Garden Work- January in Northern California

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I always want to shout out to everyone- This is the time ! These are the moments to create everything you want in your garden for spring, right NOW ! What you do right now determines how your garden will do and look all year.

It is time to plant, and transplant new shrubs and bare root trees and roses. It’s also when balled and burlap conifers get shipped from Oregon and Washington. They are available right now in your nurseries. Think hard about how you want your garden to look this year. Are there plants you want to add ? Divide ? Is the winter form and structure pleasing in your garden ? Do you want more evergreens ? Are you happy with the shapes and heights of your plants ? Do you need help pruning ?

It’s time to cut back, prune, fruit trees, roses, all deciduous shrubs and trees. I’m planting and dividing perennials for spring and summer color and bloom. In our Northern California climate, growth usually begins in early February, seeds can be ordered for planting then. Mulching all the beds with a thick layer of compost ( amending the soil should be done at least once a year). I often put chips all over the perennial beds and this thick mulch, now too. Or if I have spring annuals in place mulch those beds too. Fruit trees benefit from a thick layer of compost, then chips just make sure the base is not covered. The compost helps decompose any fungus trapped in leaves on the ground. I also start putting out an organic all purpose fertilizer now. I like the California Organics 7-10-7 . I only need to apply it once a year because of all the compost I also add.
You might want to put in irrigation under the chips, so you don’t have to see the unsightly lines, that has to be done now too. If you’re really on top of it you can check irrigation, but I usually wait till March for that.

On our homestead, we do a lot of cleaning up with fires now. Areas where we fell trees for firewood, or trees just fell, can be handled easily this way.

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Climbing trees

When I was twenty I visited a garden and saw an older woman up in a large tree pruning. I vowed at that point to climb trees in my forties. Now that I’m mid- fifties, climbing bigger trees doesn’t feel so comfortable any more. I can’t believe I’m admitting this. Today pruning this twenty foot fig tree I’ve pruned for the last five years, getting up in the higher branches just didn’t seem like a good idea. I did most of it anyway.
I think it’s the first time in my thirty five years of gardening that I wondered why I never considered a desk job… That’s saying a lot isn’t it ? Maybe I just need to learn how to give over some tasks… But I can tell you gardeners, if you love it as an occupation now, you’ll love it even more as the years go on. Gardening has so much diversity and constant learning experiences . If you want to be challenged, it will do it.

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Rural farming

Rural farming

The economies of farming kept eluding me till I realize again and again that it’s not about financial returns, making lots of money, or what seems a fair wage for my hours. Instead it’s about quality of life, and a community alive . A community that lives for each other, with each other, not pitted in competition against each other. If one. Fails we all fail, shall be our motto. Maybe one might end up with more holdings than another, but not at the expense of the others. Money and wage does not define the life, instead ones respect and value within society . Are you well loved? 
Here in Italy, everything happens around the small town center. People visit and watch, young and old have a place. They support each other because they realize their inter-relatedness. The importance of all, encouraged by the diversity, not despairing in it. My grandmother used to say the world or god was like a large sun, all the rays different but all important to the whole. 
  Here they build their houses , very small apartments, close together, approx. five feet between, stories high. Keeping privacy with their shutters, but close to everything. The gardens are terraced up extreme,y steep hills in this coastal Chinque Terra  region. The wine grapes bent over trellis that shade the greens growing underneath. Olive trees planted on these steep slopes that have been producing the local oil for generations. A self sufficient area with fish, local vegetables, wine, oil and fruit. The meaning of life is satisfaction in great food, a lively community to share glories and tragedy, beautiful days in a beautiful place close to earth and god .

Apple Scab- winter work on orchards

This is the time of year that many things are done to achieve your garden goals for the following spring and summer Pruning , cutting back perennials and shrubs sets the garden for the coming growing season . Deciding on the sizes you want the elements in the garden to be is one way to look at pruning. It’s easier to access deciduous shrubs and trees when they are dormant,you can see the branching structure better. Look to where you cut them last year and how much growth they put on this year.Cut accordingly. Learning pruning is a lot about observation.

