Stewart is the author of The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms and From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden. She is the garden columnist for the North Coast Journal and she writes regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers and magazines. Visit her online at AmyStewart.com.
I have to confess that I was ready for a break from the garden when winter hit. It's too muddy to pull weeds. There's no point wondering what to plant in the big empty spot by the rose bushes. And it won't be time to start seeds for another month or two. I can use a little time to regroup before the mad dash of spring gardening begins.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing going on outside this time of year. A few minor tune-ups outdoors will keep things going through the wet weather. Here are some suggestions:
Path Preparation. Refresh garden paths and prevent weed growth by piling on the shredded bark, rice straw, or gravel.
Plant Protection. Protect tender plants from frost on cold, clear evenings. Use sheets or plastic tarps to shield plants, but be sure to stake them so the covering doesn't stick to the plant when the temperatures drop.
Befriend the Birds. Keep bird feeders filled and offer a source of water, preferably running water in the form of a fountain or trickling garden hose
Keep Planting. Now is the time to plant bareroot roses, fruit trees, asparagus, and artichokes.
Remember to Prune. Prune flowering perennials and roses if you have not done so already. For roses, eliminate thin canes coming out of the ground and cut back so that canes do not cross. For perennials, be careful not to eliminate new growth. Salvia, for instance, should only be cut back once new shoots appear.
Feed Your Flowers. Feed flowering camellias and rhododendrons a fertilizer for acid-loving plants. They will also appreciate coffee grounds, which add nitrogen and are slightly acidic.
Harvest Hint. Harvest cool-weather greens like mâche, arugula, kale, and spinach.
Holiday Recycling Idea. Recycle your Christmas tree and greenery through a curbside program, or rent a chipper/shredder with the neighbors and make enough mulch to share.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Speaking of mulch, there's never a bad time to pile on compost, shredded leaves, and bark or aged manure. It'll help hold the soil in place and suppress weeds.
Keep Snails In Check. There are pet-safe snail baits on the market like Sluggo and Escar-Go, but I still like to pitch them into the street and let them die in traffic. Nothing beats a good snail toss on a cold winter morning. Another friend takes the plastic bag that her newspaper comes in and fills it with snails each morning, then dumps the bag in the garbage. To each her own.
When it comes to the garden, I'm a Luddite. I resent the intrusion of technology into a sphere of my life that is otherwise so uncluttered, so slow-paced, and so low-tech. Nothing in my garden moves at the speed of light except for light itself, and I'd like to keep it that way. I've never put a timer on my drip system; I'd rather just go outside and turn on the faucet when the ground looks dry. I've never bought a garden reference book on CD-ROM because you can't read them in the bathtub.
That's probably why I am a latecomer to the world of blogs (short for "web logs"), the online diaries that allow anyone with access to a computer to sound off about politics, popular culture, or what's growing in their garden. I've been getting to know the fabulous women at "You Grow Girl", chatting with Erica, who rails against oxalis from Houston Garden Spot, and marveling at the photographs posted at "O is for Orchids.
Spraying Season. Now is the time to spray roses and fruit trees with dormant oil to kill those soft-bodied insects like scale that love to overwinter.
Frost Frenzy. If your garden has experienced any frost damage (look for blackened leaves and branches), leave them alone until spring. You're better off pruning away frost damage after new spring growth has begun.
Seed Starting. In warm-weather areas, it's time to start seeds indoors for summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. Make sure they have a strong light source and consider using a heating mat to keep soil at a consistently warm temperature. If you live in a cool coastal area, peruse the seed catalogs but wait until next month to get them started.
Winter Flower Power. In frost-free areas, set out pansies, primrose, and Icelandic poppies to brighten up grey days.
Preparing Plants for Bloom. Bring branches of cherry, forsythia, quince or star magnolia indoors and force them into bloom by smashing the ends with a hammer and putting them in a deep vase.
Bulb Tip. Feed spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils as they start to emerge. Your nursery will have a good stock of bulb food, or bone meal will do the trick.
Fill In Bald Spots. Sow grass seed in bare patches in the lawn.
Harvest Time. Harvest kale, early spring lettuce, and herbs like parsley, chives, and fennel. If you cellared any potatoes, now is the time for potato-leek soup with a little kale and chopped herbs stirred in at the last minute. Delicious and satisfying!
