Garden dreaming, planning and pruning.
Garden dreaming, planning and pruning.
Happy New Year! With so much rain in December, my gardening was limited to picking greens, broccoli and an occasional kohlrabi. But the ferocious winds the other day blanketed my garden with leaves from the adjacent liquidamber tree. I was grateful that the following day was dry so I could get in and spend a couple of hours in my garden. In addition to picking up those leaves, the asparagus tops needed cutting back, and other old, dead leaves were providing homes for dozens of slugs. But where to stop? The soil is still totally saturated, so I took care not to step in the beds, and since more rain is on the way, so I decided not to clean up more than I had mulch, (in this case a stash of old composted goat manure and straw), to put on any soil left bare. It’s always a debate on how much to clean up and prune back and when. The old bloom stalks of many perennials provide homes for beneficial insects over winter, so you might want to wait to cut back lavenders, monardas, goldenrod, etc., until new growth is about to begin late February or March. And although old leaves can harbor slugs, they also are decomposing and protecting the soil from heavy rain, so I use Sluggo and put out traps, (great use of leftover wine or beer from parties), and let some lie.
But I’m excited to have another reason to work outside this month – pruning fruit trees! After so many days inside, when it’s dry enough that branches are not damp and the ground is firm, I love being out in the cool air working with trees. For many years I was intimidated about pruning fruit trees and don’t consider myself an expert now. But I understand enough to feel a communion with the trees, a sculpting with wood and light to guide each tree to a strong, productive and healthy structure. The dormant season – when leaves are off the trees – is when most people prune, but trees which have reached mature size or are larger than desired can benefit from “summer” pruning as well. Dormant pruning increases the vigor of the tree, so if it is too big already and you want to bring it down, pruning hard in winter can lead to vigorous shoots, creating dense shade and defeating your goal, making pruning the following year even more work. Managing growth spring through mid summer can be the best way to assure that the tree is putting it’s energy where you want it – and saving yours in the long run. But winter pruning is a lot easier as you can see the shape better, plus there’s not much else we can do in the garden on a nice day in winter, and there’s plenty else to do in spring and summer! So if you have a tree that is taller than you want, make a couple of big cuts each winter for a few years and do some additional pruning in early summer.
So what kind of gardening year will 2011 be? No one knows, but our recent experiences and the experts say that we should expect more weather extremes. I’ve been reading a new book by a very experienced gardener who recommends planning for the most extreme highs and lows, latest and earliest frost dates, and both very wet and very dry spells. In the vegetable garden, this means using several planting dates and several varieties of any one crop, to hedge your bets. If we have a dry spring and you plant all your tomatoes mid April, only to have a killing frost May first, you’ve lost your crop for the year. But if you just plant your ‘Stupice’ and some cherry tomatoes in April and wait to plant the main crops in May, you might be able to cover the early plantings to protect them and be eating tomatoes by Fourth of July, with the main crops still coming in August and September. In late winter, you could plant both 65 day and 80 day broccoli varieties, so if it gets hot in May at least you will have gotten a crop from the early plants, and if it’s cold like last summer was you could have broccoli all summer. Hedging your bets with more varieties and planting dates means more planning and record keeping – which gives you something to do now! Take advantage of these cold, wet days to peruse seed catalogs to learn varieties and to develop your own planting calendar, (use the iGROW Planting and Maintenance chart as a guide), and record keeping system (including location in the garden, variety, planting date, first harvest, last harvest and comments).
There are techniques of soil preparation that will help cope with weather extremes too, but we can get into these later. Meanwhile, it’s not too late to sheet mulch any areas you might want to plant in the future, giving you another outdoor project for a brisk day!
Happy dreaming of your beautiful and productive 2011 garden!