Nascent roots and stems
Displace freshly warming earth
Chill nights slow their birth
March in California is the envy of the East Coast. Still bundled against blizzards, they hear about our sunny days and emerging blooms as they look out at a sea of snow. But don’t be fooled by all the new plants breaking ground.
My last frost date is March 15th, but we’ve already reached temperatures as high as 80°F! To tender young shoots and first leaves (cotyledons), a sudden drop in temperature can be deadly. As tempting as it may be to trim away frost damaged plant parts in early March, it is a good idea to wait until closer to the middle of the month, just to be on the safe side. Fret not, however, there are many tasks to keep you busy in the garden in March!
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 bird nests. It’s that time of year!
Walking on wet ground causes soil compaction. This is especially true for areas with heavy clay soil. Rather than walking on wet soil, stay on paths, install stepping stones, or just wait for it to dry. Compacted soil is particularly difficult for young roots to move through, and it can cause drainage problems. Also, digging wet soil damages soil structure. The best treatment for compacted soil is a thick layer of free arborist wood chips. Amazing things happen under mulch!
Winter and spring moisture provide the perfect habitat for many pathogens. You can prevent diseases, such as fireblight on apple, pears, quince, and loquat, with fixed copper sprays. You can also reduce the chance of powdery mildew on grapes by applying sulfur at this time.
Feed young trees
As young trees continue putting out new roots, shoots, and leaves, they will benefit from being fed in March. Check the specific species of tree for more information on how much fertilizer should be provided. Since my soil tests indicate that everything is present in abundance, except for nitrogen and iron, those are the only two I add. Money saved. Environment protected. Check.
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 or green 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. The only exception is those trees susceptible to Eutypa dieback. Pruning grapes or stone fruits, such as apricot or cherry, before the rains are completely over can create an opportunity for infection. I know it's hard to wait, but you should.
Slugs and snails
Our warming temperatures and moisture work together to create the perfect habitat for slugs and snails. These mollusks can devastate seedlings 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.
If you have not conducted a soil test recently, now is the time. Find out what is in your soil before you start adding plants or fertilizer.. This will help avoid nutrient imbalances that can wreak havoc on plant health.
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 weeding. Since some weeds can go to seed in as little as a week, now is the time to cut them off at ground level with a hoe. Wait until later in the season 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
In many parts of the country, winter snow still holds everything in thrall, but California is a different story altogether. Rains have brought us some much needed moisture (though we really need more!) and longer days are coaxing new shoots to emerge. This is the stuff of February gardens in San Jose.
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. There is no need to amend the planting hole. Spread the roots out horizontally for the best growth. Be sure that the crown is a few inches above the ground to avoid crown rot. The crown is where the trunk meets the roots.
Rather than tamping the soil down, mud in your new tree with water. This eliminates any big air pockets that might dry roots out while helping them stay upright. Speaking of supports, only provide tree supports if absolutely necessary and remove them as soon as they are not needed. Water regularly, unless it’s raining. Avoid fertilizing until 6-8” of new growth appears.
Harvesting citrus fruit is a common February garden task. 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. Heavy rains can cause fruit splitting. These fruits attract pests and diseases and should be removed from the tree and composted or discarded. If your tree produces a bumper crop this year, try making orange marmalade!
If pests or diseases were a problem on your fruit or nut trees last year, February is a good time to apply dormant and delayed dormant sprays of horticultural oil and/or fixed copper, depending on the tree species and the problem. Horticultural oil will suffocate pests such as aphids, mites, and scale insects before they can cause damage. Fixed copper is used to reduce the likelihood of many fungal and bacterial diseases, including fireblight, peach leaf curl, and bacterial blight. Be sure these treatments are applied before buds begin to open.
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 and look for potential mosquito habitats. They only need about one tablespoon of stagnant water to start reproducing. Adding mosquito dunks to rain barrels, fountains, and birdbaths goes a long way toward eliminating the local mosquito population.
Peppers and tomatoes
To jumpstart a garden, one February garden chore is to start peppers and tomatoes indoors, in a greenhouse, or under a protective cover. I used my pumpkin ladder draped with shade cloth. Hot peppers, in particular, need a long growing season to develop the best flavors. Seed heating mats, designed for seed starting, can keep pepper seeds warm enough to germinate. As they grow, transplant seedlings into larger pots until it is warm enough to move them outside. If your seedlings get too leggy, in a condition called etiolation, they are not getting enough light.
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. This way, trees will put all their energy into what’s left. Remove drooping (decurrent), crossing, or diseased branches. This is also the perfect time to rub off unwanted tree growth. Simply rub your hand over the buds and they fall off.
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. to promote lateral growth and more flowers. Prune roses now for structure and air circulation.
Sticky barriers prevent pests from crawling up the trunks of trees, roses and shrubs. As temperatures rise, ants, aphids, 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 actually growing in your lawn. This is a great time to pull weeds - before they go to seed and while 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.
After pruning and spraying your trees and applying a sticky barrier, you should protect them against sunburn damage by painting exposed areas with a mix of one part water and one part white latex paint. Do not use any other type of paint, as many of them can interfere with your trees' ability to breath. Whitewashing reflects the sun's damaging rays away from the bark, helping it to stay intact. Bark is an important protective barrier against many pests and diseases.
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 coffee grounds, aged compost, or mulch around the garden is often the only thing needed to encourage worms to make your garden their home.
Put on your sweater and get out there in the garden!
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.
Bare root trees
January is also a good time to plant bare root fruit trees. They should be planted as soon as they arrive to prevent them from drying 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. Contrary to popular belief, there is no need to add special soil amendments to the bottom of the hole before planting. The most important thing is to plant your trees at the proper depth.
If you decorated a Christmas tree this past year, rather than kicking it to the curb, you may want to put it to work in your garden. Keep in mind, however, it may not be organic and it might harbor pests. It's your call. Personally, I remove all the lights, decorations, and tinsel and let nature takes its course.
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. Contrary to popular belief, pine boughs do not acidify soil.
While 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.
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, ask yourself what you want from your garden, how much time you have to invest, and what worked well (and what didn’t) over the past year. The job of those catalogs is to sell seeds. Your job, as a gardener, is to consider your soil, microclimate, and personal preferences. Does an existing bed need updating? Do you want to try your hand at something new? You can use garden themes to help with plant selection:
As you design this year's gardens, try to keep them accessible to all your helpers and visitors.
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. Proper tree training can increase production while reducing pest and disease problems. This is also the time to start collecting scions for grafting.
Pest and disease prevention
While most pests are gone or dormant in winter, January is a good time to prevent spring infestations and infections with horticultural oil, fixed copper, Bt, and other treatments. If you had problems with soft scale last year, horticultural oil will do the trick. If your nectarines showed signs of peach leaf curl, protect them with fixed copper. Applying Bt in winter can prevent many fungal diseases later in the year. Some of those treatments should be applied when a plant is in full dormancy while others should be applied during the delayed dormant period, so it is good to know the difference. Also, be careful about mixing products. Applying them too close together can cause more harm than good.
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. Start by cleaning them with bathroom disinfectant to kill off pathogens and remove debris. Then, use a wood file, rasp, or tool sharpener to bring back that clean edge. Finally, apply some mineral oil to prevent rust. Your tools will last longer and work better with just a little bit of care. This is also a good time to clean your pots in preparation for spring. Be sure to wash all your pots and unused containers with a household cleaner, such as Lysol, 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!