Plant those, prune these

DON'T PUT THAT shovel or spade away quite yet. January may be the middle of winter (more or less), but many consider it the best time to plant roses, some fruit trees and California natives. The days may be short but they are usually dry. It may have rained on the Rose Parade, but it was the first time in 51 years.

Historically, February and March are our rainiest months so don't put off any opportunity this month to plant and prune once the garden has dried enough to work in -- you really shouldn't even walk in wet garden beds, much less dig in them.

An abundance of roses

Nurseries that have only a few varieties of roses at other times of the year suddenly have dozens, even hundreds, right after the holidays when the bare root bushes arrive. It's the best time to shop. Roses cost less now because it is so much cheaper for growers to ship dormant, bare root bushes.

Nurseries often sell roses with no soil around their roots, though they might also pot them up to keep the roots from becoming too dry or too soggy, which is an important thing to check for when buying roses at this time of the year.

Bare root bushes are easy to plant and the roses benefit from not having been grown in a container, but there are special techniques to learn. Ask for a how-to pamphlet at the nursery. Basically you dig a wide hole, then mound up soil in the center and place the plant on top so its roots spread over the mound in a natural fashion. If the soil is to be amended, treat the dirt dug from the hole. Then fill the hole and water.

For bushes in containers, simply shake loose the soil from the dormant, leafless bushes and plant them as if they were bare root. Those roses temporarily planted in pots filled with pure shavings must be replanted as bare roots.

A necessary pruning

Though it's a good idea to plant as early in the month as possible, many wait until after the 15th to begin pruning roses because early growth might be damaged by frost. Roses must be pruned to keep them from becoming brambles. (Ever see a wild rose growing by a creek?) Pruning also results in larger flowers.

There are special ways to cut each rose type so some sort of reference guide is useful. Nurseries often have books on pruning by Ortho or Sunset and both explain why these techniques are a little different in mild Southern California. (For a list of classes, see Page 5.) In general, the tall hybrid teas require the most pruning, while vining and old-fashioned, shrubby kinds require less. A few ground covering and miniatures require little if any.

Fruit trees too

Deciduous fruit trees -- apples, peaches, plums and the like -- are also sold bare root now but the gardener needs to be extra careful to buy only the kind or varieties that will grow in our mild climate. Many won't, or at least won't produce fruit. There are some good lists of those that do. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists varieties and where they do best. There's a list at under "The Fruit Orchard" heading. Kinds that do well here are said to need less chilling, or so-called "low-chill" varieties.

Deciduous fruit trees also need pruning at this time of the year if they are to produce good crops of fruit in summer. Again, find a good reference as each kind has its own requirements. And be sure to treat leafless fruit trees with a dormant spray, a safe way to guard against over-wintering pests and diseases.

Not too late for natives

While roses need the most care and water in the garden, California natives need the least, but they can be tricky to grow. Many of our natives have learned to live a very spare existence and too good a soil or too much water or fertilizer can doom them. Find sensitive types a place in the garden where they will not get regular irrigation. It helps to plant at a time of year when they can become adjusted to their new home with the least stress or attention from the gardener, who often kills with kindness.

January may be that perfect month. Right now, you can plant natives, then water and walk away, or almost. Rains and short, cool days will let them become established. Plant the smallest plants you can find because they will take hold quickest. Big specimens need more care, so they become more of a gamble. If it turns out to be a dry winter, you will need to water even the small plants every week or so, but by summer they will need very little, and next year, almost none.

California's wildflowers, such as baby blue eyes, poppies and Clarkia, bloom in early spring, so this is the last chance to sow. Clear weeds but try not to turn up the soil, which will bring new weed seed to the surface. Barely roughen the ground with a rake and then sow the seed. Bird netting may be necessary to protect seed until it is sprouted by watering or rain.

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