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Get Your Green On

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Everyone should have friends who live someplace like Minnesota or, even better, the Dakotas. Talking to my friend in Minnesota puts the season called winter into perspective. My friend, Shirley, is always cheerful when I call despite the fact that she has just dug a six-foot tunnel to her car and has had to bring the pet chickens, Tangerine and Mimosa, into the laundry room so they don’t freeze to death. As for the Dakotas, well, I don’t understand how they bear their winters. When the pioneers came rolling along and ‘ol Zeke jumped out of his wagon, didn’t his wife think to say, “Honey-Bunny, look at that sign”? Why would someone settle in a place with a big billboard saying “Welcome to the Badlands”? But then, Zeke was a stubborn man and not one to follow his wife’s advice to keep traveling west to beautiful Bakersfield. So they dug in and made do with taking Rufus, the pet buffalo, in for the winter.

But I digress. Back to the here and now. We are so spoiled living in our comparably temperate zone, that after a few weeks of chilly-willy days, anxiety starts setting in. Will the sun ever come out? When will the fog burn off? We want to get out from under our electric blankies and garden! Unfortunately, this is a case that proves haste makes waste. I actually heard someone talking about planting tomato seedlings recently. As I was rolling on the floor clutching my heart, rasping, “What are you, nuts?” I think I influenced him to abstain. (I also feel those neighborhood betting pools on who can grow the first tomato have gotten way out of hand.)

Please don’t sow seeds or plant most (hothouse grown) seedlings (tomatoes, that means you) in the ground until after Valentine’s Day. It’s not the air (ambient) temperature that counts; it’s the soil temperature. Most seeds and seedlings will not thrive in cold, wet soil. They’ll glumly sit there and most likely will rot. An exception is leafy greens. So, if you can’t wait, plan on lots of salads. In fact, “salad” seeds should be planted now! All kinds of lettuces, spinach, radishes, parsley, green onions, sugar snaps, and snow peas can be sown. Try to stagger the plantings or you’ll end up with one enormous crop at once. You can’t imagine how tired of stir fry you can get.

Spray deciduous fruit trees with a dormant oil spray. It should be applied prior to bud break. A copper fungicide, or lime sulphur, is sprayed on peaches and nectarines to control brown rot and peach leaf curl. Remember, do not use sulphur on apricot or walnut trees. Actually, I have used copper fungicide on my apricot tree and nothing horrible happened so I’m at a loss as to why the big no-no, but stay on the safe side.

This is bare root season! Plant centers and nurseries are full of perennials wrapped in plastic without soil. This not only keeps the cost down but allows far more choices. Roses, grapes, pomegranates, asparagus, strawberries, fruit, nut, and shade trees can all be purchased for about 1/3 the price of those same plants potted. Try something new you’ve never grown before; what have you got to lose, maybe a few dollars?

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How to plant bare-root perennials

• Using wire cutters, cut the wire closing at the top and slit open the plastic. Remove the organic packing material (usually wood sawdust chips) and discard. Soak the roots in a bucket of water for 1/2 hour.

• Dig a hole about twice as wide as the root system. Then, make a cone of soil in the center to support the roots.

• Set the plant on the cone of soil and spread the roots evenly. Fill the hole with soil so that the crown of the plant is level with or slightly above the soil and water well. Easy-peasey, isn’t it?

Even though our Bakersfield winters are generally quite benign, there’s always a chance of a big freeze (does December of 1990 ring a bell?). My personal opinion of trying to protect plants is mixed. As you know I’m basically a sink or swim type of gardener. But yes, I’ve done all the water-jugging, plant-coverings, plastic tunneling, blah, blah, blah. Some of my plants have survived heavy freezes remarkably well. Others (the wimps) have bit the dust. Every year is different and each area of my yard, as yours, has its own microclimate.

Just as there are gardeners anxious to start planting tomatoes now, there are overzealous neat freaks jumping the gun and yanking out seemingly dead plants that are merely slow to wake up. One year I thought my prized pink calla lilies had frozen. There was no sign of life and just solid dirt. I kept sprinkling water in the area and around the end of February little green spikes started perking up. Then the leaves started unfurling like great fans. Before I knew it, I had enough gorgeous pink spathes (flower bracts) to give to a friend for her wedding bouquet. It’s a lovely and true story but there’s a flip side. A number of plants will seem to survive, even blooming in spring but then will eventually die because of internal freeze damage. I’ve lost Bougainvillea and Daphne this way. If you want to know if the plant is dead, the color black is your sign. Cut off the tips of branches that have turned black but only cut back to the green. If flower stems are black and mush, cut them all the way to the ground. Don’t prune spring-flowering plants until they bloom.

They say the month of January can be compared to an iceberg—very little can be seen in the garden above the surface, but below there’s a lot going on! Roots are growing and absorbing nutrients so keep watering. Turn on the automatic sprinklers before a hard freeze is announced to keep the lines from freezing. Lack of water in the winter is one of the main reasons for lack of fruit in the summer and a reason for insect damage to trees.

Even in the dead of winter there are plenty of chores to do in one’s garden. As for Mrs. P, I’m what’s known as a fair weather gardener. I’ll be thinking of all of you as I lie about in Maui. Gotta go now. The little pink umbrella just fell out of my glass. Happy 2012!

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Article appeared in our 28-5 Issue - December 2011