Transplanting and planting plants at this time is good as well,especially deciduous plants,shrubs,trees, even large roses can be moved. Really look at your garden as a whole, maybe even blur your vision to decide if you like the sizes things have become. You have the choice to prune shrubs whatever shape you want and they can live at. When you are learning pruning look at other peoples plants, shrubs and trees. Look at mature specimens. What size do you want to keep it? What size does it want to grow ? Even large plants can be kept small,but they will try to get to their normal size.Plant accordingly.

I’ve been doing a lot of research into apple and pear problems . Last year because it was so wet the apple scab really affected our trees, and others. This is a fungus which we are particularly susceptible to, living in a coastal environment. Fungus thrives in 50-80 degree weather, we typically rarely get higher or lower than these temps.

Preventative measures to take are to really clean up last years debris under the trees, for this carries the spores from the old leaves to the new leaves. So you rake, but look to see how much more there is to do to get it really clean, leaves not dropped or small dead apples. Then the best method to me seems to be a spray to start the tree off clean in the coming year. The more I research the more I think I’ll do a copper based spray at my house , mostly because I know my trees were infected last year and I think something serious needs to be done to clean them up. I’m going to spray an organically approved copper/ lime spray. With neem oil, another organic fungicide, but it’s also a spreader sticker( usually an oil which helps hold the spray on the tree even with some moisture). The spray needs to be timed to when the leaf shoot starts to come out. Then ten days ( five if it rains then) , and another ten days hopefully finishing with the petals off the new fruit. I want my trees to start off clean so I’m going to do one spray before that, early on in the next few weeks. Usually the trees should be pruned first before spraying, so it’s easier to spray, less to spray.

Because we are having such a warm, dry winter, we might have a very early bud break. Usually bud break is end of January for the earliest trees , early Feb. This will help keep the spores in check too, especially if it’s this dry ( I hope we get more rain soon though)

Spraying needs to be done on a dry day with no possibility of rain for 24 hours . Then sprayed on a sunny , windless, morning that’s when the plants stomatas are open and they will take in the most.

Why do I farm?

Last night eating a particularly wonderful fish chowder, fish caught by my daughter’s boyfriend, potatoes gently dug from under the plants, fresh purple onions, green garlic, parsnips (some of many currently), chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Then accompanied by one of our brick oven baked naturally leavened breads ( we baked 80 loaves yesterday), and followed by a slightly tart rhubarb pie ( none of those sissy strawberries). I think how rich my life is .

Then my husband pushed around some burn piles ( yes, it’s still raining and wet in California in June !) with his backhoe for our neighbors, and came home with some fresh salmon ! Yeah !

The abundance is arguably coupled with a lot of hard work, but I feel so proud when I look at those peas climbing up the trellis and the rows of growing veggies. But yes, my love of good food also motivates me. Thanks to all the good cooks I know who have inspired me.

As the garden here slightly matures and the very small plants I’ve put in as permanent or perennial shrubs and trees mature and fill out, it feels easier like some momentum has been gained. My roses, started from cuttings are beginning to cascade on the fence. The artichokes started from seed are producing quantities. The asparagus started from seed was harvested for the first time this year ( three years before the first harvest) . The rhubarb is getting to be a big plot, helped out by lot’s of compost and did you know rhubarb love LOT”S of water ? Some of the fruit trees have quite a few fruits on them and are starting to look like trees !

Sharing this with others, getting invited to come see my 90 yr. old neighbor’s boyfriends garden who sends us over glorious cauliflower, while we drop off bread.
Feeling a sense of community and tradition. As my great and wise girlfriend who grew up on a dairy farm told me , “school was never the most important thing”. It was the family, the farm, being a part of that, having an identity in what a farm really means to a community. Farming is a passive revolution. Bringing back rural America and collaboration instead of isolation as our material world has fostered. Interdependency , compassion, neighborliness, sharing, all these things are why I farm.

Thinning fruit trees

When I took a fruit tree pruning workshop last fall, the organic commercial growers there described their maintenance regime. One thing they emphasized, was thinning fruit about 6-8 weeks after bloom when the fruit is very small . Thinning down to one per cluster.

This produces larger fruit that they believe are much more marketable. Also that it creates less stress to the tree than a huge bumper crop. Thereby making it more likely the tree will produce every year instead of a huge crop one year, then skipping a year the next.
For all of you with fruit trees May/ June is the time to thin here. It might already have passed this opportune time for you.