Is it Spring Yet?
Food gardeners are itching to get out in the garden. Our success in the Spring garden will be boosted by being prepared. The month of January is the perfect time to plan the Spring food garden. Our "Year-Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County" publication is organized by planting windows and gives us a great overview of our Spring opportunities in the Sonoma County garden. Many of us will be planting our peas at the end of February which is just around the corner.
One of the joys of growing our own food is to harvest an expensive grocery store produce item or an exotic variety for only the cost of a seed packet. On a rainy day, visit your local nursery to peruse the crop varieties, or snuggle down with your favorite seed catalog. Buying from a seed company that propagates seeds in similar growing conditions (i.e., northern California or nearby) is a good bet. You can find these companies listed on our "Vegetable Seed Sources" publication. Our challenge to you is to grow one new-to-you crop or variety this spring.
And, don't stop at purchasing seed. Buy a notebook and draw a simple planting plan (later you will record, in the notebook, what you plant, days-to-maturity, how well it does and what tastes best—a great resource for future harvesting and planning). Know the days-to-maturity/harvest and the mature height of your selected crop varieties as well as their root depth and water needs to get the most out of spring planting. Intercropping involves planting crops together that will not compete for space, light or nutrition. Tall plants should be located on the north side of the garden so as not to block sun from shorter crops (unless a crop needs some mid-day sun protection in later Spring). Small fast-maturing crops (radishes and Japanese variety turnips, for example) can be planted among longer maturing crops. They will be harvested before others grow tall, and their shallow root systems won't be an issue. Many root crops are happy companions to greens. Shorter crops such as leaf lettuce and spinach can be planted near the base of taller or vining crops such as peas. It's just like deciding where your children will sit at a restaurant table—who "plays nice" with each other?
If the weather is not too wet, you can start readying or expanding your garden beds (never work wet soil). Minimum soil disturbance has lots of positive benefits. But if you are cultivating a new area with heavy clay or sand or it is compacted or filled with rocks or tree roots, you may need to do some serious digging to remove obstacles and/or to incorporate significant amounts of compost to improve the soil. If you didn't plant a cover crop on existing beds, add 2-3 inches of compost to the top of your soil to return nutrients removed by previous crops. There is no need to work it in. If you have conditions where the compost could be washed away by rain or blown by wind, add organic mulch to the top of the compost to protect it (also, 3 to 4 inches of mulch will retard weed growth).
Don't be fooled by our rainy winter. Our long, hot summer will be here before you know it. Before our gardens become intensively planted, it's a good time to add a drip system. Its the most efficient way to apply water to your crops. Master Gardener Electra de Peyster prepared a wonderful step-by-step guide that includes photos and a shopping list. Note that not all irrigation supplies are the same size or quality and may not be interchangeable. For not much more cost, purchase your supplies at a local irrigation or farm supply store. You don't have to be a landscape designer to shop there or to get great advice/assistance.
And, don't forget that January is a great time to plant citrus and bare root fruit trees and berries. Bare root is an economical way to start or expand a home orchard. When selecting fruit tree varieties, consider your Sonoma County microclimate and the "chill days" required by various fruit crops/varieties (stone and pome fruit trees rely on enough dormant winter chilling for flowers and leaf buds to develop normally which, in turn, affects fruit set and quality). For more information, consult your local nursery or see the The California Backyard Orchard.
In the Garden
If the soil is not too wet, you can plant asparagus crowns this month through March. A separate bed is a good choice as asparagus is long-lived, doesn't like competition and has spreading roots and specific cultural requirements. Growing asparagus is simple, but requires patience. You will not harvest the first year, and the harvest will be light the second year. But you will be rewarded with up to 15 years of delicious produce.
December 21 is 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.
Cold Frame Lettuce
We have less tasks in the garden during the winter season. There is more time to tackle projects like building a cold frame so that you can get a jump start on spring food gardening. Master Gardener Sara Malone shares her experience with building a cold frame and growing lettuce.
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
January Food Garden Tasks and Tips
For what to grow this month, click here.
- Dormant pruning of fruit trees can be done from the beginning of leaf fall up to bloom. See UC guidance on pruning and training fruit trees. Little or no pruning of citrus is required but prune out any crossing, broken or shaded out branches from the interior of the tree.
- Early January is a good time to apply the second application of dormant spray to fruit trees during the dormancy season. Wait for a period of dry days to spray trees. Spray after the trees have dried out, and long enough before predicted rain for the sprayed trees to have dried—longer if possible.
- Spray fixed copper to peach and nectarine trees after leaves have fallen to control peach leaf curl and brown rot.
- Spray fruit trees with organic and vegetable oil-based dormant oil. The oil smothers overwintering insect eggs and pests.
- It is too early to plant most cool weather crops. Instead, enjoy a rainy day looking through seed catalogs to select crop varieties with “days of maturity” (DTM) that suit your microclimate. As always, err on the conservative side and consider drought-tolerant varieties and those with short DTM. Check the date stamped on the package of any seeds left over from last year. Many seeds are good for at least three years if stored properly, but some, such as onion, parsley and parsnip, lose viability after one year. You can check your seeds for viability: see seed-viability test.
- Prepare a garden plan that includes what to plant, where to plant and when to start seed indoors and/or set out transplants. Plan to place crops with similar water needs near each other. New gardeners should keep it simple: start with transplants unless it is a crop that is recommended for direct seeding in the garden. The experienced gardener will want to make the most of garden space by planning for succession planting, companion planting and intercropping.
- When planning your spring garden, implement water-wise practices. See the “Food Gardening with Less Water” page and video prepared by the Food Gardening Specialists.
- Buy a calendar to record planting and, based on DTM, harvest dates. Make notes as to your successes/favorites and failures. If you kept a record last year, use it in your garden planning decisions.
- If you only have space for a small vegetable bed, modify your garden plan to include edibles in your ornamental beds.
- Plant bare root fruit trees.
- Protect frost-tender plants 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. Remove plastic or heavy covers during the day; frost cloth may stay in place on cold days. If you use lights as a heat source, note that the new energy-saving LED light strings do not generate enough heat. Pull mulch away from the plant so that soil can absorb heat during sunny days. Potted plants can be moved under shelter. Finally, make sure that citrus is well-watered as the freezing temps will turn the water in the soil to ice, making some of it unavailable to the plants. Also, the temperature above moist soil is warmer than the temperature above dry soil.
- 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.
- 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.
- Inspect crops regularly throughout their growing season for early problem diagnosis and resolution. Refer to University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site.
- Know what pest you are fighting so that you can select effective pest management strategies. Check out University of California’s natural enemies gallery.
- 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 isopropyl or ethanol alcohol.