Pruning Roses and other to-do’s for January

I’m beginning to see the stirrings of life on some plants and although I’m enjoying some down time after the holidays there are several tasks that it’s time to do. If we lived where the snow drifts were 10 feet high, we could procrastinate a while but here in California, the game is afoot.

My first priority is to prune the roses before they start leafing out which wastes plant energy. I want them to produce lots of roses not just a few exhibition size so I prune shrubs moderately. Remember your goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation. Aim for a vase-shaped bush with an open center by cutting out crossing canes, spindly, weak, broken or diseased stems as well as dead wood. Cut back the remaining stems by about one-third, cutting canes at a 45-degree angle, just above an outward facing bud. Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again later. I once helped prune the rose garden at historic Gamble Gardens in Palo Alto. To revitalize the old shrubs we sawed out most of the beefy canes. I didn’t think they could recover in time for the big May bloom but they did and were spectacular. Roses are like redwoods,-you can’t kill one-they’re the energizer bunnies of the plant world.

Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Remove any leaves that may still be clinging to the bush. Rake up debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light oil in 1 quart water and spraying every 7 to 10 days.

Other tasks to do in the garden in January:

Cut back hydrangeas if you haven’t already done so. Apply soil sulfur, aluminum sulfate or other acidifier if you want to encourage blue flowers.
Prune fruit, nut and shade trees and spray with horticultural oil and lime sulfur or copper dormant spray. Don’t use lime-sulfer on apricots, though.
Cut back summer flowering deciduous shrubs and vines.  Don’t prune spring flowering varieties like lilac, flowering cherry, plum and crabapple, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela and spirea until after flowering or you can cut some during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.
– honeysuckle, potato vine, morning glory, trumpet creeper and pink jasmine by thinning now or even cutting back low to the ground if  they are a big tangled mess.

Backyard Wildlife Certification

One of my New Year resolutions is to get my garden certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It will be fun for me and would also be a good school project for your kids. They can keep track of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, insects, mammals, lizards and frogs that come to visit your yard. Once your backyard is certified by NWF, you can order and display an attractive Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to convey your commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment and help spread the word to your neighbors.

All species of wildlife need the basics of food, water, cover and places to raise young. We can help conserve our natural resources like soil, water, air and habitat for native wildlife by gardening in an environmentally friendly way.  Here are some of the simple steps I’m doing in my small garden garden to reach this goal.

To provide food in my shady garden I plan to include Ca. native snowberry, pink flowering currant and mahonia for berries that attract birds.  Hummingbirds will find nectar from coral bells, western columbine and fuchsia-flowering currants. I also keep my feeders up year round for them.

Butterflies will like like Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum and columbine. Plants that will attract beneficial insects are Ca. rose, coast live oak and ceanothus. Although I try to plant natives for their beauty and toughness, I believe that finding the right balance by mixing natives with non natives can enhance benefits to wildlife.

Next, I provide clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction. I don’t have room for a pond but I do have bird baths that I keep filled year round. I’m also planning to make a puddling area for butterflies.

Wildlife need places to find shelter from the weather and predators. I keep some areas of my garden orderly but leave some less manicured. I plant in layers providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides a large range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites. Keep in mind, wildlife need to feel safe in their surroundings. They tend to steer clear of large, open spaces. I find most of the wildlife that visit my yard start at the wooded area in the back and work their way up through dense shrubs, wild berries, a dead tree and a small log pile.

Evergreens and deciduous trees provide nesting areas for birds. The rock wall and leaf pile are favorite spots for mice, sakes and salamander to lay their eggs or raise young. Butterfly larvae find food on host ceanothus, huckleberry, oaks, bleeding hearts, foxglove, sweet alyssum, ornamental strawberry, dogwood, viburnum, crabapple and red flowering currant. I’d plant a wisteria for them if I had more sun.

I conserve our valuable resources by doing simple measures like mulching, using drip and soaker hoses, planting low-water use plants like natives suited to this area, using organic pesticides only when necessary and using organic fertilizers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve created a beautiful wildlife garden. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at to get started on your own certification.

Bareroot Season

Bareroot season is here.  This is the time that you can add to your garden inexpensively.   Bare root plants are carefully dug up at growing grounds  with their roots bare, meaning that most of the dirt around the roots has been removed. One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally.  When the trees are handled well, the root system is left intact, and the tree, shrub, vine or berry will have a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted.   Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and the soil in your garden.  They are also cheaper to ship because the lack of a dirt ball makes them much lighter and this lightness makes them easier to handle and plant, too.   

You might be interested mainly in growing ornamental plants like shade trees or a flowering plum, cherry or crabapple. Maybe you want another fragrant lilac to cut for bouquets or a  purple wisteria vine to cover the arbor. Planting something new while it’s available in bareroot is one of the easiest things you’ll ever do in the garden.

If growing something to eat is your goal, think of the first fruit  that comes to mind. This is the tree you should start with.  Already have a few fruit trees but want to add more? Why not add another variety this year that ripens later so that you extend the harvest season throughout the summer?  It’s no fun when everything ripens at the same time and you become a slave to the garden- picking, canning, drying, cooking, bribing the kids to take extras to the neighbors.

Remember that fruit trees need at least  6-8 hours of full sun during the growing season. Don’t worry if you don’t have much sun in the winter time, the trees are dormant then anyway.  Citrus trees, however, are green year round and never lose their leaves so you won’t find a bareroot lemon tree for this reason. 
What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains?  Well, almost  everything. We have well over 500 per winter. Most of us get 700-900 hours.  What does that mean?  Well, many fruit trees, lilacs, and peonies need a  certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less.  You can give a plant more cold in the winter and it’ll like that just fine but not less.  Those in Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples, for instance, but not Red Delicious.  We can grow both.

What else can you add to your garden to eat? Blueberries offer more than yummy berries to eat.  They make beautiful hedges 4-6 ft tall with gorgeous fall color. They are self fertile but it you plant two types like a Berkeley, Bluecrop or Blueray together you get even more fruit.   Other edibles that are available now are asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, grapes, blackberries, boysenberries and raspberries. 

Don’t miss this opportunity to add to your garden’s bounty.