My garden's been sadly neglected this spring. I did the bare minimum amount of pruning and mulching before the winter rain set in, the vegetable beds got a cover crop too late to do them any good, and my seed table is filled, not with seed trays, but with unopened mail. It's a sad state of affairs, but I've got a good excuse, and I ask your indulgence while I share it with you: my new book, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, has just been published by Algonquin Books. Since January, I've been traveling around with my worms, speaking at nurseries, garden clubs, and bookstores. This month I'll be in southern California; I hope you'll drop by one of the following events and say hello. For a complete events listing, please visit: AmyStewart.com
Worm Composting Workshop March 25, 2004 7:00 p.m.
1418 Descanso Dr
La Cañada, CA 91011
Reading & Book Signing
March 30, 2004 12:00 Noon
695 E. Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91101
Radiant Roses. Give the roses their first feeding of the year. The old rose growers around here (it's the roses that are old, not the growers) prefer an inexpensive dose of alfalfa pellets and Epson salt.
Caring For Fruit Trees and Vines. Feed citrus trees and berry vines with a fertilizer formulated just for them; they have unique micronutrient needs. I like the Fruit Trees Alive! fertilizer from Gardens Alive.
Eco-Friendly Fertilizer. As long as you're stocking up on fertilizer, get some acid-loving fertilizer for your rhododendrons, camellias, hydrangeas, and azaleas.
Avoid Blight. Gather fallen camellia blossoms to prevent the spread of camellia petal blight.
Potato Planting. Plant potatoes now to enjoy your first harvest in July. In cooler coastal areas, it's time to start seeds of summer vegetables like tomato and pepper.
Cover Crop. Cover crops like vetch, rye, or fava should be cut down with a string trimmer or tilled under about four weeks before planting time.
Beautiful Bulbs. Plant summer-blooming bulbs like gladiolus and calla lilies.
Pruning Practice. Prune last year's growth off the bougainvillea to encourage it to bloom on new wood.
Seedling Care. Set out seedlings of cosmos, bachelor button, snapdragon, and stock.
This spring, I'm making a shift in my approach to the garden: I'm going to accept the climate I have, rather than fight it. What does that mean? It means I'll plant what works and let the farmer's market supply me with the rest.
I'm too close to the ocean to grow beefy heirloom tomatoes. Sure, I'll plant a cherry tomato like Sungold or Peacevine, but even they will need a little extra pampering: this year I'm going to try these generously-proportioned
Weed, Weed, Weed. Now is the time to get on top of young weed seedlings before they take over.
Planting Time. In warmer parts of Zone 9, plant tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-loving vegetables. (The rest of us should wait another month.)
Bulb Tip. After spring bulbs bloom, let the leaves wither on the plant. It will help next year's flowers to form. Catmint (Nepeta faassenii) blooms all summer and hides fading bulb foliage; you can now find it in blue, pink, and white.
Go Wild With Summer Flowers. Now is the time to plant larkspur, cosmos, bachelor button, marigold, and sunflowers. If you are still prone to chilly, windy days this time of year, consider floating row covers or plastic cloches to keep the chill off. I also use plastic soda bottles with the bottoms cut off to protect tender seedlings this time of year.
Get Ready to Prune. Prune hydrangeas and fuchsias after they stop blooming.
Fruit Thinning. If your fruit trees are developing fruit right now, thin the fruit when it is about as big around as a marble. This will encourage larger fruit and a better harvest in the fall.
Mix It Up. Turn the compost pile and see what you've got after a winter of adding kitchen scraps and fallen leaves. There should be some dark, crumbly compost in the pile to add to young vegetable seedlings or to side-dress shrubs just coming into bloom.
Ah, it's May at last. The garden is starting to take shape: daisies and coreopsis are in bloom, sweet peas are climbing the trellis, and even the vegetable garden is starting to look like something. As much as I love the way my own garden comes together in May, there is no place I'd rather be this time of year than in the Pacific Northwest. Portland and Seattle are a gardener's paradise right now: rhododendrons and azaleas are in full swing, roses are blooming, and the wisteria—ah, there is wisteria everywhere.
Acid-Loving Plants. This is the time to give a little extra love to your acid-loving plants. Feed blueberries, camellias, and azaleas a dose of organic fertilizer that is specially formulated for acid soil.
Prepare to Prune. While you're at it, prune these spring-flowering shrubs now or never—they'll start to form next year's buds pretty soon and it'll be too late.
Maintain Soil Moisture. Water in the evening as needed, and mulch heavily to help retain moisture in the soil.
Veggie Garden Tip. If you garden in a very cool coastal area, you might have waited until now to plant summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and squash. Go the extra mile to provide them the warmth they need: Gardeners Supply Company has several season-extenders, like tomato teepees to protect them from unexpected blasts of cold wind and rain.
