Cool time to work the soil in your February garden? While it’s still damp
It’s been a rainy winter, but soon the air will warm and the soil will dry out. Take advantage of still-damp soils in February to get ornamental plants established now. Watch for signs of growth throughout the garden.
- With days still cool, the soil damp and the sun still low in the sky, plants don’t need much water unless we have a freak heatwave or a very long dry spell. In that case, run each irrigation zone once, then monitor the soil’s moisture and watch the weather to see when the plants need watering again.
- Check your irrigation controller to make sure all the zones are set for winter conditions with a rain shutoff. If irrigation runs more than once a week this month, that’s too often.
- Before the heat and dry air of spring and summer arrive, update your irrigation system to in-line drip — flexible tubing with emitters embedded inside those lines. These systems are most efficient, easiest to maintain and wet your garden beds evenly, just like rainfall.
- Empty dishes under potted plants. When pots stand in water, the soil becomes overly saturated, the roots rot and the plants die.
- Has the rainwater that filled bioswales and dry stream beds percolated into the soil? That “banked” water will support plants well into the warmer, drier months.
Drop in temperatures
- Though most of our gardens don’t experience hard freezes (except in the mountains), we can get weather that’s cold enough to damage plants. Find your community’s average last frost date on this map: wp.me/a9gAWp-tz.
- Leave frost cloth in place until the end of the month.
- Don’t cut off cold-damaged leaves and stem•s just yet. They may look sad, but they protect the rest of the plant until the last chance of cold passes, typically around the end of the month along the coast, in early March inland and late March in the mountains.
This is a great time to plant:
• Bare-root roses, which are plentiful in nurseries now
• Seeds for spring flowers, such as flowering sweet peas, California poppies, prickly poppy, farewell to spring and tidy tips
• Wildflower seeds. Be sure the mix specifies “California wildflowers.” Most of the generic wildflower seed mixes on the market are not seeds native to California, and some of the seeds are for plants that are invasive in our region.
• Flowering shrubs from other regions, like Grevillea from Australia. Look for new, bright red flowering varieties “Spirit of Anzac” and “King’s Celebration” or tried-and-true varieties such as pale yellow-flowered “Moonlight” or watermelon-pink “Long John.”
• Foliage plants including Dianella, whose upright blades look like a cross between a grass and an iris. Plant the blue-leaved varieties like “Cassa Blue” (18 inches tall and wide), “King Alfred” (2 feet tall and wide) and “Clarity Blue” (also 2 feet tall and wide) into a perennial bed or use as a foundation plant. These beauties take full sun and part shade and require little irrigation.
• Trees and large shrubs to help sequester carbon dioxide, one of the major atmospheric greenhouse gases. The larger the plant, the more leaves and the more carbon it can sequester.
- Have in-line drip irrigation in place before you plant anything new.
- As you drive through the county or hike on local trails, check out early spring-blooming natives such as manzanita and California lilac. Want to know which ones they are? Check out the iNaturalist app for your phone. This is the best app for identifying plants in our gardens and in the wild.
- When planting natives, succulents and other drought-tolerant plants, don’t amend the planting holes. You can throw in a few handfuls of worm castings, but nothing else.
- Always mulch after planting: rock mulch for succulents, chunky wood mulch for all other ornamental plants, and straw in vegetable beds.
- Prune deciduous flowering shrubs, trees and perennials up until flower buds swell, but do not prune off flower buds. If you remove the flower buds, the plants won’t flower or fruit this year.
- Prune and spray dormant in-ground and potted roses. There’s no reason to prune roses to the ground in our mild climate. The more, healthy branches, the more flowers. Just remove the weak and diseased branches as well as those that point to the center or rub against others. Give the plant a nice shape, then stop pruning.
- Has your palm suddenly collapsed in the center? That’s the result of deadly, invasive South American palm weevils. By the time the infection is obvious, the palm is in terminal decline. If you see or have an infected palm, report it to cisr.ucr.edu/invasive-species/palmarum-survey and have the palm removed.
- Plant the last round of cool-weather crops: cauliflower, rapini and their relative cabbage family plants, as well as Napa cabbage, bok choy and other “greens.” Harvest these crops by the time the weather warms.
- To plant tiny seeds of carrots, turnips and radishes, make a mix of one part seeds with five or more parts coarse construction sand, then broadcast over the garden bed. Distributing seeds this way ensures they’ll need minimal thinning once they sprout.
- Plant onion “sets” (young onion plants) and “seed” potatoes (small potatoes or small pieces of potato).
- Plant fava beans, pole beans and bush beans.
- If you planted a cover crop in your vegetable beds, cut it down this month. Leave the roots in place. Stems and leaves go into compost, or layer them on your garden beds to decompose in place.
- Buy seeds for spring/summer vegetables, herbs and flowers. Wait until March to plant them.
Fruiting trees, shrubs, vines and perennials
• Bare-root fruit trees such as peaches, pluots, almonds, apples, persimmons and more
• Bare-root pomegranate and fig trees, hops, artichoke and strawberry plants
• Young Southern highbush blueberry plants. These varieties are specially bred to thrive in our gardens’ hot, sunny, dry, alkaline conditions.
Shopping for bare-root grapevines? As you consider varieties, think about:
• Whether you prefer table grapes, raisin grapes or wine grapes. (Many wine and raisin grapes are delicious fresh, too.)
• Seeded or seedless
• Which varieties are best suited to your region, sun and soil
• Having a strong structure in place before planting. Grapevines grow to be very heavy. Plant them alongside a fence, sturdy trellis, pergola, patio cover, etc.
• Plant only green grapes to cover a patio or pergola; red and purple grapes stain patios, sidewalks and outdoor furniture when they fall (which is inevitable).
- Prune existing grapevines. Cut vines back, leaving just one or two side branches (called “laterals”). Shorten each side branch to just one or two “nodes,” which look like joints but are actually scars from fallen leaves. The nodes will sprout new branches to bear this summer’s crop.
- Harvest citrus now, including limes, kumquats, mandarins, grapefruits, lemons, tangelos and navel oranges. Citrus are ripe when they taste ripe; don’t rely on their color to tell you when they are ready to eat.
- Start fertilizing citrus and avocado with organic citrus and avocado food. Granulated fertilizers are easiest to use, but liquids work just as well. Follow label directions.
- Finish pruning and spraying deciduous fruit trees such as peaches, pluots, apples, pears, persimmon, etc., before you notice buds swell and leaves peak out.
- Once deciduous fruit trees show signs of life, feed them with fruit tree fertilizer. Granular or liquid organic formulations are best. Always follow label directions.
- Keep up with weeds. Hoe them, smother them with mulch, yank them out.
- Weeds are frustrating, but here’s what not to use to kill weeds: bleach, salt, salt water, oil, gasoline, any kind of petroleum product, household disinfectant, Epsom salts. All these products destroy your garden soil. Some are long-term toxins, too.
Nan Sterman is a garden designer and writer and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. For more information, visit agrowingpassion.com and waterwisegardener.com. ◆
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