As the Earth’s axial gyrations point our hemisphere farthest from the reaches of warming solar rays, winter is formally upon us. The winter landscape is now deep in slumber, while all life upon it seems to ponder in its dormancy.
Cultures vary in their interpretation of the Winter Solstice, but for many it is a celebration of rebirth. Gardeners, in particular, view the shortest day of the year with a half-full mentality. For us, the spring renewal has already commenced.
It’s imperceptible to most, but a keener eye will notice the beginnings of new growth in humble preparation for its display of unabashed flamboyance in just a few short months.
As the redirection of the Earth’s tilt is mirrored in the incremental lengthening of each and every day, we can turn our thoughts to the season ahead. Plant life is indeed at rest but nature works her magic in two simultaneous and predictable cycles, one born from the other. The forthcoming garden treasures of spring are only possible through the gestative alchemy of winter.
Winter processes are actually initiated in our typically warmest months — August and September — when the majority of perennials and companion plants have begun hardening off in preparation for the onset of winter. This process is, at least in part, a photoperiodic response; that is, a reaction to the changes in the days length.
Late summer/early fall is the time when most flowering trees and shrubs set their flower buds for the future. If, by chance, plants do not finish the hardening process and extreme cold temperatures occur, flower and fruit production can be detrimentally affected for the following season.
January is the gardener’s time to lend a helping hand to assure nature’s ways are best directed in the favor of our own leanings for the months ahead. The soil is ground zero, so no better place to start; the content and quality of your soil is the single largest determinant for gardening success.
Any soil upgrade begins by adding amendments. The best amendment for any type of soil is organic matter; decomposing, organic matter that releases nutrients absorbed by soil-dwelling microorganisms and bacteria. This by-product called humus binds with soil particles.
If you have clay soil, it forces the tightly packed particles apart to improve drainage. In sandy soil, it lodges in the large pore spaces and acts as a sponge to slow drainage and increase soil moisture. Rice hulls, bagged compost, cocoa bean hulls, mushroom compost and different manure sources are several possible organic amendment choices; sawdust and wood chips (untreated) can be added to the mix.
January and February application in the garden and raised beds will allow ample time for your garden soil to be renewed. If you are planning new beds for the coming season they, too, should be amended prior to planting.
Now it’s time to proceed ground upwards in your January to-do checklist:
Purchase and plant bare-root stock if your soil has been prepared. Nurseries carry an abundance of choices for the next two to three months.
Roses, several types of berries, fruit trees, grapes, and flowering trees are available now. Additionally, there are several types of vines, asparagus plants, artichokes and rhubarb. If you need more time to prepare your area prior to planting, protect/pack your new plants in sawdust or damp peat moss until you can place them in the ground or container.
Plant bulbs. Whether you’ve chilled them yourself or purchased from a nursery, crocus, hyacinth and tulips can now be planted in amended soil. New growth will emerge in a month or two.
Start vegetable seeds such as eggplant, melons, peppers and tomatoes indoors, for a later transplant outdoors when the weather warms up.
If you’re anxious for garden color and don’t want to wait, nurseries offer cool season flowers such as pansies, primroses, English daisies, snapdragons and alyssum, to name a few.
Pruning — perhaps the most important task of the gardener for the month of January. It’s vital to prune fruit trees and roses prior to new growth showing itself. If pruning is delayed, particularly with fruit trees that are already showing emerging leaves, they can ill afford to lose new foliage from a late paring down. Other deciduous plants that benefit from pruning are hydrangeas, grapes and kiwi, along with any woody shrubs. All these plants profit from a healthier and thicker shape in the new season.
There are two basic techniques used in general pruning. Thinning cuts are the first that remove entire branches, and heading cuts that shorten and stimulate the production of new growth. Commence with thinning cuts followed by selective heading cuts, starting from the bottom up and from the interior to the exterior of the plant.
Pruning fruit trees however, is an art unto itself. Whether preparing a very young fruit tree, a mature fruit tree, or an older, neglected tree, the goal is the same; pruning encourages spurs and forces new growth. If you are unsure of what to do, I strongly recommend investing in a book on pruning and/or watching pruning instruction classes found online. It’s well worth the effort knowing that an abundance of fresh fruit is your reward for proper care.
January is an excellent month for pruning hybrid tea roses. If you’re a lover of this particular type of rose, as I am, remember that they bloom only on new wood. Getting an early start and cutting back between 1/3 and ½, leaving canes at least 18 inches long insures multiple blooms two to three times from Spring to Fall.
I also perform mini pruning throughout the season by keeping dead and puny growth cut away, keeping the center of the plant clear and trimming any branches that may be crossing others. A pruning class I attended given by the Santa Barbara Rose Society, recommended a total of 5-8 of the strongest branches remain at the core of the plant, thus insuring a healthy and balanced bush.
I find that roses are one of the hardiest and most rewarding of all the plants I grow, not to mention one of the most beautiful.
Seasons come and go, but the lines between one to the next are rich in the subtleties of transition, when one perceives the grander cycles of creation. For myself, the dank and cold of winter is preparatory for new life in grateful anticipation of spring in all of its glorious splendor.
“No winter lasts forever, so spring skips its turn.” — Hal Borland