Keep An Eye Out For Aphids. Plant small-flowered annuals like tansy and alyssum to attract predator ladybugs, and if the aphids seem to be getting the upper hand, spray a mixture of dish soap and water wherever they appear.
Flower Power. Plant annual flowers like salvia, marigold, zinnia, sunflower, and cosmos.
Harvest Time. Harvest asparagus, peas, and spring lettuce.
I'm pretty excited about the new fertilizers coming on the market that are enriched with soil-building microbes. Whitney Farm's Life Link is one such example—this new line of fertilizers is specially formulated to include beneficial bacteria and fungi that support plant life. Consider the fact that a handful of soil can contain millions of microscopic creatures, not to mention the mites, spiders, ants, and—last but certainly not least—earthworms that live underground and participate in the endless renewal of the soil. I like the idea of adding an extra dose of these beneficial microbes every time I fertilize the garden.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Speaking of soil, keep a thick layer of mulch around water-thirsty plants to preserve soil moisture. Water deeply once or twice a week to encourage healthy root growth.
Weed Watch. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds—it's important to get them before they bloom.
Mix It Up. Turn the compost pile and make sure it's slightly damp.
Don't Forget To Deadhead. Deadhead spent flowers on cosmos, sunflower, and dahlias, as well as any other flowering plants.
Pay Attention To Fruit Trees This Month. Thin young fruit so that there is about four inches between the remaining fruit, and pick up all the fruit that drops to the ground to prevent the spread of disease.
Pruning Tip. When your wisteria finishes blooming, cut back rampant growth and keep the vine pruned to a shape that suits you.
Lawn Care. Water your lawn for about twenty to thirty minutes twice per week, preferably in the evenings. Set the blade on your mower high—a slightly taller lawn will conserve water better.
Stay On Top of Snails. You can handpick them or use a pet-safe iron phosphate snail bait.
Befriend The Birds. Offer a supply of clean, fresh water to the birds that may be nesting or foraging for food in your garden. They'll reward you by staying around to help eradicate pests.
Planting Herbs. Continue to plant basil, cilantro, and dill so you'll have enough herbs to enjoy into fall. Pinch back flowers to encourage bushier growth.
Summer Veggies. In cooler areas, there's still time to plant summer vegetables like tomatoes, pole beans, squash, and eggplant. Sturdy seedlings in four-inch pots are probably your best bet; be sure to work in plenty of well-aged compost to get them off to a good start.
Here in northern California, the first heirloom tomatoes make it to market in July. This is the time for enjoying the fruits of your labor—run out to the garden for a few basil leaves, serve just-picked green beans alongside almost everything, and fill every vase in the house with sunflowers. Savor the season!
Need to set up a quick drip system while you're on vacation? Check out Gardener's Supply Company's new Big Drippa. These water-filled pouches allow moisture to drip slowly into the soil without any connection to a faucet or hose. They vaguely resemble IV bags; I can just imagine some gardener, recovering from surgery, anxious to get back to the garden, getting inspired from the slow and steady IV drip. No matter how it came about, it's a brilliant idea.
Don't Forget To Deadhead. Continue to deadhead flowering perennials, and cut back shaggy growth on catmint, alyssum, lobelia, and anything else that's looking tired. It'll renew itself in time for another bloom in fall.
Revive Your Plants At The Roots. Water at the root zone to prevent evaporation. In particular, avoid spraying the leaves of vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber, and squash, which are vulnerable to powdery mildew.
Beautiful Bulbs. Allow summer-flowering bulbs to keep their green foliage. A meticulous gardener at a local winery braids the leaves of each bulb when the flowers die back. Is that taking it too far? It's your garden; you decide.
Start Your Sprouts. It may be hard to think about winter right now, but if you start some Brussels sprouts from seed this month, you'll be glad you did come Thanksgiving.
Harvest Time. Potatoes planted in March are probably ready to be harvested now. Just wait until the tops have bloomed, then dig. I plant potatoes in loose, rich soil and just use my hands to brush the dirt aside and pull out the goods. To cellar potatoes for later, layer them in a box of shredded paper or straw and store in a cool, dark cellar or garage.
Time To Divide The Irises. Just cut off the healthy rhizomes with leaves attached, throw away the center part that is not producing leaves, and re-plant.
There's something about August that feels like the end of summer to me. Maybe it's a holdover from school days, when August meant the winding down of summer vacation. But in fact, for most Zone 9 gardeners, August falls right in the middle of the garden season. Warm afternoons stretch late into fall, and flowers don't start to fade until October.
Deadhead and Mulch. Don't let your garden go to seed just yet. Keep deadheading and mulching, make sure you're watering deeply, and if you like to plant annuals, keep them coming!
