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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

February in the garden
Only the weather is unpredictable

by Carolyn Singer
February 11, 2012

CA native alderMidwinter just doesn't seem like the right description for this February. Yet, with the time I have been spending in my garden, I am certainly aware that all the natural plant rhythms I expect this month are occurring as they have for the many years I have lived on Sonntag Hill near Peardale.

I appreciate having warm hands as I tend to the pruning of my fruit trees and berries. Beginning with the fruits that will have the earliest flowering or growth, the peaches, nectarines, cherries and cane berries, each plant is lovingly tended.

It's a good time to renew the mulch of decomposing wheat or oat straw. Even if the straw you brought in last year is not "ready", conserving moisture is critically important this dry winter. Earthworm activity as the soil warms in the months ahead will hasten decomposition.

As I prune, I think of local orchardists who mentored me long before I taught others. The first was Paul Leutenaker in one of his Chicago Park orchards. Patiently explaining how each tree fruited, I could see the trees through his experienced eyes. Understanding the fruiting habit of each tree guides pruning.

A few years later I had the honor of spending time in Bill Ilgner's beloved orchard on the San Juan Ridge. While he was overly concerned when I climbed his fruit ladder, his devotion to the trees and the soil made a lasting impression. As did safety on ladders.

For weeks last month and into the early part of February, the native alder (Alnus rhombifolia, photo, above right) has been in bloom, a hum of honeybee activity on the warmer days. I sat on the bench under this lovely tree often, just to immerse myself in their song. Now the tiny cones are forming, a glowing rose-pink as they greet a new growing season.

bear's-foot helleboreUnder the alder, the bear's-foot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus, photo, left) is now in full bloom. Chartreuse buds open to flowers of the same hue, echoing the foliage color of the nearby golden feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium 'Aureum'). This hellebore is the first to open of this broad range of winter-blooming evergreen perennials. And the deer do not eat any of them! Flowers of the various species are long-lasting, some showy for as long as three months.

violet rootsThis week I have been transplanting violets. With a strong taproot, the violet is quite drought-tolerant. I'm always surprised to see dry areas where plants establish. Even when the violet is in full bloom, transplanting to a new site is possible. Follow the rules of good transplanting. Use a fork to preserve as much of the root system as possible. Irrigate deeply right after planting and again in a few days if no significant rain occurs.

Winter protection is still necessary for young vegetable seedlings. Cloches have been traditional in some European countries. I've had good success with this method of February and March protection of vegetables I want to get started early, particularly greens. However, a warm day can damage the tender young starts quickly, so pay attention! Jute staples may be used to tilt the cloches, allowing cooler air to enter.

cloche The most commonly asked question for the past month has been about pruning roses. I advised one reader who had emailed me that she should go ahead and pick one last bouquet, then prune. Roses blooming in January and February? They certainly did not last year! While the rhythms of the garden are largely predictable, there are exceptions that delight us each year and in every month. That is the beauty of gardening in the foothills.

©2012 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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