It’s time for garden cleanup and a deep dive into bare-root beauties

Now is a good time to do a garden sweep to collect and put away tools.
Now is a good time to do a garden sweep to collect and put away tools and other items that migrate from their “homes” through the growing season.
(Getty Images)

Happy new year! What are your New Year’s resolutions? Here are mine: garden, garden and garden more.

Starting the new year is like planting a new seed. How tall will it grow? When will it produce? What color will it be? I’ve learned to be patient with plants and with time. As long there’s new growth, life will follow.

Kick off the year with a clean garden

  • Clean up and dispose of (don’t compost) leaves from deciduous fruit trees: peaches, plums, apples, etc.
  • Prune away dead branches on shrubs and trees.
  • Prune off dead flower stalks on perennials, flowering trees and flowering shrubs. Gardeners call this process “deadheading.” Compost the cuttings.
  • Do not prune away cold-damaged parts of plants. The damaged parts protect the rest of the plant from upcoming chill. Cut off those parts at the end of February.
  • Rake walkways and mulch under and around plants.
  • Turn your compost pile. You know that pile back in the corner of your property? It’s time to turn it over so the top leaves go to the bottom. Use the finished mulch in your garden.
  • Do a garden sweep to collect and put away tools, empty pots as well as bits and pieces that migrate from their “homes” through the growing season.
  • Coil hoses after each use. Always empty hoses after every use. Don’t store them pressured up with water inside.
  • Replace rubber hose washers located at the female ends of hoses. When they fail, you get sprayed from the end of the hose where it connects to a hose end sprayer or sprinkler. Your local hardware and big-box stores stock washers in sets — it’s always good to have extras on hand.
  • Clean, sharpen and oil pruners, shovels, hand trowels and other tools.
  • Clean up and organize your garden shed. Shelves, drawers and wall hooks help keep tools, fertilizers, hose nozzles, sprayers, twine, plant markers, etc., organized and easy to find. Fishing tackle boxes are great for organizing and storing irrigation parts.
  • 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 irrigation in its best working condition.

Fruiting trees and shrubs

Branch of peach tree
January is the time to shop for peach and other types of bare-root fruit trees.

Now is when nurseries are filled with bare-root fruit trees and shrubs. They have the biggest inventory and the largest selection. It’s time to shop for:

  • Stone fruits — nectarines, pluot, aprium, peaches, plums and more
  • Apples, pears and Asian pears
  • Pomegranates
  • Almonds
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Blueberries

Bare roots are young plants dug up and washed clean of soil. They look like scraggly sticks with a wad of roots at the base, but don’t worry, they are the best plants to grow.
Stone fruits, apples, pears and Asian pears are all grafted plants. That means they are two plants in one — the top (the scion), chosen for its delicious fruits, and the bottom (the rootstock), chosen for its adaptation to different types of soils, resistance to pests and diseases, ability to stimulate heavy production or reduce the mature size of the tree. Every tree has two labels — one has the name of the scion, the other the name of the rootstock. Choose the best combination of the two.

Match the scion (fruiting wood) and rootstock for your garden’s conditions and the tree size you prefer. Do your homework:

  • Find a spot in full sun (six hours or more per day) through the growing season. It can be shaded in winter when the plant is dormant.
  • Measure the area to determine how big a tree or shrub can fit there. Add three feet all around so you can access the tree to prune, spray and harvest.
  • Test the soil in the spot where you want to plant: Do a drainage test. Dig a hole 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep. Fill it with water and let it drain. Fill again and track how long the hole takes to drain. If water is gone in a few hours, that’s fast-draining soil. If water sits for a day or two (or longer), that’s slow-draining soil, aka “heavy” soil. The rest is in between. The rootstock needs to match the drainage.
  • Select chill varieties whose chill requirement fits your garden’s conditions. For gardens near the coast, select varieties that need 200 to 300 chill hours. Right along the coast, choose varieties that require 200 or fewer chill hours. Check each plant’s tag to find its chill hour rating.

How to plant a bare-root plant:

  • The nursery will wrap the plant roots in plastic so they don’t dry out. That’s critical, so plant on the same day you bring the bare roots home.
  • Dig a hole ahead of time to rough dimensions. Bring inline drip irrigation to the area so it is ready.
  • Remove the plant from the plastic and spread out the roots. Check the size of the planting hole. It should be wide enough for roots to fit without bending, folding or crunching and deep enough so that once the plant is in the ground, the soil line on the trunk or stem matches the level of the soil.
  • Notice where the color changes on the trunk — that’s the “dirt line,” from when the tree was planted in the field (it will be below the graft). Mark the dirt line with a marker so you don’t lose track.
  • Above the dirt line is a thickening along the trunk. That’s the graft, the point where the rootstock and the fruiting wood are grafted together.
  • Cut the main trunk of the tree to hip height. As hard as it may be, it’s the best way to encourage low branches for easy care and easy harvest. It also balances the size of the plant to the size of the root ball. Shorten side branches to one or two buds long.
  • Submerge the bare root in a bucket or trash can of water to cover the roots while you finish prepping the planting hole. The container should be big enough to accommodate the roots without bending or kinking them. Don’t leave the roots submerged for more than two hours.
  • Once the planting hole is the correct width and depth, toss in a few handfuls of worm castings but nothing else.
  • Fill the empty hole with water and let it drain. Then plant. Refill the hole with native soil only — no potting mix or compost. Water to settle the soil.
  • Make a watering moat a foot or two away from the trunk. Add two loops of inline drip, one eight or 10 inches from the trunk, and again a foot out from the first loop. You’ll add more loops as the tree grows.

Prune and spray established fruit trees:

  • Prune deciduous fruit trees to stimulate fruit production. Different kinds of fruits (peaches, plums, apples, etc.) grow on different parts of the branches, so each is pruned differently. If you prune them incorrectly, you risk cutting off the fruiting wood.
  • Learn how to prune from experienced gardeners or online information, or look for a good pruning book like my favorite, “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 should be sprayed three times before the trees start to flower in the spring. Follow all label directions.

Harvest citrus:

  • Winter is citrus time! Harvest kumquats, Washington navel, Oro Blanco grapefruits, pummelos, 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 bitter or sour, they’re not ripe. Taste is the best test for ripeness.

Nan Sterman is a garden designer and writer and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. For more information, visit and