Start turning garden dreams into reality with these January tasks

While you envision fruit trees and pick out bare root plants to put in your yard, continue to harvest greens as needed.
While you envision fruit trees and pick out bare root plants to put in your yard, continue to harvest greens as needed, and plant carrots, beets, turnips and radishes.
(Getty Images)

New years bring new opportunities in life and in the life of your garden. What will you do this year? Plant a vegetable garden? Add fruit trees? You can create the landscape of your dreams.

When there’s rain, be sure your irrigation system is on pause. There’s no need to water when the soil is already saturated. Leave the water off until the soil is dry at least to your second knuckle when you stick your finger into the soil.

Treat newly planted water-wise gardens the same way. For established water-wise gardens, wait until the soil is dry about 4 inches deep.

If there’s been no rain, continue irrigating on a reduced winter schedule.

Fruiting trees and shrubs

In January, the new crop of bare root fruit trees, vines and shrubs arrives in the nursery. They look like scraggly sticks with a wad of roots at the base, but they are the best way to buy deciduous fruiting plants (the ones that drop their leaves for winter).

This is the best time to shop for:

  • Stone fruits — plums, peaches, nectarines, pluots, etc.
  • Apples and pears
  • Blueberries
  • Almonds
  • Figs
  • Grapes
Now is the ideal time to buy stone fruit trees, such as plum trees.
(Getty Images)

How to select the best fruiting plant for your garden:

  • Know your garden’s soil and chill hours
  • Plant low-chill varieties whose chill requirement fits your garden’s conditions. For coastal and desert gardens, the best plants require 200 to 300 chill hours. Right along the coast, choose varieties that require 200 or fewer chill hours. For inland gardens, look for varieties rated for no more than 500 chill hours. Check each plant’s tag to find its chill hour rating.
  • Roots should be pliable, not too tangled and not circling the base of the plant.
  • Find your favorite fruit grafted onto a rootstock that best suits your garden’s soil.
  • In the nursery, the ideal trees have low branches; ideal vines have several nodes (they look like joints); ideal shrub branches form a vase shape.

How to plant a bare root plant:

  • It’s best to plant the day you take the plants home.
  • Spread out the roots. Notice where the color changes on the trunk — that’s the “dirt line” from when the tree was planted in the field. Mark the dirt line with a marking pen so you don’t lose track.
  • Above the dirt line is a thickening along the trunk. That’s the graft, where rootstock and the fruiting wood are grafted together.
  • Dig the planting hole wide enough for roots to fit without bending, folding or crunching. Dig the hole deep enough to match the dirt line to the level of the soil.
  • Toss in a few handfuls of worm castings and some organic fruit tree fertilizer (follow label directions for how much to use) into the hole.
  • Fill the empty hole with water and let it drain out first; then plant. Refill the hole with native soil only — no potting mix, no compost. Water to settle the soil.
  • Prune fruit trees right away. As hard as it may be, it’s the best way to encourage low branches that make fruit easy to reach and the tree easy to care for. It also balances the size of the plant to the size of the roots. Cut the main trunk back to just 24 or 30 inches tall. Prune back the side branches to one or two buds.

Prune and spray established fruit trees:

  • Pruning deciduous fruit trees stimulates fruit production. Different kinds of fruits (peaches, plums, apples, etc.) have their own way of being pruned. If you prune them incorrectly, you can cut off the fruiting wood. Do your homework online or look for a good pruning book like “How to Prune Fruit Trees” by R. Sanford Martin.
  • Spray dormant fruit trees now to prevent leaf curl, fire blight, downy mildew, aphids, scale and other issues in spring and summer. Use Liqui-Cop or Daconil along with horticultural oil. Each product has its own schedule of application, so follow all label directions.

Harvest citrus:

  • Winter is citrus time. Harvest kumquats, Washington navel, oro blanco grapefruit, Eureka lemons, limes and more as they ripen.
  • Color does not indicate ripeness when it comes to citrus. If your oranges are orange but taste sour, they aren’t ripe. Taste is the best test for ripeness.

