A brief reflection on my first full year gardening in my new house in Auburn, Washington. I will talk about how I’m updating my approach to January garden work during this second year of my garden restoration effort, and a quick look at what I’m planning to do in February.
Looking for my post from last January? You can still find it if you follow this link here.
Typical January Conditions
Are we all ready for this month to be over yet? I definitely am.
As usual, it was just as cold, gross, and dark as it ever was and had me feeling more and more like a mole person every day. Hiding away inside, consuming far too many of those Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups in one sitting, and binge-watching a season of Queer Eye that I had not realized I had not yet finished (best discovery ever by the way). Gardening, or even stepping outside into the freezing wetness, seemed like something I should be watching take place on Big Dreams, Small Spaces from the comfort of my sofa, not actively participating in.
I knew that wasn’t true though. I mean, I know this is likely the only way I’m going to sweat away that Festive-Fifteen I packed on through the holidays. So even though it’s January, I go outside and get some work done in favor of sunbathing with a mojito in a gorgeous a landscape this summer.
Reflections on the Past Year in Gardening
So before I can get into what I’ve been working on this month, I have to do a brief look back at this last year in gardening at my new house and what I learned. As many people know, or may have assumed, I got much more sick last year and that was not something I obviously had planned on when I started writing a month by month gardening series. It meant that things in general did not go as planned and I had to be more flexible and compassionate with myself on many levels. I also was trying to do a lot of things for the first time in a new place, so there was going to be somewhat of an extra learning curve as I adjusted to new physical limitations and a new home.
Property and Soil Observations
As far as the property goes, there are some things with respect to maintaining the garden or landscape that may be more challenging than I had originally anticipated. Specifically, the extreme drainage of the existing soil may make improving or conditioning it for some plants more difficult. My property sits on glacial till, so very sandy and lots of rocks. It’s also along a steep slope where the increased rains have started increasing runoff and slide action along the edge, which means all the nutrients that enter the soil and smaller particulate matter are running out of the soil faster. This means that over time the remaining rocky soil is compacting, which will make it really tough for some plants to get established, since many plants need looser loamier soils when they are young.
As far as how my house is oriented and the microclimates created around it:
- The north side of my house is very typical PNW outdoor space with a number of very tall conifers, likely firs, so the soil is full of needle mulch and higher PH than other areas in my yard. As the north side of the house it stays more moist, but there are still a lot of rocks in the soil.
- The west side of my house is vastly over exposed without any tall tree cover and otherwise bordered with overgrown mature landscape shrubs and trees. These I started pruning up last year and will continue working on this year.
- The east side of my house has many beds that used to be more utilized long ago, but are now super overgrown with grass or completely barren. Restoring these is high on my priority list.
- The south side of my house, is mostly a utilitarian area with lots of gravel spaces covered with overgrown grass and some dying fruit trees adjacent to what became the dog yard. This area will likely stay a utilitarian area because of its proximity to the garage and the need for outdoor space like this to keep wood and other garden stuff.
All of these things create unique opportunities for different garden experiences, but also add to the breadth of work that will be required overall to maintain it on an annual basis. This may have been why the gardens were eventually neglected by the previous home owners.
How I Managed (or Didn’t Manage) the Pests in My Garden
I decided, with the exception of the moles for which I called in someone to trap, to attempt to work with the pests rather than against them. Over the last year, the boarders of my backyard and the entire front lawn would be seeded lots of red and white clover for the rabbits. I also opted to put out critter stations for squirrels, chipmunks and some larger birds so that hopefully they would go to those locations for food instead of in my vegetable garden – to be determined still if this actually working.
One thing I failed to do as much about last year as I should have was the slug situation. I did not have as many slugs at my previous house because I had been more proactively using organic Sluggo to minimize their annual invasion. I don’t know why I just was not regularly using it this last year and was instead just trying to use physical barriers and hand removal. It was definitely not as effective, especially during such a wet year, and was often a lot more energy for me.
It’s not as if I didn’t attempt to do anything to minimize pest intrusion. I did install a small fence around the garden bed to keep rabbits out and this seemed successful, so I am expanding this to the other garden beds where I will be planting more flowers and starting my Rose Garden.
Work Small and Frequently
I found regular small garden rounds most effective to minimize maintenance overall versus weekend hauls. This did not mean I didn’t do weekend hauls, I just had less of them.
My gardening work duration any given day is really limited, and can be completely impossible some days. I can usually be successful if I do something like go get plants or materials one day and then actual garden work the next day.
To keep from overworking when I do garden work, I try to only garden for one or two hours before I take a break. Then I can maybe garden for another one or two hours depending how strenuous something is and how I’m feeling and then I stop for the day.
More Than Manageable
As I mentioned earlier, I did end up being ill a lot more this year than I had the previous year, and would then become overly ambitious whenever I started feeling a tad bit better. I frequently would start a bunch of gardening projects during those periods of feeling good and then would immediately get sick again after and have to watch all my plants die or look at incomplete work.
