than you might expect, and you will be amazed at how much easier it is to work in the garden! This is also a good time to clean your pots in preparation for spring. Be sure to wash all pots and tools in a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water to prevent the spread of disease.
Start your gardening year with clean, sharpened tools, a little preventive work, and a plan for a successful growing season! Happy New Year!
Foggy mornings pale
Seared from sight by blazing sun
Nectarine juice drips
Aside from watering, August may seem like the perfect time to take a break form the heat, but there are still plenty of garden tasks to choose from!
While ants do help aerate the soil, they can also damage crops and spread disease. Fruit trees can be protected with sticky barriers. Boric acid bait traps can be an effective control method, just be sure the baits are placed where children and pets cannot reach them.
Now is the time to be on the lookout for codling moth larva. From the outside, an apple will have a small, scabby spot. If you cut (or bite) into the apple, you will see that this spot leads to a trail that heads toward the core. You can interrupt the codling moth lifecycle by collecting and removing any fallen fruit that would provide an overwintering haven.
Unlike other trees, which are pruned when they are dormant, apricot trees are best pruned in summer. Apricot trees are susceptible to a fungus called Eutypa dieback, which can infect trees if rain reaches fresh pruning cuts.
This is the time of year when Japanese beetles, dried fruit beetles, and June beetles are the easiest to see (and eliminate). Japanese beetles will skeletonize many plants. These pests tend to cling to their favorite foods and are easy to knock into cans of soapy water. [I used to pay the neighborhood children a nickel for every June bug they eliminated - very useful in Virginia!] June bugs are clumsy fliers and easy to slap down with a net. Both can be fed to chickens. Dried fruit beetles and June bugs do not bite or sting and dogs can be trained to chase and kill them before they lay eggs in the soil. These eggs will later hatch and the larvae will devour lawn, ornamental, and other plant roots.
Just as in April and June, oranges and other mature citrus trees should be fed one-half pound of nitrogen in August. Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen, without all the fillers. Ammonium sulfate is another good source of nitrogen.
This is the time of year when all that hard work and patience really pay off. Keep plants healthy and enjoy the fruits of your labor by harvesting frequently. This reduces the number of places where pests and diseases can hide. This also prevents many plants from going to seed and ending fruit production. When harvesting tree fruit, be sure to keep a look out for mummified fruit. Remove mummies and dispose of them in the trash, not the compost pile.
This drought tolerant shrub is a great way to attract pollinators. After it has bloomed, cut plants back, close to the ground. This will prevent plants from becoming too leggy and it stimulates more flower development.
If you have a lawn and it has not turned completely brown, allow it to grow longer than you would in cooler months. Taller grass protects the soil and helps retain moisture. And be on the lookout for masked chafers and southern chinch bugs.
Mite infestations often look like nothing more than light webbing around leaves and stems. This webbing is followed by leaf stippling, chlorosis, and leaf drop. Water-stressed plants are more susceptible, as are dusty plants. Mites are related to spiders. Adults have eight legs, but the young only have six. Spraying pesticides often backfires because mite predators, such as lacewings and pirate bugs, are killed. Often, you can use a soft-bristled brush to dislodge these pests.
By August, most rain barrels have run dry, making this the perfect time to clean out any debris in the remaining grey water, along with any mosquito larvae. West Nile Virus, Zika Virus, and many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes, so it is important to regularly eliminate any standing water. Mosquito dunks should be added to any standing water every 30 days.
Hot weather means trees need more water. Trees planted in a lawn that is being watered regularly will still need a deep watering 2 or 3 times during the summer, or more, depending on the weather. Stand alone mature fruit and nut trees will need a deep watering every 3 - 4 weeks, while younger trees will need to be watered every 2 weeks. Ideally, there is an irrigation ring around each tree at the drip line.
August is an excellent time to start seeds for winter crops. Spinach, beets, lettuce, arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cilantro, bush beans, fava beans, leeks, radishes, and peas can all be started in small containers for transplanting after summer crops are done. This gives you a head start on the cooler growing season, just be sure to keep the soil moist. A thin layer of vermiculite can help retain moisture.
Nascent roots and stems
Displace freshly warming earth
Chill nights slow their birth
Citrus pruning should not be started until after March 15th, but now is the time to seriously inspect for mummies. Mummies are those shriveled up, fuzzy gray oranges that house millions of fungal spores. When removing mummies, try to disturb them as little as possible, or cover them with a plastic bag before removing them from the tree. If a citrus tree shows signs of chlorosis (yellowing) on older leaves, it may indicate a nitrogen deficiency. Interveinal (between leaf veins) chlorosis usually means a micronutrient, such as iron or manganese, is needed. Our soil tends to be very low on iron, but you can’t know for sure without a soil test. After the danger of frost has (nearly) completely passed, on March 15th, give citrus trees a good pruning. Just be sure to keep a look out for nests. It’s that time of year!
Another common March task is to inspect and repair sprinklers, drip systems, and water collection systems. How do you know if you have an irrigation leak? It can be difficult to spot, especially if it is small. The most common indication is an area that gets and stays wet longer than everywhere else. Sprinklers should be aimed so that they do not hit tree trunks, walkways, driveways, or sidewalks. The former can cause fungal diseases and the latter creates wasteful urban drool.