Flower Power. Set out a fresh crop of snapdragons, zinnia, bachelor button, cosmos, and sunflower. In cool-season areas, look for calendula, Iceland poppy, and stock.
Watering Tip. Give trees and large shrubs a long, deep soaking once a week.
Tame Your Plants. Cut back catmint, ornamental oregano, and other low-growing perennials that start to look shaggy this time of year. You'll get a fresh bloom before winter.
Beautiful Bulbs. Look for fall-blooming bulbs like crocus in the nursery, and place your order now for spring bulbs. The best selection—and the best price—is often available if you order early.
Keep The Vegetable Garden Upright. Tie sprawling vines, especially tomatoes, to their supports, and prune green leafy sucker growth to increase air circulation. Consider donating surplus produce to a homeless shelter or food bank.
Prevent Rotting Crops. Place a little rice straw or dried leaves under pumpkins and winter squash to prevent rot as they ripen.
The Artistry of Raising Artichoke. Artichokes can be cut down to the ground to encourage a second crop, or the last few buds can be left on the stalk to open into magnificent blue thistles.
Sow Sweet Peas For Fall Blooms. Pre-soak seeds for 12 hours in water before planting to speed up germination.
Weed Watch. Stay on top of weeds, and in particular focus on those that are blooming. If you attack them now, you can prevent them from setting seed.
This time of year, perennials can start to get overgrown, and some annuals are past their prime and ready to be yanked out. Your compost bin may already be full, and you might be wondering what you'll do with that growing pile of trimmings out back.
This year, consider renting a chipper/shredder with your neighbors and having a neighborhood mulch party. Give everyone plenty of notice so they can stockpile their trimmings, and pick a day well in advance of the onset of fall rains. That way you can chip your yard waste while it's dry and easy to run through the machine. I use the results of my periodic chipping sprees to top off the compost pile, and I also spread it directly on the ground as mulch in the perennial borders. In dry weather, a nice thick pile of mulch goes a long way towards conserving moisture and suppressing weeds.
Think Ahead To Winter. Planting primroses, alyssum, and Icelandic poppies now will give the garden some color when it needs it the most.
Planting Veggies. Plant cool-weather vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beets, and turnips.
Hydrangea Help. Cut back hydrangeas as they finish blooming.
Citrus Tip. Feed citrus trees a well-balanced, organic fertilizer designed just for them.
Lawn Care. As the days get shorter, cut back on the amount of time you spend watering your lawn. Five to fifteen minutes, three times a week, is often sufficient for Zone 9 gardeners.
Prepare for Planting. Start planning for Halloween and fill containers with colorful orange and red annuals. I particularly like the orange and near-black pansies and violas that are available this time of year.
Harvest Onions As They Mature. Lay the bulbs out in the sun to cure. The outer skins and green tops should dry up before you take them to a cool, dry place for storage. I layer mine in a box of rice straw and store them in the tool shed.
Sow Sweet Pea Seeds For Winter Blooms. Soak them overnight before planting them to soften the tough outer seed coating. Sweet peas appreciate bone meal and fish emulsion; in cooler climates you can enjoy them year-round if you plant a few every month.
Could you use a friendly, carefree filler like catmint or feverfew anywhere? What about a fall-blooming salvia to add color late in the season? Or a sunny display of daffodils around the doorstep? This is the right time of year to plant spring-blooming bulbs and perennials, so while you're deadheading the daisies and harvesting the pumpkins, take a minute to look around for empty spots in the garden.
Water well, add plenty of well-aged compost, and start planting. Sadly, nursery stock tends to diminish as the season wears on, so hunt for good finds while you can. Remember that many perennials, including thyme, yarrow, and veronica, can be easily divided.
Planting Preparation. Plant penstemon, lavender, rosemary, salvia, and other blooming shrubs now.
Lawn Care. Cut back on lawn watering as the days get shorter and the winter rains begin. Reseed bare patches.
Wildflower Power. Scatter native wildflower seeds; rake in lightly and water evenly to ensure germination
Plant Your Veggies. Plant cool-season vegetable crops like kale, spinach, and corn salad (mâche). In mild winter areas, parsley does well all winter and provides a bright tangy addition to soups and pasta.
Hungry Hydrangeas. Feed azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, and hydrangea. Look for a good organic fertilizer for acid-loving plants. Try to choose something with relatively low nitrogen content to encourage the formation of young buds for spring. (When you see a designation like 1-2-2 on fertilizer, the first number is nitrogen.)
