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A Temperate-climate Garden in Winter

by paul spencer Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 03:49:43 PM EST

This is just one family's approach to gardening, but there may be a few lessons for novices in similar climates.  The pictures are of our second garden, which is about 3 years old.  (Our first garden was on the other side of our current home, and we used it for about 18 years.)  The (sort of) parallelogram borders were picked for aesthetics, more than as frames for raised-beds.

Might be difficult to see, but some of the beds are covered by partially-composted leaves.  The leaves are laid down in the Fall, after last harvest and after the rains/snows have started.  Composting takes place in situ, and by late Spring the pieces of the  leaves are about the size of postage stamps.  At that point they are perfect for mulching small plants (sets), such as tomatoes and peppers, that are usually started indoors and transplanted into the garden.

There's not too much to say about the garden in winter, except for five points:

  1.  Remove the residual dead/dying plants to reduce the viable spores of plant diseases that develop rapidly under cold, wet conditions (compost the plant residue if you have a suitable container or out-of-garden location);
  2.  Cover the bare ground with something in order to: a) reduce the compacting effect of rain and snow, b) prevent the weed seeds from establishing hegemony, c) promote fertility (e.g., sowing clover or similar high-value `green fertilizers');
  3.  Prune fruit trees, bushes, and vines;
  4.  Consider `dormant oil' spray (a relatively organic pesticide system based on sulfur) for fruit species that are susceptible of attack from various bacterial, fungal, and mold organisms (this is usually sprayed onto the tree or bush 2 - 3 times during Winter);
  5.  Transplant fruit trees and bushes in the dormant stage.

As you can see from this picture,

some plants can `overwinter'.  The Swiss Chard is substantially more coarse in the Spring, but it's quite edible for awhile.  (The Peas are more for show - you can't see them in the picture, but there are still white flowers on these, plus a few miniature pods.)  Carrots overwinter readily, and they even seem to survive freezing.  In our climate, though, given some mulch, the roots rarely see freezing conditions.

A few times in the past, on the advice of several gardening books, I have sowed spinach seeds in the late Fall.  No spinach so far, but I may give it one more chance with a change in tactics.  The tactic will be to sow the seeds in a lining of sharp (crushed) sand.  This type of sand has definite benefits in germination and `protection' of emerging plantlets.  The sand stays moist, but drains `standing' water away, effectively reducing conditions of viability for molds and such.  The sand is also relatively sterile in its own right.  Lastly, the sharp sand seems to be inhospitable to the bug larvae and slugs that eat tender shoots.  (This bit is an early-Spring garden suggestion.  I'll try to remember to reiterate it in the appropriate diary.)

Pruning - a confusing subject, because there are conflicting theories.  Prune as close to the crotch as possible; prune a branch diameter away from the crotch; prune several diameters away so that, if rot occurs at the cut, you can recut behind the rot; paint the cuts; don't paint the cuts.  I was raised on `cut as close as possible', but I've modified my approach to the one-diameter system.  I used to paint; now I don't.

Beyond those concerns, you have to learn the rules for different species.  For instance, apple trees grow fruit on `spurs' that develop on older wood (two-year-old minimum, likely older).  In addition they grow vertical `suckers' prolifically.  So - first step is to remove all of the vertically-growing, one-year-old `sticks'.  Second - for ease of harvest - is to cut back any of the central branches that are tending upward.  (After a few years, the basic shape is like an umbrella without the fabric, except that the ends turn upward.)  For best harvest conditions, apple trees are pruned fairly severely back to within a couple of cm of the fruiting spurs.  (If you don't know how to spot a fruiting-spur cluster, look at an apple tree when the apples are present.)

Unpruned apple tree

Pruned apple tree

Plum trees on the other hand make fruit on new growth.  They also tend to extend vertically, so they are pruned to cut back the height of the central leads and encourage the development of the side-growing shoots.  The ends of all of the new branches are cut back, but not very far.  You can get a notion of how far to go by observing the concentration of blossoms in the Spring: don't eliminate too many by pruning.

Grape vines are pruned severely, even though the fruit grows on new growth.  In this case, though, the new growth is the branches that will be formed in the coming growing season.  As you can see from this picture,

branches grow rampantly during the growing season.  Almost all of this needs to be removed, or the vines will become all tangled wood and leaves with few grapes.  Several `leads' are chosen that conform best to the design of your support structure; the rest is cut back to wood (as opposed to `green' branches).  The pruning can be put off until the Spring, but the vines will `bleed' copiously. Doesn't seem to hurt them, but why not take care of it while they are fully dormant?

Good Winter project - build an arbor for the grape vines as seen at the far end of this photo. This supports the vine structure in such a way as to maximize surface area to sun exposure, facilitates harvest (and pruning), and makes a nice shaded spot for sitting in the garden. Don't forget the bird bath, too.