There were many efforts started and abandoned, but at the end of the day, nothing precious died, I saw lots of my tiny efforts from the beginning of the year paying off later in the spring and summer.
In order to not have a repeat of that this year and January, I am trying to be more cautious in my approach and not overcommit myself (except I’m also doing the master gardening program and, oh by the way, getting two new kittens…not being over ambitious at all).
Updated January Gardening Goals
Ok so obviously I still have a lot going on, AND I have a problematic western Washington landscape and have my work cut out with me for this year. I’m going to try to set myself up right and prioritize a few things to start working on this month:
- Soil Conditioning
- Pruning fruit and landscape bushes and trees
- Start some onion seeds
These things will help my garden be more productive and effective throughout the rest of the year and are things I can work on next month as well.
Gardening Work in January
Improving the Lawn and Garden Beds through Soil Conditioning
To try and address some of the various issues around my property and support additional plant growth, one of my biggest priorities this year is soil conditioning. Soil conditioning will allow me to have enriched beds in preparation for the new growing season, help to improve the appearance of my lawn, and will also aid in deterring some rodents from disturbing my garden beds.
Wood Ashes for Fertilizer
I’m using a number of different methods to improve the soil, but throughout this winter I’ve been utilizing a very old approach and spreading wood ashes around my lawn and garden beds. Wood ashes, and ashes of organic material in general, are a good source of potassium and other minerals, as well as have a slight alkaline effect on the soil. If you have a wood burning fireplace, this could be a good way of disposing of your ashes when you clean out your fireplace next. In order to enhance the fertilizing and alkalizing effects of the ashes, I mix some lime, organic blood meal, and organic bone meal into the ashes.
This may seem like an unusual mix to use to fertilize your property, and you may look a little nuts sprinkling this around your yard, but it makes a lot of sense from a very basic biological perspective. For one, grass likes the same pH as your garden plants and needs most of the same nutrients. My soil is more acrid and without nutrients, does not support the lawn being maintained. Moss and thatch are typically seen where the soil is very acidic and low in nutrients. Since both the ashes and lime have an alkalizing effect on the soil, the pH is raised and the moss will die back and theoretically the thatch should start disappearing.
What is Thatch?
Thatch is a layer of dead material that collects between the grass and the soil. This layer of dead material could be created by a number of reasons such as:
- Lots of grass clippings or grass growth
- Overfertilization (which resulted in the overgrowth)
- Drop in soil pH which then causes the associated bacteria that eat the dead grass/thatch to disappear
Thatch prevents moisture and nutrients from reaching the soil and roots of the rest of the grass and adjacent plants, basically acting like a sponge and holding these nutrients from the other plants. The fastest method to remove it is to use a hard rake or motorized rake to physically scrape the dead material away.
As far as it’s use as a pest deterrent, think about what it is and why it would be extremely unappealing to small rodents (it smells like burnt dead another-animal). That said, my dog thinks it smells great, so keep your dog out of the area until it is thoroughly washed away or a groomers visit may be in your future.
When I spread the mixture, I’m primarily focusing it under the drip lines of my trees and bushes, as well as in any garden beds or where I’ve planted bulbs. I’m also spreading this into my lawn as I can, especially over areas where I am noticing a lot of moss or thatch growing instead of grass or clover. The thatch in theory should start disappearing as the soil improves and grass reestablishes, but I have yet to see the thatch start decomposing away with the improved pH. I am hopeful that it begins to change significantly as I continue the effort and the season warms.
Using White Clover as a Lawn Alternative
Seeding a pacific northwest grass blend with clover can help restore the lawn and its nutrient levels, seeding while it’s still frosty will keep the seed dormant until conditions improve as the weather warms and it can germinate. It also helps naturally bring more nitrogen into the soil, while acting as a lawn alternative, while supporting other pollinators and bugs.
Keep Pruning On
Aside from pruning deciduous bushes (like the hydrangeas, see my previous post on pruning hydrangeas), I also need to tackle the two mature apple trees and plum tree to hopefully help support more productive fruit. Finally, I need to do a first pruning on the peach trees and hazelnut I planted last spring. This will be the first major pruning they will have received since I planted them. But first, back to the mature apple trees.
I admit, as a new fruit tree caretaker, I don’t have a lot of experience with pruning apple trees or plum trees. My parents had an ornamental plum tree at their home in Kirkland when I was growing up, but it was such a pain to deal with and blocked so much of the front porch that it was eventually removed. I think the only lesson I learned there was about removing waterspouts out of the tree to help improve the growth on the remaining branches. This is something that applies to most fruit trees and some other deciduous trees, so keep that in mind for other trees on your property.
