growing, eating, sharing

Cold season challenges - protecting citrus, hungry varmints, winter weeds.

Cold season challenges - protecting citrus, hungry varmints, winter weeds.

November continued this year’s pattern of record high and low temperatures in close proximity. I was surprised by the balmy temperatures when I returned from vacation mid Nov., and now we’ve had almost a week of freezing nights! These extremes are even harder on some plants than they are on people, citrus in particular. We are marginal for citrus in many parts of the county anyway, and when the plants do not have time to acclimate to colder temperatures, the damage can be more severe. We saw this last year, when there were 3 nights of 18 degrees in my area mid December, after a mild fall. We weren’t quite that cold last week, but it is 3 weeks earlier! I’ve seen some attempts to protect citrus trees recently that could not be very effective or actually do more hard than good. Plastic is not a good choice. It is only is helpful if it is supported over the leaves and branches to create an air bubble; when plastic touches the leaves it transmits the cold, often causing worse damage. And if you leave clear plastic up on a sunny day, it can create a mini greenhouse around the tree. Tarps or opaque plastic will block out the sun too, so need to be taken off and on. Same with blankets. The best choice I know of is “frost blanket” – a heavy weight version of floating row cover that you can put around the trees at first frost and leave on until last frost. It looks like a white mummy wrap; sunlight and some rain does go through it. Use clothes pins or ties to secure. Large outdoor umbrellas over the citrus can work too, but they need to be situated so the low winter sun still gets to most of the leaves, and secured so they don’t blow away. If your citrus does get frosted, DO NOT cut back the damaged parts until new growth starts in late March or April. Any fruit that is close to ripe now will probably still be usable, but may not hold well if it gets frosted.

I don’t have citrus in my garden, but I do have voles like never before, and they are eating the leaves of my lovely kohlrabi, parsley, and other winter greens! These mice-like rodents make runs too small for gopher traps, so I tried “black hole” traps with no success, and the mouse trap I put in the runway by one of the many holes, vanished. Sara says to cover the trap with a pot or box, so I’ll try that when I buy more traps. Sara’s seed garden has become the salad bar for local turkeys, and I’ve had rabbits, and even birds wipe out mature winter crops too. Each of these critters will take unique strategies of defense, and we often find the damage too late, since we are not in our gardens as often now. Of course, you could just decide to share….

Another challenge this year is the weeds, which got a jump-start with the early rains. The rains have been consistent enough so far that the soil has stayed too wet to hoe or till, so how to manage in places where you don’t want them to get established or too tall? It’s helpful to know your weeds – are they annual, perennial, fibrous-rooted, (eg. grasses), or tap rooted, (like wild radish)? Approaches can be different for each of these. But in general, alternatives to weeding in the winter are sheet mulching or mowing. A layer of cardboard or several sections of newspaper, plus a thick layer of mulch on top, can smother weeds that are just getting going now (or mow them low first). See the iGROW document, “Transforming Your Lawn Into a Food Garden” for details on this technique which is useful for more than turning a lawn into a food garden, (though that is good to do now too!). Some advantages of sheet mulching are that earthworms come up and start decomposing the weeds, creating more fertile, loose soil, and the soil will stay nice and moist when the rains stop. Mowing with a mower, weed whacker or hand sheers can be a good way to manage weeds too. The soil stays protected from rain and lots of organic matter is added by the plant roots as well as the clippings without having to haul in lots of mulch.

But all is not challenges in the garden now. If we’ve timed it well, our fall and winter crops are maturing and will hold nicely these crisp, moist, short days. The garden is an outdoor produce cooler, ready to provide dinner when we are ready, rather than demanding attention like the summer garden does. It’s nice to look out at this, knowing the garden is resting, so we can too.

Happy holidays to all!