    Even if the oranges on your tree have turned color, they may not be ripe yet. Taste one to determine whether it's ready.
    Even if the oranges on your tree have turned color, they may not be ripe yet. Taste one to determine whether it’s ready. If your oranges taste sour, they aren’t ready.
    (Getty Images)

Vegetable garden

  • Harvest lettuce, spinach, kale, chard and other greens leaf by leaf as you need them. There’s no reason to cut the entire head at once.
  • Feed brassicas — broccoli, cauliflower, etc. — with all-purpose vegetable fertilizer.
  • Watch for aphids. Shoot them with a hard spray of water. That’s all it takes.
  • Keep an eye out for holes and ragged edges in brassica leaves. Those are tell-tale signs of tiny green worms. Treat the plants with Bt, an organic pesticide specifically for worms and mosquito larvae. It kills caterpillars, too, so keep it away from passion vines, parsley, dill, fennel, milkweed and other plants that attract butterflies.
  • For a long-term harvest, let some parsley, dill and cilantro go to seed. The seeds make the next generation.
  • Pick beans and peas as they ripen.
  • Continue to harvest and plant from seed carrots, beets, turnips and radishes.
  • Plant deciduous trees on the south side of your property so they shade the house in the heat of summer but let the sun in to warm the house in winter.
  • Match the ultimate size of the tree to the space available. Don’t think you’ll keep it smaller by pruning. That’s not a reasonable expectation (except for fruit trees).
  • If you are planting near structures, sidewalks or driveways, stick with trees that don’t have a reputation for destructive roots or surface roots. Do your homework before you plant.
  • Start small. A 5- or 15-gallon tree will grow faster and stronger than one in a larger container.
  • Check the roots. Reject trees with exposed, tangled or massively circling roots, etc.
  • Plant properly. Set the tree at the same level it was in the container. Loosen up the root ball. Do not amend the planting hole.
  • Water consistently. Unless it rains, new trees, like all newly planted plants, need to be kept damp (not wet) through their first year or two in the ground. Then cut back on water.
  • Shape it early. Set the structure and branching pattern with early pruning done by a licensed arborist.

Ornamental plants

All native and non-native drought-tolerant plants are best planted now in the cool (and maybe wet) weather.

  • Plant large trees on the south and west sides of your home for future shade. Be careful to keep the tree far enough from the house, sidewalks, etc. to avoid issues with destructive roots. Water deeply at planting, then often enough to keep the roots damp, especially if we don’t get much rain this winter.
  • Add beautiful flowering shrubs to your garden: Grevillea from Australia, conebush from South Africa, native Ceanothus (California lilac), native lemonade berry.

    A honeybee collects pollen from blue Ceanothus flowers (California lilac).
    (Getty Images)

  • Don’t prune off plant parts damaged by cold. Leave the damaged parts to protect the rest of the plant from future freezes this winter. By the first of February (along the coast), March (coastal valleys and the desert), April (inland) or May (in the mountains), you can cut away the damage.
  • Leave leaves. Leaves in garden beds are good. Leaves from ornamental plants (not fruit trees) keep weeds from sprouting, hold the water in the soil and keep soil warm in winter and cool in summer. They also recycle nutrients back into the plants. Rake pathways and patios, but everywhere else, leave the leaves.
  • Check your mulch. Is there a 2- or 3-inch layer over all garden beds? Leave some empty dirt for native bees, but keep your plants mulched.
  • Check your irrigation system for leaks, kinks, etc. Open the ends of drip lines and run the system a few minutes to flush, or install auto-flush valves. Run overhead spray to see that heads are aimed correctly, heads are working and so on. Do this every few months to keep your irrigation in the best working condition.
  • Check potted plants to make sure they are damp but not too wet. Some succulents don’t want to be watered in winter, so do your homework. For the rest, the goal is damp, not wet, potting soil. Mulch with small gravel to help hold the moisture in and keep critters out.
  • Prune roses back by a third and remove any lingering leaves. Send away leftover leaves, petals, rosehips and pruned-off branches in the green waste. Plant bare root roses as they come into the nursery.


Heating houses dries out the air, and that’s hard on many houseplants. So give your plants a spa day — in the bathroom. Fill the tub with a few inches of water. Prop your houseplants on top of empty plant pots (upside down) or other “props” set in the tub. Allow the houseplants to enjoy the humidity but not sit in water. Leave them for a day or so.

Have your pothos vines grown very long and leggy? Encourage side branches by cutting back long stems to a branching point.

Check houseplants for aphids, mealy bugs or scale. Use a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to kill the critters.

Nan Sterman is a water-wise garden designer and writer and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. More information is at and