17 February, 2010

The Garden in February, Part I

Summer's harvest from two years ago include these gorgeous peppers (what did I plant?) and San Marzano tomatoes. Both were prolific and delicious. When summer is over, I don't want to touch another tomato, but by February, I'm getting geared up for a fresh BLT!

The short days of winter are getting perceptibly longer. We are half way to the Spring Equinox, which is half way to the Summer Solstice. These dates became important in an agrarian culture and as one gets more involved in gardening, it is easy to see the reasons that these dates were important to people dependent on knowing what to do and when to do to when their garden produce was necessary to stay alive.

Valentines' Day is my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. One method I have done in the past was to use fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes – I have also started them outside with a heating mat to keep the soil warm; with enough sun that works well enough. Peppers and eggplant are started about 2 weeks later. As seedlings, they cannot be allowed to dry out and they must be protected from predation, it doesn't take even a small critter many bites to entirely remove a plant less than an inch tall. More on the seed starting indoors shortly. Wait until late March before starting squashes (Summer and Winter squashes both), but cucumbers should be started towards the end of February.
February starts me thinking “baseball,” which will be right around the corner. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere!) Dodger Spring training in Arizona starts next month and I'll begin again to get to know who's with us and who's been traded and look at our chances for the year. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism that dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. You don’t have to “think baseball”, but I do and it lifts my spirit in this slight lull before the summer garden kicks off. It's one of my traditions.

With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. That means we won’t need to be watering too much. I have more or less permanently built up beds with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through your garden when it’s thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.

February is the last month we will want to prune dormant fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? Or leaves? That’s “broken dormancy” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after that drains more of the tree's vitality – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run and that means December or January in a Zone 24 climate. I have learned over the last few years that my nectarine and peach trees break dormancy first and I need to consider pruning them in late November/early December. But I've proven that procrastination has its benefits! I find I can use the flowering branches for bouquets and I've got no shortage of nectarines! I'm thinning that tree incessantly, even with a hard pruning. So, my lateness hasn't stopped that tree from producing!

Don’t forget to deal with slugs and snails. In these wet, cooler months, these destructive little mollusks multiply with alarming proficiency and present huge problems. You can't get rid of them forever, they are migratory, so even if you could rid yourself of every single one in your garden on Tuesday, you'd have a whole new supply by Friday coming in from next door. And more on Saturday. It can be a discouraging thought! However, the only real way to deal with these transients is persistent effort. You deal with today's snails today and leave tomorrow's snails to tomorrow. Sounds like something I heard before, maybe it was in a yoga class?

Some gardeners keep a five gallon bucket on hand with soapy water in it (one of those plastic buckets you see in a hardware store's paint department – cheap and rust free) and drop the critters in for a quick death. Others put a board down with one end slightly raised. Slugs and snails will congregate there and can be simply crushed. Good for the soil. A fairly new product, 'Escar-go' is on the market and is non-toxic to mammals (you, your children and dogs and cats etc), and is actually beneficial to the soil. Slugs and snails eat it and die. Probably not as humane as crushing them, but more acceptable in polite society.

No matter what you do, you will probably always have problems with snails and slugs in our climate unless you are fortunate to have a possum on hand. These homely members of the rat family (look at their tail) consume slugs (mostly) and will resort to snails if hungry enough. I am fortunate in The Learning Garden to be blessed with a possum or two that have negated any need to bait or board for snails and slugs. I also avoid growing the Oriental cabbages and greens (sheer delight for snails as slugs) and savoy cabbage; slugs, more so than snails, love to live in between the crinkles in these plants and it can take gallons of water and lots of time to remove all that extra protein from dinner before you serve it (I have always found 'after' you serve it to be just a tad undesirable!)

Broccoli is being harvested, along with cauliflower, cabbage, peas, scallions, carrots, radishes, beets, new potatoes, chard, kale, and lettuces by the bushel. The garden looks stellar at this time of year, it is bursting with produce of deep green, blue green, punctuated with red and yellow (chard) flags. Heads of broccoli and cabbage show off their refulgent harvest, while the tops of carrots and beets peek out from their cool soil homes. Peas hang delightfully from those bright green plants, with colorful poppies in outrageous bloom and the honey scent of sweet pea flowers in their lovely pastel colors wafts on cool breezes across the garden. Freesias begin to bloom (and that's another heady scent!) with narcissus blooms showing off as well.

Don't stop planting lettuce, I will continue to start seeds of lettuce right up through May. I have it easy being so close to the Pacific Ocean – here, cool season plantings can stretch through all months except late July through late September. Warm season crops aren't nearly so flexible because our night temperatures don't get all that high – the soil is cool and never gets warmed up enough for the summer crops until July through October.

The real summer garden begins to take shape next month... but you can start seeds for it now, if you have a protected place to sow the seeds. You don't need a greenhouse or a cold frame, though both of these do help. It is possible to start seeds in an apartment on the 2nd floor without any decent balcony space. I did it for a good many years as I bounced from tiny apartment to tiny apartment.



  1. You can always consider surrounding your entire property with a couple of inches of copper surfacing, to keep snails and slugs out permanently :-)

    I've used it on a much smaller scale, and it can be great for potted plants and for raised beds, but never heard of the larger scale approach being implemented.

  2. You're right on all accounts, Raffi. Group plants that are primo snail food into one bed and then line that with copper. Works really well for lettuce especially when one is cutting off tender young leaves. For beans, that are also very much loved by snails and slugs, you have to clean them up rigorously.

    Thanks for the tip, Raffi!


  3. Thought you would like to know of a brilliant Garden protector....I like most gardeners suffer from slugs and snails in this damp weather and in fact now that the climate has changed all over the world we have the slug and snail problem all year round, I have tried beer traps, copper tape, and salt, egg shells, even throwing them in my neighbours garden ( Just kidding )etc,etc all these methods are not practical long lasting and are harmful to Children, pets , wildlife ,and our Environment. A new device to control slugs and snails called the slugbell placed around flowers and vegetable garden , they use both Organic or Normal Metaldehyde bug pellets and that the small amount of pellets needed will last up to three months.!!! as they don’t dissolve in the soil and Brilliant for our environment , I will try anything to keep my garden looking how it should whilst protecting natures cycle.It works for me…!!!!

    Iszzabella from United Kingdom

  4. Great blog!

    I hope to soon start growing vegetables and fruits, and am so happy to have found your site. Thanks for the great info.