On a recent December morning, I wandered out to the vegetable patch to see how the broccoli plants were faring. I started these plants from seed in early September and transplanted them into the ground on September 26. Initially I covered them with wire cages to keep birds from shredding them, but lately the plants have outgrown the cages and I wanted to see if they were being eaten.
Birds are nibbling, but the plants are starting to form heads and I am hoping that we'll soon be eating home-grown broccoli. I noted in my garden journal that if I want broccoli for Thanksgiving, I need to set plants out in August.
I also checked the lettuce to see if there is anything left to harvest. This bed was seeded in August, and we have been eating salad greens for a couple of months. The plants are fairly bedraggled now, but a surprise was waiting for me in the garden path. Recent rains have provided enough moisture to sprout some arugula from a spring crop that went to seed. If the arugula weren't edible, I'd consider it a weed. Already the plants have one- to two-inch leaves, just right for salads and pizza topping.
If arugula seeds can sprout in December, you know other edibles will grow. Try planting fava bean, parsley, radish and spinach seeds. If you can find nursery seedlings, you could also set out kale, broccoli, lettuce, chard and other greens. Everything grows slowly now, but you can expect some delicious eating in February and March.
It's not too late to set out garlic. If you can't find garlic in nurseries, try organic garlic from the grocery store. Planted now, it will not mature until late May or June, but you can harvest green garlic at any stage.
It's also not too late to set out a few annual flowers for color. Check a local nursery to see what is available. I have a fondness for pansies and violas and usually set out a few plants in the winter vegetable patch. They add color to the beds and to my salads, too.
The peach and apple trees in my yard have lost nearly all their leaves. This leaf drop signals the start of pruning season for deciduous trees, roses and grapes. Remove diseased or damaged branches first. Then assess the tree from all directions before pruning for shape and fruit production.
Some trees, including many apple varieties, produce fruit on spurs (short stubby twigs) over many years, while other fruit trees produce fruit on new shoots every spring. Since this influences the way these trees should be pruned, consult a book, a tree expert, or Napa County Master Gardeners (office hours below) if you are not sure. For ornamental trees, prune mostly for shape.
If I waited for the roses in my garden to lose their leaves, I might never prune them. Go ahead and startcutting them back now. You will be rewarded with healthier plants and more blossoms next spring and summer.
One of my neighbors has a lovely Fuyu persimmon tree in the front yard just dripping with ripe fruit. I have found myself wishing I had my own share of those persimmons. Luckily, bare-root planting season has now begun. Plants sold in the bare-root state include deciduous fruit and shade trees; roses; vines such as clematis, wisteria and grapes; flowering shrubs such as lilacs and berries, including cane berries, blueberries and strawberries; and the perennial vegetables artichokes and rhubarb. The plants are field grown by the propagator, dug up while dormant and sold without soil clinging to their roots. Consequently, they are easier to handle than plants in pots and usually quite a bit less expensive. If you have found yourself coveting your neighbor's unpicked fruit tree, it might be time to plant your own.
Local nurseries will have their largest supply of bare-root plants in January, but now is a great time to order by mail. Bare-root plants need to go into the ground as soon as possible to protect the roots from dying out. If possible, prepare planting holes during a spell of dry weather so they are ready when you bring the plants home. If your soil is too wet for immediate planting, “heel in” the roots temporarily in damp compost or sand in a shady location. Cover the planting area to let it dry out a bit.
Whatever the December weather, you can spend some time in the garden. Maybe you will find some pleasant surprises there.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Rose Pruning and Maintenance” on Saturday, January 9, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the University of California Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. This workshop will feature demonstrations of proper pruning techniques. Master Gardeners will discuss types of roses, common rose diseases and routine maintenance. On-line registration (credit card only); Mail-in registration (check only).
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Fruit Tree Pruning and Care” on Saturday, January 16, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The workshop includes a lecture session from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the University of California Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. A hands-on session follows from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Silverado Middle School, 1108 Coombsville Road, Napa. On-line registration (credit card only) coming soon; Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.org/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
When we finally have some rainy days, take the opportunity to do some garden “bookkeeping.” Set up a garden calendar or journal. Have a page for seed-starting dates, fertilizer dates, watering schedules, first harvest, and a space for notes on what did and did not work. Include a page for daily temperatures and rainfall.
