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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

Buds swelling, growth reawakening, pussy willows gathered

by Carolyn Singer
February 12, 2011

perennial onionThe one plant that seems to encompass all the mystery and excitement of early spring in the foothills is the pussy willow. And so it is that by early February I find myself keeping a watchful eye on the countless local stands. If I hesitate, the moment to gather branches may quickly pass.

Settling into a thriving existence in moist ravines, near a pond or creek, and even in low areas that hold moisture, the pussy willow is sensitive to the nuances of each microclimate. Even the lower branches on a large specimen may be ready to harvest long before the upper branches, simply because they are growing closer to the reflected heat from the road below, or perhaps even because the upper branches shelter the lower ones.

On a recent exploration of the Chicago Park area, there were pussy willow stands with many stages of growth, and my friend and I could keep searching until we found the perfect buds, tight but open, soft and beautiful. With permission from the homeowner, we gathered a plentiful supply. And in the process taught them not to put the cut branches in water. That would force them to continue growth, even leafing out and rooting.

Magnolia stellaIn my drier garden, the plant that looks the most like pussy willow at this late winter stage is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata, photo left) when the buds are swelling for next month's bloom.(photo, left)

I have been checking my garden carefully. Most plants are mature, carefully mulched with fall leaves and compost. The moisture in the soil is still sufficient despite several warm dry days these past two weeks. However, if you have plants that were new to the garden this past year, especially if they were fall-planted, irrigation may be necessary now for winter survival. Plants in containers dry out even more quickly and may need watering every four to five days until rain arrives again.

Bareroot planting and pruning continues. This past week the clay soil has been the perfect moisture content for deep digging and mixing compost and rock powders into the planting mix. A good test for moisture content is to squeeze a handful of clay soil. If it forms a ball, it's too wet to dig. If it crumbles, go ahead.

Soak bare roots before planting and then again once the plant is in the ground. If you are planting grapes bareroot, mulch heavily with straw after planting, covering as much of the main stem as possible. While even one-year-old roots have strong roots, dehydration of the young plant can stress it severely.

February rhubarbGreen of forming leaves (and even red of the stalks) is just beginning to show on the old rhubarb plants in my edible garden (photo, right). Each year I share a few starts, digging from the outer edge of the main root where it appears a new section has developed. Once the shovel is under the section, it breaks off easily from the main root. Remember to prepare planting holes deeply (rich compost, decomposed poultry, soft rock phosphate and oyster shell). Eighteen inches deep and wide should be minimal. The root section needs to be placed so that the crown is exposed to avoid rotting. Do not allow any mulch to cover the crown.

Another edible perennial that I divide in fall and even at this time of the year is an onion (photo above, top right) I started many years ago. Green scallions are cut from the plant, leaving the root to continue growth. Each year the clump widens (except, of course, the effect of sharing sections tends to reduce its size). I have not been able to find a seed source for this onion and it never blooms. Potent, tasty green onions are produced as early as February and continue with the cool spring weeks.

It's time to mulch fall-planted garlic to enrich the soil and protect the surface from compaction. I use decomposed straw mixed with poultry manure, prepared months ago with this crop in mind. And, as my friend Susan pointed out to me this past weekend, it's a great excuse for sitting in the sun as you pull a few weeds and spread the mulch around each beautiful young plant.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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