The short days of winter are getting perceptibly longer. From the Winter Equinox, we are half way to the Spring Equinox on February 2nd, Groundhog Day. That, in turn, is half way to the Summer Solstice. These dates were important in an agrarian culture and, as one grows a garden, it is easy to see the reasons that these dates were important to people dependent on knowing what to do and when to do it to successfully grow their diet.
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. Caution: If you aren't in the LA Basin, these dates can only be used in mild climates like ours. 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.
With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. Hopefully, that means we won’t need to be watering too much. I use more-or-less permanently built up beds with paths covered in wood chips between them allowing me to walk down the paths without getting muddy. 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 positively the last month to dormant-prune fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this, in fact, often times you will be too late if you wait until February. See flowers? 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.
Don’t forget to deal with slugs and snails. In these wet, cooler months, these little mollusks multiply with alarming proficiency and can 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 discouraging.
Some gardeners keep a five gallon bucket on hand with soapy water in it, waltz through their gardens on snail and slug hunts, dropping their finds into the mixture 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 and not that hard to do when you've lost a fair amount of produce to these critters. 'Escar-go,' and others, can be found at your garden market, that are 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. Having a possum in the garden is the ecological way to handle them – but in many of our city gardens, difficult to maintain. I have been blessed with possum activity in my garden and my snail and slug problem has not gotten out of hand. But I have gardened in parts of LA where entire rows of seedlings were obliterated by these voracious pests establishing them as food-consuming adversaries.
Because we use no pesticides, our possum, along with a host of other wildlife, is happy in our garden. We do as little to disturb the wildlife as possible – from the smallest bacteria to the occasional raccoon. I usually have cordial relations with all our wildlife, slugs and snails along with some invasive plants being the almost-daily exception. I like wildlife, but you will not find me growing food without some manner of protection from all critters great and small. In many city gardens, our most destructive pest walks on two feet and there are laws against the most satisfying ameliorative steps. I try for balance in my attitudes, but you will find me swearing a blue streak when I've lost a promising crop to an invader. It helps to remember, I can still get food from the local farmers' market – I won't starve, but one can see how historically societies begin to develop a warring philosophy against other species that were competing for the food supply.
In our shortest month, 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. People are typically impressed with how a garden looks in February and March unless the gardener has been neglectful.
Don't stop planting lettuce! You may continue to start seeds of lettuce right up through May. You may lose the last of it to heat (you may even lose some in February if a Santa Ana hits at the wrong time!). The closer you are to the Pacific Ocean, the cooler your clime – my 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 are never that high and tomatoes struggle here. But what the weather is going to do (or not do) is the crux of producing food from the earth. If you are blighted with a fried crop from the wrong heat on the right day or the right heat on the wrong day, a moment's reflection and pause can lessen the pain: This wasn't your only food for the coming months. While it is sad, it is not life-threatening, which has been (and still is, in many cases) the experience of humankind throughout history.
The real summer garden begins to take shape next month... but in honor of your first basil plants of the year, soon to be coming up in a protected location near your watering can soon, I'm going to give you my 'besto' pesto recipe. Originally from a Rockenwagner recipe, found on the web, I've made thousands of jars of this stuff with rich success and highly recommend it. However, the success comes not so much from the recipe (most pesto recipes vary only small ways once you've decided on basil and pignolis), but in the ingredients and their freshness.
Basil. We must plant more basil. Is there such a thing as enough basil? Basil is planted right along with tomatoes – isn't that just poetic? I like the 'Genovese Profusitissimo' variety of basil – large productive, heavenly perfumed leaves that are the basis for my pesto recipe that has become the basis for our annual Pesto Day Celebration, our take on the harvest festival. I make about 9 dozen half pints of The Gardenmaster's Special Pesto (that's 108 jars of pesto, for the mathematically challenged among us) and it is well loved in the community. The recipe which follows, is nothing special, the spectacular results are exclusively due to the ingredients: Genovese Profusitissimo basil and heirloom garlic combined with cheese, pignolis, olive oil, a little pepper and salt. Viola! This variety of basil when I first discovered it was not readily available. Now you will find several varieties in seed catalogs that are variations on 'Genovese,' the 'Profusitissimo' has often been dropped. It all has the same wonderful aroma and profuse flavor.
Make sure to cover the pesto tightly or store in an airtight container immediately after making it. The top layer will discolor faster than the rest you can keep a thin layer of oil on top to stop oxygen from getting to the pesto and causing discoloration, but this will add more oil to the pesto each time you use it. Some of us think this is not a problem.
2 cloves of garlic
1½ Tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
¾ cup plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients, except the ½ teaspoon olive oil, in a food processor and process until a puree forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer to an airtight container and pour the remaining ½ teaspoon of olive oil over the pesto, covering completely. Cover and refrigerate until needed (the pesto keeps for a long time, tightly covered, but loses it’s bright green color after the first day).