Get Ready to Food Garden!
January 24 has passed. This date is important because, at Sonoma County's latitude, January 24 is the first day of the calendar year during which there is 10 or more hours of daylight. Gardeners who planted a fall food garden with crops that overwinter will see their crops mature. They will enjoy an early spring harvest of cool-weather crops such as broccoli, carrots, beets, kale, collards, spinach and cabbage. The garden is coming alive!
Longer sunny days begin warming the soil. It's a slow start in February but, by the end of this month, some Sonoma County gardeners will begin sowing their spring peas. A consideration when making early spring planting decisions is whether to transplant or direct seed. Keep in mind that cool-weather transplants will thrive in cooler soil (40-50 degrees) whereas seeds want warmer soil for germination. An inexpensive soil thermometer is helpful. If you have garden space in raised beds or containers, the soil will warm faster and drain better that an in-ground location. Depending on your particular microclimate and the amount of rainfall received (don't work the soil or plant when the soil is wet), you can transplant (t) or direct seed (d) asparagus (t), peas (d), bulb onions (t/d), arugula (t/d), bok choy (t/d), spinach (t/d), turnips (d), radishes (d), white potatoes (d), leeks (t), Swiss chard (t/d), lettuce (t/d) and rhubarb (t/d). See our Year-Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County publication for a twelve month schedule of planting windows for both cool- and warm-weather crops. A list of crop-specific articles for Sonoma County gardeners can be found on our website.
If you decide to wait until March to plant your spring food garden, use this time to prepare: clean debris, chop and drop your cover crop or lay a couple inches of compost on top of the soil to return nutrients to the soil, prepare a planting plan, buy or order seeds, build a cold frame, build structures for vining crops such as peas and/or cultivate a new bed. We hope that you are as excited as we are about spring being around the corner.
In the Garden
Fresh peas are delicious! Some varieties are vining while others are bush; some, such as snap peas, have edible pods; and some, such as snow peas, are grown specifically for the pod. Pay special attention to the days-to-maturity on the variety's seed packet or plant label relative to your planting date. Peas are cool-weather crops that should come to maturity before summer weather arrives. Learn more about the planting, cultivation and harvest of peas.
Turn Up the Flavor with Turnips
We can make you a fan of this much maligned vegetable by suggesting a Japanese variety of baby turnips. These sweet and juicy turnips mature in 35-50 days depending on the variety. The variety name will be Japanese ('Mikado,' 'Tokinashi' and 'Tokyo' to name a few). A great source of vitamin C, they can add some raw crunch to salads, or can be cooked.alone or in a medley of cool-weather veggies. Their delicious green tops are even more nutritious (consider using a row cover if they will be in the garden when aphids and their friends arrive). Read more about growing turnips.
December 21 was the winter solstice. However, in Sonoma County, frost often arrives before that. Be prepared! Place stakes around your citrus and "hoops" over your half-hardy (tolerates light, brief frost) winter vegetables (e.g., lettuce, peas, many Asian greens, cauliflower, kohlrabi, chard, etc). Have pre-cut/sized frost cloth, burlap or sheets ready to drape over these supports when frost is imminent as well as a method of securing them to the ground (irrigation staples work well if you don't mind putting a hole into the covering—or buy a hand-held grommet tool). Educate yourself about your own microclimate and what the various predictions from the weather service mean to your plants. Learn more.
Food Garden Specialists
Food Garden Specialists (FGS) are volunteers in the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County. They have a passion for and extra training in sustainable food gardening. In addition to offering food gardening workshops, they provide free advice and consultation services to community gardens throughout Sonoma County. Read more.
Food Garden Tips
February Food Garden Tasks and Tips
For what to grow this month, click here.
- Given the unpredictable nature of global warming's effect on our weather, consider conservation preparations for spring planting (prepare to plant only what you will consume or share, install drip in the food garden, add water-holding compost to the soil, plan to mulch, etc.).
