In April, my gardening mind is busy, as I suspect is yours. Mostly, I think about three topics. The first is fruit set — flowers becoming fruit on the trees. The above photo is the fruit set on my Blenheim apricot today; this tree is an over-achiever, year after year. A few of my other trees should take lessons . . . are you listening, Snow Queen nectarine?
And then I start thinking about irrigation this month too. It’s likely that we won’t get another real rain. Up ahead is about seven months of sunny and warm. I’ve always thought of growing food in Southern California as “just add water” because we have all of the sun we could want and none of the nasty weather (hail, high winds, flooding) that other places have in the summer. We just don’t get water from the sky during this time of year, so adding that is up to us.
April isn’t the month when a lot of watering is required, of course. But being the beginning of the irrigation season, it is the best, most forgiving time to fiddle with systems and dig down to test percolation and figure out schedules. On the other hand, doing this right before you’re about to leave on vacation in the summer would be the worst, least forgiving time. I think of time spent preparing irrigation now as doing my future self a favor.
And April begins open season on planting vegetables that like to grow through summer. It’s so exciting to now be able to freely sow and plant peppers, tomatoes, melons, eggplant and, well . . . here are the details on what we can sow, as well as other timely tasks out in your food garden in Southern California in April:
– Sow or plant vegetables: beets, carrots, basil, greens, tomatoes, tomatillos, sunflowers, squash, corn, beans, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, melons
– Eat vegetables (had you planted them): peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, greens, carrots, beets, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, spinach
– Eat fruit (if you have the trees): avocados (Hass, Fuerte, Pinkerton); citrus (Valencia, Gold Nugget mandarin, Pixie mandarin)
– Eat, eat, eat strawberries, and freeze, freeze, freeze the ones you don’t
– Prune deciduous fruit trees with only a twist of your fingers; if you made a heading cut in the winter and new shoots are sprouting below it now, just remove any of those shoots that you don’t want by snapping them off with your hand — it’s really that easy
– Get excited about fruit set on deciduous fruit trees and, should you be so lucky, consider thinning some fruit; if a skinny branch has a lot of fruit toward its tip then it’s wise to remove some fruit there so the branch doesn’t break under the fruit’s weight (peaches or nectarines) or get sunburned as the branch bends down (apricots, plums, apples); that being said, don’t bother thinning much more than that
Flavor Grenade pluot fruit set; I will thin some, especially toward the tip
– Get up close and enjoy the smell of the citrus blossoms on the trees in your yard
– Cut off the water to garlic and onions that you planted last fall as they bulb out toward the end of the month; they can finish their lives on residual soil moisture, and they’ll be dry and easy to harvest when their leaves yellow and die sometime in May
– Get gophers before they get your plants; there are a lot of young ones under the ground this time of year, and the best way I’ve found to keep them under control is the Cinch Trap
– Set up new irrigation on plants, test run all irrigation lines to check for clogs and leaks, flush drip irrigation lines, clean out filters — get that irrigation dialed in
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March is citrus month. Almost every kind of citrus tastes good in March in Southern California. While some are still ripe, others are already starting to taste sweet. What I mean is, some are wrapping up their seasons now, like navel oranges and blood oranges and Kishu mandarins, while others are in the early part of their seasons, like Valencia oranges and Gold Nugget mandarins.
Here is what we should all do: Go to a farmers market and taste every different kind of local citrus available. Do any knock your socks off? If you can get the variety name from the farmer, then go and buy a tree of that variety from a local nursery.
I did something similar a few years ago with a tour of the Citrus Variety Collection at U.C. Riverside, after which I planted a Cara Cara navel orange, Satsuma, Kishu, Gold Nugget, and Pixie mandarins. By the way, do you have children or grandchildren? You’ve got to give them the gift of a Kishu mandarin, which in my opinion is the best fruit tree for kids.
About vegetables, March is a month of transition. We can still plant some vegetables that like to grow in cool weather (think lettuce), but we can also start planting some vegetables that like to grow in warm weather (think corn).
To be specific about it, plant lettuce and its ilk as soon as possible, but be in no rush to plant corn and friends. I have found success sowing or planting those warm guys only toward the end of March.
