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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

Iris unguicularis blooms Dec.-Jan.January in the Garden
It's bareroot season and time to prune!

by Carolyn Singer
January 16, 2010

On a walk in Empire Park a week ago I discovered some pussy willows. Protection from a nearby slope and the perfect sun exposure, combined with cold air draining into a creek canyon yards below, and this plant was at least a month ahead of others in the region or at the same elevation. This is what a warm microclimate can do.

However, most plants are still dormant. In your edible garden, January is the month to plant bare root fruit trees, berries, grapes, rhubarb, asparagus, and any other offerings from local nurseries. Plant with abandon between rain and snow storms.

If you purchase bareroot stock, but cannot get it planted before the next rains, heal the plants into some light, well-decomposed compost. I use last year's compost, plus some chipped yard waste. Label the plants where they are being held so you know where to find them if they are buried. Asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish may easily disappear in a compost pile.

Helleborus orientalisIn the ornamental garden, hellebores (Helleborus) are in bloom at the lower elevations and in warmer microclimates. My own garden at 2650-foot elevation is colder than many Nevada County gardens, but the hellebores are always blooming by the end of January.

First to open is the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), with large (2-4 inches wide) attractive flowers that should be viewed closeup to appreciate their distinctive structure and markings. Some are greenish, and others cream, rose, pink, and even purplish. Each flower is long-lasting and interesting even as it fades. This perennial does well in shade.

Helleborus corsicusThe blue-green leaves of Corsican hellebore (Helleborus corsicus) are a strong addition to the ornamental winter border. Clusters of pale-green flowers add a lovely contrast to the leaves. This hellebore is the most sun tolerant of all the hellebores, but a bit of shade from the hot afternoon summer sun is advisable.

Helleborus foetidus (bear's-foot or "stinky" hellebore) also has outstanding foliage for Helleborus foetiduswinter interest. Don't be put off by the common name: the bad odor is apparent only if the plant leaves are crushed.

Hellebores self-sow and the seed needs stratification before germination occurs. This determines how and when you mulch. If your plants have been in place for a year or more, renew the mulch just before seed pods open. At that time you can check the soil around the mature plants for young seedlings from last year's seed.

The stratification or cold treatment of the seed is taking place right now, in the cold winter months. When you renew the mulch, work carefully around or move the seedlings. The mulch must be in place before this year's seeds fall to the ground. Seed that is covered may not germinate.

Begin your pruning now too. Sharpen the shears and loppers before you start. If you have lots of fruit trees, begin with the earliest bloomers first, and always prune when the wood is dry. This is also the time to paint trunks with white water-based paint whether you have just planted them or they have been in your home orchard for a few years. Renew this coat of paint whenever it needs it to prevent sunscald. The intense sun in the foothills can do a lot of damage! Once bark cracks, it provides a point of entry for disease and insects.

Helleborus corsicusAnd you thought January might be a quiet time in the garden? Well, it is, but there is still lots to do between rain and snow storms. Happy winter gardening!

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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