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!