Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feels Like Spring

In between winter rains there are days, if you have the opportunity to work in the garden, that cause you pause and wonder, "am I about to sweat?" Winter in the Sacramento Valley can be misleading at times, even the plants get confused. I keep a careful eye on my dwarf nectarine tree which I consider my special needs plant. Of all my dormant winter plants it is always the first to announce spring.

I purchased it as a "bare root" plant in February a few years back. Most fruit trees (apple, peaches, nectarines, plutos, plums), nut trees, grapes and black berry plants are sold as bare root plants in their dormant state. They have no leaves or flowers and look like a dead branch sitting in a barrel of mulch with no soil clinging to there roots. The only thing you have to go on is the picture on the tag and the hopefully, helpful sales person. There are two reasons why I buy bare root plants: the price and a better start. Typically bare root plants are up to half the price because the nursery doesn't have to use soil or a pot. They will pull them out of the mulch and wrap the roots in a piece of paper and off you go. Because your plant isn't sitting in nursery soil, you don't have to worry about it trying to adjust to your own, just plant it directly into your garden (perhaps mix in a small amount of fertilize in your own soil). Once it wakes up, it will proceed to flower and then shoot out leaves and branches as if it was always living in your yard.

My nectarine did just that, but by early spring it was apparent that all was not well. Its leaves were curly in on themselves. The fruit would grow but then develop very rough spots as if sprinkled with large granules of sea salt. It was quite horrific looking as if my now deformed tree was trying to audition for some part in a gory scream flick. As it turn out, the nectarine tree had been infected by a fungus called taphrina deformans aka Peach Leaf Curl. The nursery handed me a bottle of dormant spray. For now there was nothing to do but watch as the mutilated leaves and fruit quickly fell off my tree and spent the summer looking rather naked and sad.

Dormant sprays are not really fun. The main ingredient is typically sulfur or copper mixed with lime. I spend some time trying to figure out if there was an "organic" solution. In my mind organic would mean mixing some hippy soap and water. But no such luck. Leaf Curl is a very prevalent fungus in the Sacramento Valley and without spraying, it is unlikely that once infected your tree will not continue to be infected year after year. The Integrated Pest Management Program in California (check out their website under Helpful Links to the right) recommends the following products for home gardeners: Lilly Miller Kop R Spray Concentrate, Monterey Liqui-Cop and Lilly Miller Microcop Fungicide. The best time to spray is right before your buds begin to open (looks for those few eager buds that have barely cracked open and you can see a little green or pink). Wait for day when it will be sunny and more importantly when it will not rain for the next couple of days. Dormant sprays can over time build up in the soil and become toxic and should not be allowed to run off into water ways.

In the last few years there are some new varieties that are Leaf Curl resistant or a little more tolerant:
For Peaches- Indian Free, Q 1-8, and Muir

For Nectarines - Kreibich

Now that my nectarine is about to flower I'll start prepping my vegetable beds and debate on adding another raised bed....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome to The Heather Patch

Well, I'll start off by saying I am not a gardening expert by any means! I've read lots of books, shop at a lot of nurseries and even gone to a few shows (the cool ones by various plant societies- not the Home and Garden Show). My gardening techniques run the gamut. I take ideas from both local public gardens and private gardens of friends, I experiment, I move plants as if they were furniture and there is definitely blood, sweat and tears. But in the end, it's as if I've gotten to draw the picture but garden refuses to color within the lines. It's probably prettier that way.

This time of year most of us are just staring at the gray sky, thankful for the rains but wondering when we can start playing again. Don't worry, there's plenty to do! I started my winter vegetable garden in mid October and have been reaping the rewards since December. First there were the radishes that seem to grow over night. Then rainbow kale (why bother with green kale when you can get "greens" in brilliant reds and yellows) along with other "Chinese" greens. Now for the last few weeks I've been getting some great turnips and carrots, all of which started from seed.

I am not a big fan of roses or at least have not found any that I am too wild about. However, if you do have them, you should be cutting them back now if you haven't already. I have also pruned my grapes, my nectarine tree and have cut back my butterfly bushes.

A word on pruning- it is not nearly as difficult as some folks make it sound. A few easy rules I follow:
1. Don't cut the bud. If you want a bud to grow, leave it be and cut after the bud (a bud is that little knot on the branch from which a new branch will grow).
2. Cut everything growing down. This is especially true for fruit trees. I just run my hand below each branch and whenever I run into another branch starting to grow down from my first branch I cut it. If you don't do this with your fruit trees the weight of the fruits will break the branch wasting all the energy your tree spend growing that branch and the fruit in the first place!
3. Use good SHARP shears when pruning, you do not want to rip branches off. For bushes I like to cut so the tops are curved. But just remember, you will not kill your bush from a bad pruning job- it will grow back, it just may look funny for awhile!