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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It’s nearly spring, the time of year when many people think of planting a vegetable garden. If this will be your first one, or if you’ve moved into a new house, or if your past vegetable gardens struggled, here are what I consider the two most important factors related to where to plant.
IN THE SUN
The top concern is, by far, sunlight. The more, the better.
Vegetable plants are photosynthesizing machines. Photo means sunlight. Plants literally eat sunlight. Without enough of it, they’re slow, they’re weak, they’re starving, and they can’t produce leaves or fruit for you.
I once lived in a house near Balboa Park in San Diego, nestled in a canyon that was filled with eucalyptus and ficus trees. It was the most pleasant environment; the tree canopy moderated even the hottest days of summer. For my vegetables though, it was torture. They were constantly munched by bugs as they stretched toward the dappled light. During one summer, I got so desperate to give my plants what they wanted that I lugged multiple pots onto my roof and grew a garden up there.
I now live just outside San Diego in Ramona, a place nicknamed “Valley of the Sun”, where commercial solar farms find it profitable to operate. My vegetables grow like lightning. And I feel like a pro. Well, not quite a pro, but I do feel much better about my gardening skills even as I know it has more to do with the sunny location as with anything else.
If a location gets full, direct, 100% sun for half of each day, that’s sufficient. That’s about six hours of full sun that vegetables need at a minimum. Anything less is going to engender less than great results.
Remember, too, that the sun’s angle changes throughout the year such that a spot in full sun in summer might be in full shade in winter because of a building or tree or wall to its south. If you want to grow vegetables like cabbage or garlic that need to grow through the winter in Southern California, then keep this in mind.
What might it take for you to find this half day’s sun in your yard? It might take removing a section of your lawn, as my mom recently did in order to locate her vegetables in more sun. The vegetables are showing their appreciation. Ask yourself if you really need every square foot of your lawn, and be encouraged by knowing that a vegetable garden requires less water than a lawn.
To locate your vegetable garden in the most sun it might also take an adjustment of your sensibilities. You might need to place your vegetable garden in the front yard instead of the back. My current vegetable garden is in my front yard (as seen in the photo above). I planted it there because that’s where the sun is. At first, it felt strange to grow my vegetables in the front yard, but I’ve found that my neighbors particularly enjoy it. As they walk by with their dogs they ask what I’m growing these days, and I have opportunities to share with them whatever is harvestable at the moment.
IN YOUR FACE
The other most important factor in locating a successful vegetable garden is planting it where you’ll run into it, every day, unintentionally. It ought to be in your face, in a place where you look and walk often already as part of your daily routines, not in a remote corner of the yard that is out of sight and that you’ll have to remember to visit.
Even though my vegetable garden is in my front yard and mostly in my face, I continue to find that the beds closest to our front door and in view of our living room window look the best. They have very few weeds, they are always fully planted, and they are always well-watered. Then there are the beds down by the road. They have more weeds, are spottier in their plantings, and if I sow seeds down there I sometimes forget to keep them moist until germination.
Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the way we humans operate.
A vegetable garden that is in your face also gets harvested more often, key for something like peas which go from slim to plump and pickable in a single day. Yesterday, we ate our daily dose on the porch.
For you and your vegetable garden, a place in your face might mean planting right outside a window that you sit by as you work in your home office or a window that you look out as you wash dishes after every meal. Or it might mean that the vegetable garden is right outside your back door because that’s the door you use every day to access your car to get to and from work. The idea is that you bring your vegetable garden into the path of your routines, if at all possible.
Sure, there are other things to think about when it comes to locating a vegetable garden, such as proximity to a water faucet or being protected from your pet dog. But those other qualities can be altered. You can lay pipe and install a water source, and you can erect a fence to keep your dog out of the garden. The sunlight a location receives, however, is nearly impossible to change. And your routines are your routines — what’s harder to change than those?
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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!
I love hummus, so when I saw a garbanzo bean plant at the nursery last April I bought it. Rookie mistake. Just because you see a plant at the nursery doesn’t mean that now is a good time to buy and plant it.
Different vegetable plants prefer to grow in different seasons, of course. And contrary to the beliefs of people who don’t live here, we do have seasons in Southern California. Sow cauliflower in May and see how well it does.