With all of those ideas in mind, in March we can:
– Sow or plant some cool-season vegetables: beets, carrots, greens, lettuce, green onions, peas, potatoes
– Sow or plant some warm-season vegetables: tomatoes, squash, corn, beans (some beans, but not all)
– Not sow or plant: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage; sorry, it’s too late to get good production out of those
– Eat (had you planted them): asparagus, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, beets, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, spinach, celery, greens, strawberries
– Eat (if you have the trees): avocados (Hass, Fuerte, Pinkerton); citrus (almost all kinds)
– Collect or redirect any rain we get so it sinks into your yard near your plants and isn’t lost into the street
– Change irrigation on fruit trees as necessary (e.g. from drip lines to mini-sprinklers); do it now before the trees start depending on irrigation because the current mild weather and thoroughly moist soil from winter rains allow the tree roots to most easily adjust to new patterns of soil moisture
– Put in plants that are native to your neighborhood, especially in parts of your yard that are difficult to irrigate; I put wild lilac (Ceanothus) and monkey flowers (Diplacus) in a couple of Marches ago, watered them by hand a couple of times their first summer and haven’t watered them since, and they’re beautiful and blooming right now
– Observe your deciduous fruit trees as they bloom and leaf out; notice if they flower mostly on short branches (apples, cherries, apricots) or on long branches (peaches, nectarines), for this can guide your pruning next year — or now, because it’s never too late to prune
– Plant avocado trees, and prune them if necessary; you can grow your own avocados in a surprisingly small yard space
– Avoid spraying anything on citrus trees if the new leaves get damaged by leafminers
– Plant more citrus, of course!
And winter’s over. Did you blink and miss it? There are sure to be a few more chilly mornings and a few more rainstorms, but look outside: the plants are already waking up.
Native plants are well on their way, as acorns germinate into baby live oak trees and wild cucumber, lemonade berry, and manzanita bloom (those are the ones I noticed on my run through the hills this morning); but also, a couple of my avocado trees are swelling flower buds. By the end of the month, apricots (as pictured above during February 2016), peaches and plums, they’ll all be opening flowers.
February is my favorite month of the year. Yes, my first-born son arrived in February, but I also like this month because I think of it as the beginning of our spring in Southern California, when not only do many plants start to bloom but also our landscape briefly glows green with grasses, mustard, filaree — all weeds, but man do they make this place look lush like Tennessee for a slice of time. Temperatures are wonderful for afternoon hikes. The air is filled with the freshness of a rain that just passed or the potential of a storm on the way. There’s also the potential of all of those flowers. Will my pluot tree set a lot of fruit? How many blueberries will we get?
And there are opportunities. We can:
– Sow or plant peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, greens (chard, kale, turnip, mustard, collards), green onions, potatoes
– Clone your grape vine, fig tree, or pomegranate tree (or a friend’s) by rooting a cutting
– Buy and plant bare root fruit trees before they get potted up
– Graft deciduous fruit trees, and also graft avocados
– Transplant shoots of your raspberry plants and runners of your strawberry plants
– Collect or redirect any rain we get so it sinks into your yard near your plants and isn’t lost into the street
– Pull weeds at the right time for maximum effectiveness: soon after a rain so the soil is moist, but just before a Santa Ana so you can leave the weeds right there on the ground and the dry air will desiccate and kill it
– Change irrigation on fruit trees as necessary (e.g. from drip lines to mini-sprinklers); do it now before your plants start depending on irrigation in a couple months because the current mild weather and thoroughly moist soil from rains allow plants to most easily adjust to new patterns of soil moisture
– Mulch under fruit trees with wood chips; the mulch sort of seals in the soil moisture, and then upcoming rains should soak the mulch for free
– Prune deciduous fruit trees and grape vines; it’s easy to see the structure of the bare branches now
– Harvest fresh peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, chard, spinach, carrots, strawberries, parsley, cilantro (these are just what’s happening in my yard, not the limit of what’s possible)
– Harvest Fuerte and Hass avocados
– Harvest some citrus, such as navel oranges, Kishu and Satsuma mandarins
Here it is, our winter. In January only — and a couple weeks before and after — can we enjoy a fire in the fireplace and do we have the chance to see a little frost on the ground. Appreciate it before it’s warm again for 10 months.
And there are seasonal “opportunities” in the garden for January. (Don Shor of the Davis Garden Show likes to call them opportunities instead of jobs, tasks, or chores. I like that perspective.)
– Prune deciduous fruit trees and grape vines; it’s easy to see the structure of the bare branches now (here’s a good video on winter pruning from Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery)
– Put in plants that are native to your neighborhood, especially in a part of the yard where you don’t want to irrigate
– Collect or redirect rainwater so it sinks into your yard near your plants and isn’t lost into the street
– Walk around on a cold evening or morning to notice warmer and chillier spots; note them because later you’ll want to put plants in those spots that like those conditions
– Observe where afternoon shade is; don’t place your vegetable garden there unless you only want to grow in the summer
– Cut scion wood for grafting stone fruits (apricot, plum, peach, etc.); I have always had success with grafting stone fruit trees at the very end of January
– Take and plant cuttings of pomegranate and grapes at the very end of January too
– Buy and plant bare root fruit and nut trees, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, asparagus
– Transplant or just remove shoots of your raspberry plants and runners of your strawberry plants
– Sow peas, potatoes, carrots, lettuces and other greens, especially toward the end of January; you can sow or transplant some other vegetables (like broccoli), but January is not the ideal time for them
– Start a journal or calendar for notes for the new year; jot down weather observations, irrigation schedules, sowing and planting dates, arrival of pests, harvest times (next January you’ll thank yourself)