Fig trees practically take care of themselves in our area, except for two considerations.  First, they can have weak crotches.  Some support may be needed.  (Even if a branch splits, though, it's a fairly easy repair: pull the branch back up and wrap duct tape around the joint several times.  You will definitely need some support in addition: in my case I just took a 1" diameter branch from a Douglas Fir, cut its twigs back to only a Y, cut the branch to the right height to support the fig branch about half of its length from the trunk, and jammed the Fir branch into the ground.  A year or two later, the crotch was solid, the tape was in tatters, and I removed the Fir support.)

Second consideration is - as usual - to prevent the tree from growing too tall.  The one on the left is at the limit for me (and my ladder).

OK - transplanting - maybe a diary in itself.  For now let it suffice to write that late Fall, Winter, and very early Spring are usually the best times for this work.  Dig the hole deeper and wider than you think you need; have good, humusy soil ready for use in the process; a little fertilizer is good, but water is essential (rain is usually sufficient in the cool/cold seasons).

Then you have to read the particular instructions for the plant involved.  Almost all grafted plants will require that the graft stays above grade.  That implies that there is some other reason for digging the hole bigger than `just barely enough'.  One reason is to break up compacted soil under the new, to-be-developing root system; a second reason is to allow addition of some of that humusy soil that you have sitting there by the hole (you have it there, right?).

There's enough for you to mull over, as you consume your mulled wine on a cold Winter's evening.  Come Spring, I'll present my take on the prep and planting stage.  Meantime, I'd like to read about your experiences and advice for the Winter garden.

I've neglected the garden horribly this winter: I've just been too sick for too long to have the energy to deal with it.  I need to start fixing that pretty soon - it's time to start planting early seeds indoors around here.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 04:59:52 PM EST
I always thought there might be a certain amount of hidden revenge in my ex's advice to be brutal when pruning apple trees. She had always been a great garden hobbyist, but had then done a 2 year course after our divorce and now has a garden center on our old property.

But she was right. Cut them right down and wait out a year. Same with the fruit bushes.

Finns are obsessive about removing autumn leaves before the snow. I must have paid for a few boy scouts trips abroad with our nuptial 2 hectare land's demand for cleaning. But I always thought - why not mow the whole grass area before the snow and zap all the leaves to become microcompost for the Spring? Fortunately others are now coming round to my lazy way of thinking.

I always wanted a pond for frogs and toads (day and nght shift) because they eat an awful lot of bugs. But no.

I planted a medium sapling apple tree in honour of J' son's recovery, but sadly the hares have been at it. I should have protected it better. It seems to be still OK, hard to tell - but I worry abut the winer- though it has been mild so far.

I must admit to being lazy with compost in the winter. I resolve to do better. A lot of birds have unusually stayed behind. I will keep them going if a cold snap comes - but I don't know how good they will be at surviving, or will they just fly off south when the temperature gradient is provocatve enough.

We also had no instances this year of drunken birds flying into windows this year. We have plenty of laden rowan, and the berries foment, but they must have found a bar with billiards or something. Not a trace of projectile vomiting or incoherent navigation on our property.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 05:09:47 PM EST
As you say - I doubt that your neck-of-the-woods can be called 'temperate'.

"Fruit bushes" also have different habits: prune last year's raspberry canes to the ground, but trim blueberries very lightly IMO.

Yes to lazy leaves/grass composting in situ.

Our birds get their share of fruit so quickly that there's no chance of fermentation, but they still manage to whack a window now and then.

Sven - what are you doing in mid-April to early May? My wife and I will be making a cycle from Paris through Munich, Croatia, Italy, and back to Paris then. Any chance that you'd be headed south?

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 06:08:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Paul. It is a possibility. I've been planning to get to an ET meet-up, but projects have always intervened. My current project on FDI should have stabilised enough by the time of your Europe visit to allow me to get away.

Munich is a great city, but Paris would give a greater chance of getting other ETers together. Let's stay in touch.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 02:44:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
April 10th to 13th, then May 1st to 5th (airport on the 5th).

paul spencer
by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 07:29:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My seedlings are coming along beautifully (knock wood) and I'm putting about 50 more to work this weekend.  The spring/summer garden is planned very ambitiously this year, with lots of containers and raised beds and trellises of various sorts.  There will be tomatoes, eggplants, green beans (and purple) cucumbers, chard, kale, lettuces, carrots, onions, potatoes, sunflowers, zucchini, lots of herbs.  The peach tree has been producing well each summer and the kumquat tree now, too.  We hope to see a few olives this year, maybe.  And I'll be starting artichoke plants and asparagus this year, too, but they don't produce right off.  Haven't had much luck with grapes in Austin.  I think I may have to use some screen cloth for protection from birds this year, too, our neighborhood has so many.