But it had been a fine spring day, and I had been infected with the fever of that warming season. (Here in March it is that warming season again — beware!) Forgetting to consider when garbanzo bean plants like to grow in Southern California, I bought it and put it in the ground among my other vegetables. Soon it formed bean pods. Excited, I squeezed a pod, but it dented. It was empty. All of the other pods were hollow too. Then in the heat of summer, the plant started to brown and eventually, it died. I forgot about it.
Then a couple months ago I heard someone mention that farmers in California’s Central Valley grow garbanzo beans as a winter crop. Duh, Greg. Beans are not beans. Some grow in summer, like black beans or pinto or green beans, but some grow in winter here, like fava beans. I should have done my homework. Once I did, I learned that actually some other farmers do grow garbanzos in the summer, but this is in places like Morro Bay, where summers are cool and foggy — in other words, where summers are like our winters.
Oh well. Lesson learned, again.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for making this timing mistake, right? I forgive myself for forgetting that lesson primarily because of the way grocery stores are stocked. Judging by the appearance of grocery store shelves, there are no seasons. How should I know when garbanzo beans are grown in my area? I only see them in cans, 365 days a year. And how should I know when cauliflower is grown in my area? It’s fresh on the shelves 365 days a year.
Grocery store shelves may carry all fruits and vegetables all of the time, but your garden won’t. Unless it’s warm like summer, tomatoes won’t ripen. Unless it’s cool like winter, broccoli will shoot for the sky and become a yellow mass of flowers that is candy for the bees before you can say, Wait, please!
We usually eat the immature broccoli flowers, but bees are grateful when we let some grow up.
Wait . . . sometime in January, I noticed little plants popping up that weren’t my usual weeds. As they grew, I began to recognize their leaves as those of garbanzo plants. How did that happen? All of the pods had been hollow. The plant had died. Who knows? Nature has forgiven me, too.
That photo at the very top shows foliage of one of the garbanzo bean plants now, pretty happy among spinach and winter grass weeds, growing in their season of cool. If the pods are not hollow this time, I have a dream: I’m going to use the beans to make hummus mixed with avocado and spread it on sourdough toast.
. . .
From now on, let’s grow our vegetables at the right time the first time. When to plant what? Consult these resources:
The best online resource I know of is Vince Lazaneo’s Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You may want to see my note here about determining whether you live in the “coastal” or “inland” zone.)
The best offline resource I know of is Sunset’s Western Garden Book.
You might also like to have a look at my “Month by Month” posts where I list vegetables to sow and plant each month in Southern California.
My dream of making hummus has been dashed by my sons, who discovered how good garbanzos taste fresh off the plant. At least the pods weren’t hollow.
How can the un-local Davis Garden Show be the best one for Southern California? It’s partly that the radio show/podcast is that good, and it’s partly that co-host Don Shor grew up in La Jolla and knows about growing plants here better than we do and kindly remembers to make side notes about how gardening works in our slightly drier and milder neck of the woods.
Last week’s episode perfectly represents why the Davis Garden Show is the best. In this January 5, 2017 episode, Shor talked all about the timely topic of deciduous fruit trees, from bare root planting, to training and pruning, to the meanings of terms like “sucker” and “pollenizer.”
The episode is so packed with information that you’ll want to listen multiple times. Shor articulates the concepts so well that even if they’re not new for you, you’ll enjoy listening to him describe them. But he isn’t reading from a horticulture book. Shor has studied horticulture formally at U.C. Davis, but he has also run a retail nursery, Redwood Barn Nursery, for decades, and he grows just about everything on his large property in the Davis area. When he says he recommends training most fruit trees to a “modified central leader” structure, it’s because he has trained many trees in other styles over the years, and he gives reasons and examples to support why modified central leader is his favorite for backyard growers. (The photo above shows Fuyu persimmon trees that have a modified central leader structure.)
In other words, when you listen to the Davis Garden Show you get not only an education but also ideas that are concrete and with which you can take action.
The Davis Garden Show broadcasts every Thursday at noon, when Shor is usually joined by co-host Lois Richter. You can listen to the show live from the KDRT website, but I always stream or download the podcasts on my computer or phone, which you can do from here or here.
Listen to the January 5, 2017 episode, and also listen to the excellent previous episode about fruit trees from December 29, 2016. From there you’ll probably be hooked like me, and you can browse past episodes for topics of interest, and you can listen to the latest episode for timely topics.