I have an inexpensive indoor/outdoor thermometer inside on my counter, with an additional sensor outside. I can check inside and outside temperatures from the kitchen by just pushing a button. Rain gauges come in a range of styles and prices, so check your local nursery or home-improvement store. Depending on your organizational style, a computer-based gardening program might work for you. Or perhaps you would prefer a spiral-bound notebook in a waterproof case that you can take into the garden.
If we finally get ample rain and the soil becomes saturated, cover sections of the garden to get a head start on spring crops. Use clear plastic tenting to exclude excess rain and raise the soil temperature. Remove the plastic between rains (I'm obviously an optimist) to evaporate excess moisture.
It might seem early to be thinking about planting, but fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers can all go in the ground this month. If the soil is not too wet, you can dig up and divide overcrowded clumps of perennials.
Valentine's Day is imminent. Potted red camellias, cerise azaleas or white gardenias make lovely romantic gifts that can transition to long lives in the garden. Even if you're not buying for a Valentine, February is a great month to visit nurseries to view color options on blooming camellias and other winter-flowering shrubs and plants.
Bare-root asparagus and rhubarb are still available, but not for long. Both are long-lived crops that will produce for years in an area they like.
Potatoes are also in nurseries now and can be planted along with carrots, peas, onions, radishes, lettuce, spinach, parsley and chard. To these familiar vegetables, consider adding Asian greens, cresses, arugula and kales.
If you grow warm-season vegetables from seed, it is time to pull out your warming mat and set up your lights or find your sunniest window. Early in the month, start seeds for cabbage, cauliflower, onions, parsley and lettuce. Later in the month, sow seeds for your favorite tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and basil.
If you have raised beds in your garden or hills with ample compost, winter squash and pumpkin seeds can go directly in the ground now. I began popping in a few pumpkin seeds this early after noting that volunteer squash seedlings always came up much sooner than I felt safe planting them. They ripened and were ready to harvest sooner, too.
If you are craving color, shop now for penstemon, dianthus, coreopsis and sages. Or trade with gardening friends who have an excess.
Shop for dahlias now. These Escher-like flowers, geometrically complex and available in a huge range of sizes and colors, make fanciful additions to the garden and can create whimsical memories for little people. If you buy dahlia tubers, select those with several “eyes” on each stem and plant late in March. Until then, keep them in moist wood shavings so they don't dry out. Prepare their bed according to the planting directions that come with them.
If you see evidence of snails or slugs (slimy trails are one clue), try setting out inverted flower pots, propped up a tad on one side so the pests have a way in to the “snail hotel.” Collect your victims in the morning and throw them away or feed to your chickens. Thisnon-toxic approach keeps chemicals out of your garden and away from pets and children.
Spray peach and nectarine trees to prevent peach-leaf curl just when the buds begin to bulge and show color. Alternatively, you can pick off the crinkled leaves as they appear, put them in a bag and dispose of them. Eventually the tree will replace them with healthy leaves.
Weeds begin to appear now. Tackle them with pre-emergent herbicides, hula hoes or your favorite implement. Try to catch weeds early, before they go to seed. If they have set seed, toss them in the yard-waste bin. Weed seeds often survive home composting.
Drought alert: Yes, you should be watering your plants since nature is not. Water any plants that still have leaves. Many California native plants need water now and should be your top priority, followed by newly planted trees, fruit trees,other large trees and any plants pushing buds. Dormant plants that leaf out early should be watered before those that leaf out later. Make small plants a lower priority as they cost less to replace than trees and large shrubs. Fruit trees that get irregular or insufficient water may drop fruit or produce undersized or malformed fruit.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will host a workshop on “Fruit Tree Pruning” on Saturday, February 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (indoor lecture) and from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. (outdoor hands-on workshop). Lecture location is the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Outdoor location to be determined.
Now is the best time to prune your fruit trees. Learn techniques to keep them healthy and productive. Please dress for outdoor weather. Online registration (credit card only) Mail in registration (cash or check only)
Napa County Master Gardeners welcome the public to visit their demonstration garden at Connolly Ranch on Thursdays, from 10:00 a.m. until noon, except the last Thursday of the month. Connolly Ranch is at 3141 Browns Valley Road at Thompson Avenue in Napa. Enter on Thompson Avenue.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners ( http://ucanr.org/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.