I'm so excited about it, and if at all successful, I'll post some photos.  I envy you the size and location of your gorgeous garden.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 11:29:02 PM EST
Do you know Sally and David Hamilton? They're probably starting their sets about now, too. In fact - do you know any of the old Rag staff folks? former sdsers? Ever heard about Milo Minderbinder Memorial Co-op?

I never had much of a garden in Austin - no time and no space. Used to pick pecans off of the sidewalk over about 26th and Nueces up to about 29th. Grapefruit and oranges via truck vendors straight from the Valley; watermelons south of the river, going toward Barton Springs.

Figs were a problem in that the bugs always got most of them about as soon as they turned.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 11:37:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey, Paul.  I've been in Austin about 11 years now, but work on the road during the week.  My only social life in Austin is a screenwriters' group and the Austin Film Festival along with some politicking.  We belonged to the Oasis Gardens community farm for awhile but do our own gardening now in the yard, the front yard, mostly, because that's where the sunshine is.  We live in that 50's neighborhood called Windsor Park (!) north of 51st street, which has good soil as it was a cow pasture until the mid-50's.  We've composted and enriched the soil in all our raised beds.  There are 3 pecan trees in the yard, so that takes care of those needs.

I'll have to look up that Minderbinder Co-op, sounds intriguing.  I'm tickled to learn you were in Austin.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 08:31:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmmm... didn't know you were also in the movie biz ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 10:38:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hah!  There's no "also" about it, Sven; unlike you, I'm just a wannabe.  But thanks for the sense of camaraderie.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 06:52:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well I'm a bit player in a country with Minnesota's population ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jan 24th, 2008 at 02:03:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sally Hamilton is in the film "industry", too. She is usually involved in set design and costume procurement, as I understand it.

What kind of politics? You may have seen several thousand signs around Austin that say something to the effect of "get out of Iraq". David and Sally started that project. They, and some of our old friends, are involved in MDS - Movement for a Democratic Society - which is a nascent senior-services adjunct to a resurgent (maybe) sds. Let me know if you want an introduction.

As to Milo, you won't find anything but historical anecdotes. Wheatfield Co-op may have some spiritual connection, but is not a direct descendant.

If you're "tickled", then you have definitely absorbed the Texas vernacular. Next time somebody asks you how you're doing, you should say, "Fine as frog's hair, split four ways".

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 10:40:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Liberal/progressive politics, of course!  I'll bet I've come across the Hamiltons at one time or another, we cross interests too often not to have met.  My daughter is devoted to Wheatsville Co-op.  
I have a lot of really nice clothes that I want to donate somewhere, some very expensive and OLD, that I thought might be best for someone who maintains a costume or wardrobe collection for films and plays.  Maybe Sally could use them.  If so, help us get in touch, that would be slicker than snot on a doorknob.  (not my saying, that's from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.)

Thanks, Paul

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 06:50:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
so we'll have to communicate herein. First off, back in the day, there was an old one-pump gas station, one soda-pop-cooler 'store' near the Chicken Ranch that sold about the best BBQ brisket that you can imagine. Rusty, old smoker out back, hand-built from 55-gallon drums or some such.

In any case - quicker than a duck on a june bug -  e-mail me at   spencerinthegorge@yahoo.com   and I will get you in contact with David and Sally.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 07:25:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Our garden is due to be expanded into the (useless) grassy area next spring, due to overwhelming success as a vegetable producer this past summer. My grape vines are taking over the yard beyond their allocated space and will have to be chopped back this winter. I may go out and do some major pruning this weekend, depending on how cold it is; this morning it was below zero (F).

As an indoor project, I'm going to try to germinate some coffee beans, although we keep our house so cold during the day that I doubt that the experiment will work. It's pretty pathetic when you have to have a greenhouse indoors!

by asdf on Tue Jan 22nd, 2008 at 11:58:18 PM EST
used to be the back-yard, when our young-uns were young-uns. Over the years I've cut back all lawn around the place, until there is only about 10 minutes' worth of mowing.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 10:43:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At least we're still getting greens out of our garden - pulled a winter cabbage tonight, discarded the outer leaves (I may try making shoes from them or something!), fried the middle leaves with some onions to go with dinner tonight and the heart will probably make coleslaw on Friday night. That's a satisfying feeling in January.

Pictures and notes on the disaster zone here.  The notes are on the info button for each picture.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 05:40:58 PM EST
Last produce for us was about a month ago - also, a cabbage. Ran out of potatoes a little before that.

Last year we were still eating apples, but this past Spring the frosts took out almost all of the apple blossoms. This Winter has seen more snow and harder freezing than usual. I probably won't try to do anything but prune the grape vines for at least a month more.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 23rd, 2008 at 06:23:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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