What to do in the garden in January? Plenty. Here are 26 ideas


Happy 2019! Let’s make some resolutions so we’ll all have more colorful, productive, water-wise, sustainable and edible gardens this year.

1. Watch the weather forecast: When there’s rain, be sure your irrigation system is on pause. There’s no reason to water if the soil is already saturated. To find out if the soil has dried out, stick your finger into the earth. For water-wise gardens, wait until the soil is dry at least 4 inches deep.

2. Commit to planting at least two new trees in your garden this year. Trees are the No. 1 tool in battling climate change, so the more we plant, the better.


3. Plant deciduous trees on the southern side of your property — they’ll shade the house in the heat of summer but let the sun in to warm the house in winter.

4. Match the ultimate size of the tree to the space available. Don’t think you’ll keep it smaller by pruning. That is not a reasonable expectation (except for fruit trees).

5. If you are planting near structures, sidewalks or driveways, stick with trees that do not have a reputation for destructive roots or surface roots. Do your homework before you plant.

6. Start small. A 5- or 15-gallon tree will grow faster and stronger than one in a larger container.

7. Check the roots. Reject trees with exposed, tangled, massively circling roots, etc.

8. Plant properly. Set the tree at the same level it was in the container. Loosen up the root ball.

9. Water consistently, and take the weather forecast into consideration. Trees, as with all all such plants, need to be kept damp (not wet) through their first year or two in the ground. After that, cut back on water.

10. Shape the tree early. Set the structure and branching pattern with early pruning done by a licensed certified arborist.

Set the structure and branching pattern of your tree with early pruning done by a licensed certified arborist.
(lovelyday12 / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

11. This is the time to shop for bare-root fruit trees — peach, nectarine, almond, apple, Pluot, pomegranate, fig, grape and more. These young plants are dug up, their roots trimmed, and soil washed away before the plants are shipped to your local nursery. They look like scraggly sticks with a wad of roots at the base, but they are the best way to buy fruiting plants.

12. Plant only “low-chill” fruits along the coast, in the deserts and in the valleys. For inland gardens, look for varieties rated for no more than 500 chill hours; for coastal and desert gardens, no than 200 to 300 chill hours. Check each plant’s tag to find its chill hour rating.

13. Before you buy, check tree root stocks too. Fruit trees have two parts: The fruiting wood is grafted onto a totally different tree that is referred to as the “root stock.” Some root stocks are good for trees that will grow in clay soils; others resist nematodes or dwarf the size of the tree, etc. Look for a tree that has the best fruiting wood plus the best root stock for your garden’s conditions.

14. If you can’t plant bare-root trees the same day you bring them home, store them temporarily in a very large pot, covered in damp potting soil, peat moss or wood shavings. Before you plant, soak the roots in water for a couple hours to be sure they are at maximum hydration.

15. Before you dig a planting hole for your fruit tree, spread its roots and look at their size. Be sure to notice the spot on the trunk where the color changes. You might even mark it with a Sharpie pen so it is really obvious. This is the dirt line, left from when the tree was originally planted. Look just above the dirt line for a thickening along the trunk. That’s the graft; where root stock and the fruiting wood were grafted together.

16. Dig the fruit tree planting hole wide enough for roots to fit without bending, folding or being crunched together. Dig deep enough for the dirt line on the tree’s trunk to match the level of the soil and the graft to be well above the soil. Toss in a few handfuls of worm castings and some organic fruit tree fertilizer (follow label directions for how much to use). Fill the empty hole with water and let it drain out, then plant the tree. Refill the hole with native soil only — no potting mix, no compost. Water to settle the soil.

17. Prune the tree right away, to get it off to a good start. Cut the main trunk back to just 24 or 30 inches tall. Prune back the side branches to one or two buds. This is the best way to encourage low branches so the fruit is easy to access and the tree is easy to care for. It also balances the size of the plant to the size of its supporting roots.

18. Have you pruned established fruit trees yet? Prune apple and plum trees to stimulate fruit production. Each kind of tree requires a different way of pruning, so do your homework, either online or look for one of the good pruning books, such as “How to Prune Fruit Trees” by R. Sanford Martin.

19. The best way to avoid leaf curl, fire blight, downy mildew and other fruit tree problems in spring and summer is to treat them now, before flower buds start to form. Copper fungicide sprays like Liqui-Cop prevent anthracnose, fire blight, downy and powdery mildew and peach leaf curl, among other issues. Horticultural oil smothers insect eggs, aphids, mealy bugs, scale and other overwintering critters. Each product has its own schedule of application, so follow label directions.

20. Fertilize established stone fruit trees with a low-nitrogen organic fertilizer, such as a 3:12:12 formulation with trace elements. Follow label directions.

21. Plant bare-root Southern Highbush blueberries such as ‘Sunshine Blue,’ ‘O’Neal,’ ‘Jubilee’ and ‘Sharpblue.’ These blueberries are bred to tolerate more sunshine, less acidic soils and warmer winters like ours. Plant them in very large containers (think half-whiskey barrels) filled with a mixture of equal parts peat, acidic potting soils and medium pathway bark.

22. Plant ornamental perennials, shrubs and trees — such as the Tecate cypress — now. Focus on natives such as toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), pink lemonade berry (Rhus lentii), Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) and heart-leaved bush penstemon (Hesperocyparis forbesii). Water deeply at planting, then often enough to keep their roots damp but not wet. By this time next year, these plants will likely need little if any irrigation.

23. If your plants suffer from cold damage, don’t prune them. The damaged parts protect the rest of the plant from future freezes this winter. Wait until Feb. 1 (along the coast), March 1 (for coastal valleys and the desert), April 1 (inland) or May 1 (in the mountains). Then, cut away the damage.

Rake only on pathways and patios.
(rudigobbo / Getty Images)

24. Leave leaves. Despite what your parents said, leaves in garden beds are good. Leaves from ornamental plants (not fruit trees) keep weeds from sprouting, hold the water in soil and keep soil warm in winter, cool in summer. They also recycle nutrients back into the plants. Rake pathways and patios, but everywhere else, leave the leaves.

25. Propagate succulents. Cut off pups and side shoots. Let their ends dry for a few days and then set into cactus and succulent mix instead of regular potting soil, which holds too much moisture for too long.

26. Has your poinsettia pooped out? If so, plant it in the garden — now in coastal gardens, in early April for inland and mountain areas. Choose a spot in sun or shade, where the night sky is totally dark from September to December. The long dark period stimulates next winter’s bloom. For a how-to, see

The author is a garden designer and writer. Her website is