March is also a good time to prune out dead branches and twigs from fruit and nut trees and ornamental trees and shrubs. It is easier to see the structure of each plant before it is covered with leaves.
If your roses haven’t already started producing leaves and blooms the way mine have, March is a good time to prune them for better airflow and structure. You can also start feeding roses in March, and you may need to spray for blackspot. Blackspot is a fungal disease that loves moisture. As dew collects on rose leaves, the fungus reproduces astronomically. You can use neem oil or baking soda with horticultural oil. Personally, I use a large fan on my roses in the early morning to speed evaporation of the dew. It seems to work well.
March is an excellent time to start planting your summer garden. In the Bay Area, you can still direct sow many cool weather crops, such as beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, lettuces, spinach, bok choy, fennel, kale, mustard greens, parsnips, and turnips. And it's not too late to install that asparagus bed! March is an excellent time to add cilantro, dill, and parsley to your garden, but wait for warmer temperatures before planting basil. Potatoes and radishes can be planted now, and you can start tomatoes and peppers in pots, but only if you can protect them from nighttime cold. Otherwise, wait for April, when the serious planting begins! As you dedicate seeds to a specific location, make sure to read the seed package labels for things like mature size, thinning requirements, and sunlight needs, and be sure to use plant markers!
Slugs & snails
Our warming temperatures and moisture work together to create the perfect habitat for slugs and snails. These mollusks can devastate seedling in a single night, so be prepared. I urge you to follow the link to slugs and snails to learn more about the specific ingredients in different bait products. They are not created equally, and some can harm pets. Choose accordingly.
Walk through your garden in March and you are sure to see weeds coming up in every location imaginable (and a few unimaginable places!). Your Number One March garden task is to pull weeds. Since some weeds can go to seed in as little as a week, now is the time to yank them from the earth. Recent rains and busy worms have made it easier to remove weeds, roots and all, by softening the soil. Wait until later in the season and the ground will be hard and thousands of seeds will already be sown. Healthy weeds make great additions to the compost pile. Personally, I feed them to my chickens.
Enjoy the early blossoms!
We sever that which has passed
As new growth begins
Recent rain has saturated the ground and longer days are coaxing new shoots to emerge. This is the stuff of February gardens in the Bay Area.
Bare Root Trees
There is still time to plant bare root trees. Many of these plants have been sitting in nurseries for a few weeks. Soak them in a bucket of water for several hours after trimming off any damaged bits. Dig a hole that is shallow and wide. Spread the roots out horizontally for the best growth. Be sure that the crown is a few inches above the ground. The crown is where the trunk meets the roots. As the ground settles, you don’t want to risk Crown Rot. Water regularly, unless it’s raining. Avoid fertilizing until 6-8” of new growth appears. Only provide tree supports if absolutely necessary.
Harvesting citrus fruit is a common February garden chore. Citrus trees tend to produce heavily every other year and February is normally harvest time. If you don’t harvest your oranges, other things will! Squirrels, snails and rats can make a mess if fruit isn’t harvested. Try making Orange Marmalade!
Rain also creates countless habitats for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are a vector species that can carry the Zika virus, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus and many other nasty conditions. Walk through the garden to look for potential mosquito habitats. They only need about one tablespoon of stagnant water to start reproducing.
Peppers & Tomatoes
To jumpstart a garden, one February garden chore is to start peppers and tomatoes indoors. Hot peppers, in particular, need a long growing season to develop the best flavors. Seed heating mats, designed for seed starting, can keep the peppers warm enough to germinate. As they grow, transplant seedlings into larger pots until it is warm enough to move them outside.
If it didn’t get done in January, you can still improve the structure and productivity of fruit and nut trees for the upcoming growing season. By pruning unwanted branches in February, trees will put all their energy into what’s left. Remove drooping (decurrent), crossing, or diseased branches. For better fuchsia and hydrangea blooms this summer, remove any frost damaged tissue now. Since both species bloom on new growth, cut back some of the longer branches. Leave two or three leaf buds below the cut. This will promote lateral growth and more flowers.
Sticky barriers prevent ants and other pests from crawling up the trunks of trees, roses and shrubs. As temperatures rise, ants, aphids (pictured above, on broccoli) and other pests become more active and destructive. Apply tape around the trunk and slather the tape with whichever sticky barrier substance you opt to use. This can significantly reduce pest infestations. It’s one February garden chore I never skip!
Lawns may look green, but is it the right kind of green? Weeds grow more quickly than many garden plants. Take a look at what it is really growing there. This is a great time to pull weeds - before they go to seed. The ground is moist, making it easier to pull them up by the roots. Plus, the disruption provides loosened soil for the spreading roots of more desirable grass species. Pull weeds from around perennial plants, as well. They will need all the nutrients they can get for spring growth. Pulling weeds now is one of the most productive February garden chores you can do.
February is the perfect time to encourage worms in the garden. Worms will do more good than pretty much everything else. Worms aerate the soil, break down organic material, and their castings are full of valuable nutrients. Spreading rich compost or mulch around the garden is often the only thing needed to encourage worms to make your garden their home.
So, put on your sweater and get out there in the garden!