Is Your Camellia Forming Buds? If so, encourage bigger blooms by picking off buds so that each stem has just one bud.
Turn The Compost Pile. Now, before the winter rains begin, might be a good time to scoop out any compost at the bottom of the pile and spread it around your flowerbeds.
Floral Beauties. Japanese anemone are often on sale this time of year in the shady plant section of the nursery. They spread quickly and divide easily in fall. Just dig up a clump and shake it gently. It will probably fall apart or separate into sections that are easy to pull out. The flowers—usually pink or white daisy-shaped flowers—are well worth it.
As winter settles in, you may be tempted to tidy up the garden and strip it down to its bare bones. But there are some advantages to waiting. Consider:
Pruning Preparation. Wait to prune perennials, like penstemon and salvia that bloom on new wood. Pruning too early, before next year's grown has begun to emerge, can do the plant more harm than good. Also, don't think of pruning as a massive, one-weekend chore. Instead, stroll through the garden regularly with a pair of pruning shears. I cut shrubs back a little at a time, and often just snap the trimmings into small pieces and drop them on the ground as I stroll.
Befriend the Birds. Leave the last few seedheads—think cosmos, sunflower, and even artichoke—for the birds. The food source, and the extra places to perch, will be appreciated.
Fiendish Frost. Frost can harm tender new growth. I like to leave my perennial borders a little crowded, a little shaggy, so that the frost doesn't reach the young shoots at the base of plants.
Planting Schedule. Continue to plant daffodil, tulip, and ranunculus, as well as other spring bulbs.
Flower Arranging. Look for greenery and red berries in the garden for fall flower arrangements.
Do Your Vegetable Beds Need A Rest? Sow a cover crop. Fava, vetch, and rye will help loosen soil, smother weeds, prevent erosion, and add much-needed nitrogen and organic biomass to the soil. (Your earthworm population will thank you, too!)
Wilt and Mildew Prevention. Check spent vegetable plants for powdery mildew, wilt, or spots of any kind before adding them to the compost pile. If you suspect disease, throw them in the garbage instead.
Clear Weeds One Last Time. Once it starts raining, you can further compact clay soils by continuing to weed. After this month, it will be best to leave weeds alone until the soil dries.
Seed Starting. Start paperwhite narcissus, hyacinth, or amaryllis indoors for indoor holiday blooms. Consider planting a few now to give as gifts.
Snail Surveillance. Watch out for snails in wet weather. I like the new, pet-safe, organic snail baits like Sluggo.
People have always told me that you should prune your roses on Christmas Day. It sounds like funny advice; after all, most of us are either out of town on Christmas or just a little preoccupied by—oh, I don't know—the gifts, the meal, the spiking of eggnog, the assembling of miniature train tracks, and the general merry-making.
But there is something solemn and beautiful about the outdoors on Christmas Day. Step outside and close the door behind you: it's preternaturally quiet. All the usual traffic sounds, and the daily hum of the neighborhood, have ceased. You can hear the birds and the wind and maybe, if you live close enough, the faint lovely roar of the ocean. It's a day for tinkering in the garden, a day for tidying up and looking for signs of new growth.
Prune Lightly. Cut roses and other perennials back enough to let light and air through the plant and remove dead or diseased limbs
Don't Forget To Deadhead. Deadhead flowering perennials so the plant can put its energy into its root system.
Take A Break From Weeding. It's probably too wet and you might just compact clay soils further by disturbing them now.
Snail Surveillance. Stay on top of snail invasions; they thrive in wet weather.
Befriend the Birds. Keep bird feeders full and take some time to walk through the neighborhood and see what plants the birds are seeking out for food and shelter. The best way to attract birds to your own garden is to plant the kinds of trees, shrubs and vines that are already popular with the neighborhood's avian population.
Feed Winter-Flowering Shrubs. Acid-loving plants like camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons will also appreciate coffee grounds, which add nitrogen and are slightly acidic.
Christmas Tree Care. Wait as long as possible to bring in a live Christmas tree from outdoors. They prefer a cool spot inside and lots of water. Two weeks is the maximum period of a time a living tree should spend indoors, unless you have a cool enclosed porch or other area protected from the drying effects of the heater.
Watch Out For Frost On Cold, Clear Nights. Plastic tarps or old bed sheets can serve as protection against frost, but take care to make sure that whatever you use to cover plants doesn't touch the plant itself—if it does, you run the risk that the covering will freeze to the plant. Angel's trumpet and bougainvillea are particularly susceptible to frost.
Green Gifts. Choose a living gift this holiday season: Nurseries offer many blooming plants this time of year, and a bundle of seed packets is sure to please.