Watersprouts, or suckers, are the whip like thin branches that grow mostly straight up out of the main branches on the trees. These are very normal things for a tree to have and usually show up for a number of reasons, but most frequently as the name suggests, they are from abundance of water and nutrients. These can eventually become branches and you could train them that way if you wanted to, however, because they are frequent and not a fruiting branch (or at least their first year), I am going to remove them from my fruit trees. The older trees on my property have many because they haven’t been properly pruned in years. The new ones I just planted do not have any yet, but I will need to keep an eye on them as they continue to grow.
To remove them, simply saw or cut them off from the tree at their base where they meet the main branch of the tree. With these overgrown apple trees, I’m having to slowly cut them back from where multiple have all grown out from the same spot, and then saw off the remaining stump that is left afterwards. Many of these watersprouts have become so robust, that my little folding saw is no match for them and I will need to get some power tools out to actually remove.
Once I finish removing the watersprouts from the trees, I will systematically go through and remove any other crossing or rubbing branches and likely remove any other major horizontal branches that are too long for the tree. Otherwise, I will be trying to clear out any other new small sprouts that are not the fruiting spurs on the tree so that the healthier horizontal growth can have more space.
Because I don’t have a lot of experience with pruning fruit trees, I’m learning as I go here like you might be. To inform what I’m doing I’m hitting the books and the interwebs to find as much information as I can on how to prune, and even more so, what not to prune. My biggest frustration is that I need lots of pictures to look at with each step and that’s not always what I can find. That said, I found and really like this blog post from Martha Stewart about pruning apple trees on her farm. I appreciated seeing the photos she included of the process of pruning one of the older trees. And with all the photos, this post also includes good captions on what is happening.
Since I’m still pretty sick right now (well more chronically ill than usual) I am pacing myself at how much I prune at a time. This can be labor intensive work, so I’m really limiting it to the occasional 30 minutes in the afternoon as a nice escape after work. I will save a longer sessions for a weekend day when I can also get help with the big branches I am not strong enough for on my own (plus power tools!). Still in 30 minutes I’m able to take off a lot of unnecessary growth, and feel like I can finally start seeing some clearer shape to this apple tree.
It will take me through February to finish pruning all my trees and shrubs, but this is a nice way to end my work days when I can, and also prepare the garden so that I will have less work maintaining these trees during the rest of this year and in the future. It’s just a matter of doing a little at a time each as often as I can.
I Know it’s Cold…BUT I MUST PLANT SOMETHING!!!
I’m not going to pretend I didn’t spend November and December chomping at the bit to get outside and plant something. I get cabin fever pretty easily and so after I finished planting and winterizing my garden back in October, I was definitely pining for when the garden section at the hardware stores were filled again with perennials and not holiday décor and greens. You have to understand, I was ecstatic earlier this month to find a stash of hardneck garlic in the back of a drawer that I had forgotten about and had an excuse to go outside and plant something.
Like seriously guys, there were like 8 cloves of garlic to plant and I was dressed and outside in a hot minute to be able to stick these in the ground. It made my day when I found these, which is saying something about my levels of cabin fever and gardening obsession.
Anyways, unless you also discover some garlic stuffed in a drawer somewhere, there is not a lot yet to start planting in the Pacific Northwest as far as our veggies go. However, if you want to start something indoors, you can be like me and take advantage of this last weekend of January to start some onion seeds inside.
Onions take an extremely long time to mature but are more tolerant of cooler temperatures so you can move them outside in early spring. Starting onion seeds indoors now will allow them enough time to mature before you transplant them outside. Last year I tried a number of planting approaches and have decided this year to seed them thickly and thin only if I need to ahead of transplanting. I also tried trimming the onion seedlings down to one inch to try to encourage more bulb growth. My personal experience is that a single trim seemed to help, but any additional trimming after that did not seem to support the onion seedling. So just to test the theory again, I will try a batch with trimming and one without again, and see again if I have a significant change in bulb development down the road.
The seeds I start now should germinate and have starts ready for transplanting in late March or early April depending on the weather trends. I’ve had onions survive frosts, but they definitely don’t like it that cold. Generally you don’t want soil temperatures any cooler than 40°F if you are transplanting or sowing any onions outside, though some varieties can tolerate as cold as 35. Since I’m sowing sweet onions and they prefer warmer temperatures, I’m going to wait until temperatures outside are trending more towards 40 to be safe.
Looking on to February
February is going to be a really busy month for me. I’m going to be a new kitten mommy, I’ll be in full swing with my Master Gardener training, and I will be needing to somehow squeeze in enough time for some more garden work. Fortunately, I have been anticipating this situation for a couple months now and have narrowed in on a handful of tasks to keep things in check ahead of March:
- Planting bare root roses. I’ve been plotting this for months, it’s happening.
- Expanding the vegetable bed by 3′ in width and length
- Finish pruning!
That may only be three things, but those are three very major chores that need to be completed by the end of the next month, which is also a very short month!
Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed the weather cooperates a little!
What Happened Last January?
Looking for my post from last January? You can read what my first January on the property was like here.