- Continue to protect frost-tender citrus and crops on cold nights. If you use a tarp or sheet on evergreen plants, use stakes to make sure that covers do not touch the leaves. If you use lights as a heat source, do not use the new energy-saving LED strings as they do not generate enough heat. Pull the mulch back from the plant so that the soil can absorb solar energy during the day. Potted plants can be moved under shelter. Finally, make sure that plants are well-watered as the freezing temps will turn the water in the soil to ice, making some of it unavailable to the plants.
- Plant bare root fruit trees. If you planted trees last year, remove stakes over one-year old.
- If you haven’t already pruned dormant fruit trees, there is still time for most fruit trees. See UC’s guidance on pruning and training fruit trees.
- Spray fruit trees with dormant oil and copper after pruning and before buds start to open. Click here for a calendar of fruit tree tasks.
- Spray fixed copper to peach trees just before bud swell to control peach leaf curl and brown rot. The same spray will help prevent fire blight in apple and pear trees.
- It may be time to harvest citrus. Since it only ripens on the tree, sample one to determine its ripeness. If scale insects are present, spray citrus with volck or superior oil.
- Prepare pots, hanging baskets and other containers if they will be used for vegetables or herbs this spring; add fresh potting (not garden) soil. At a minimum, replace one-fourth of the soil each year and add a light balanced fertilizer following the manufacturer’s instructions. When you purchase seeds or transplants for pots, look for clues like “pixie,” “mini” or “patio” in the variety name.
- Start tomato and other warm-weather vegetable seeds indoors so that they’ll be ready to plant outside after the threat of frost has passed. While the last average frost date in Sonoma County is about April 15, this is a 30-year average. Most gardeners delay planting warm-weather vegetables until early- to mid-May.
- A few vegetables can be planted this month. However, vegetable garden soils should be moist, but not wet, and dry enough to crumble when pressed in your hand before preparing it for planting.
- As spring planting begins in earnest, select disease-resistant crop varieties (especially important in a small garden where crop rotation is difficult). The abbreviations on the tag are important (e.g., “VFN” means that a plant is resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt and Nematodes). Inspect crops regularly for early problem diagnosis and resolution. Refer to University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site.
- Incorporate information from the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site in your garden planning to avoid food garden problems. For example, when planning a food garden, consider that members of the same plant family are susceptible to the same diseases and pests—calling for crop rotation. Plants in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers) should be rotated as much as possible.
- If there is disease in your orchard or food garden, wipe or dip your pruners with alcohol (ethanol or isopropyl) or spray with a disinfectant spray after every cut so that you do not spread the infection.
- Fight critters with critters—build a bat or owl house. Bats eat moths like the ones that lay eggs on vegetables, eggs that turn into hungry caterpillars. Voles are a tasty treat for owls.
- Good soil = healthy plants. Top your soil with finished compost. This will improve soil nutrition and tilth and feed the beneficial microorganisms that help plants uptake nutrients in the soil. No need to work it in—let winter showers and soil “heaving” do that for you. In any event, do not work very wet soil. If you had serious problems in your food garden last year, a soil analysis may be helpful. Many local nurseries have kits for this purpose. The analysis will show levels of nitrogen (N) which encourages green growth, phosphorus (P) which stimulates root growth and potassium (K) which promotes flower bud and fruit growth. In addition to other nutrients, the test also measures pH (measure of acidity or alkalinity) which affects the availability of nutrients to plants.
- Know what pest you are fighting so that you can select effective pest management strategies. Check out University of California’s natural enemies gallery.
- Inspect crops regularly throughout their growing season for early problem diagnosis and resolution. Refer to University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site.
- Good cultural practices (i.e., the correct location, light, water, pruning, fertilizer, planting date) contribute to healthy plants. Sanitation is an important aspect of disease prevention. Clear garden debris and, then, clean and disinfect tools with Lysol or isopropyl or ethanol alcohol.