Happy new year! What a different year it is, with more rain than we’ve seen in a very long time. And fall was cold; no problems with winter dormancy in fruit tree or other deciduous plants this year. This is definitely not gardening weather. When soil is completely saturated, as it is now, it compacts and erodes very easily. I’m very glad that I got a good mulch, (old livestock bedding), on most of my empty garden beds and over the garlic, asparagus bed, etc. When it does dry out a bit I will add more mulch to areas where crops have been harvested. It makes all the difference in soil health to have either growing plants or an organic layer of protection in a winter like this one, versus bare soil.
The bitter cold of the last few weeks took a toll on some plants. In the coldest parts of the region, even plants that normally are winter hardy here, such as parsley and chard, did not make it. And citrus, which had been doing better in the last few warm years, could have frost damage this year. It’s best to not prune off any damaged parts of these plants soon. Wait until early spring, when new growth begins and there is little chance of frost, to determine what is really dead and should be pruned off.
If another freeze is predicted, cover your citrus and other sensitive plants with the frost covers sold in garden centers, a few layers of “floating row cover”, or old sheets or light-weight blankets, (not plastic). If branches are not strong enough to hold up under the weight of the covers, add supports such as tomato cages or stakes. It’s very important to not let any cover, (or bird netting), stay on the plant too long if it is bending down branches. The branches will take on the shape that they are being held in and it can be hard to get them to grow upright again.
This is the season for garden dreaming and planning! I got a seed catalog in the mail last week and enjoyed the pleasure of sitting on the couch and paging through it. As useful as the internet is, I love the process of turning pages and seeing the photos and information even about things I was not searching for. It’s fun for me to do research this time of year too. I like to go into the season with a plant list and time line, but to also stay open to new ideas, and of course, to be flexible on timing with the weather.
It is also the season that bare root fruit trees, berries, roses and other plants that are dormant this time of year, are offered at garden centers. If you want to plant any of these this year, this is the time to buy them. Potted trees later in the season will cost a lot more and they will not get established as well as a young trees planted bare root. The problem is that it is too wet to plant in the ground now, and will be for a while. The solution is to “heel in” the trees or other plants in a temporary planting until conditions are good for planting in the ground. An empty veg bed often works well because the soil is looser and drains well. If it looks like the trees will need to be held into March, it might be good shade the trees somehow so they stay cool and dormant.
What’s important is that all the roots be covered with soil (or soil mix, but not rich compost), and that soil comes to the same level on the trunk that the soil was at in the nursery. There should be a subtle color change on the trunk, on the root stock part, that indicates where the soil came to in the nursery. If the trees end up being heeled in a long time and the soil is not at that level, that important color indicator can fade.
The trees don’t have to be straight up and they can even be lying on top of each other with roots intertwined, as long as there are not air pockets around the roots when you put soil around them.
In between storms in the last few weeks I was able to get started on winter fruit tree pruning. I’m pretty adamant about not doing this when the wood is wet, as it can spread diseases, is not good for tools, and can be dangerous (slippery). The best pruning conditions are when wood is dry and should stay dry for at least a few days after pruning, so cuts can heal over a bit. Pruning has become one of my favorite tasks, but it took me a long time to feel confident, and I am always learning more. It is both an art and a science, and the many styles and approaches to pruning can be confusing. If you want to learn more, there are workshops being offered at garden centers, by Master Gardeners and others. Check newspaper listings, (eg. Press Democrat and Gazette).
Remember that pruning deciduous trees when they are dormant will result in vigorous new growth, (if trees are healthy). If you want to reduce the height of a tree, summer pruning is often needed as well.
Stay warm and dry!