January: Bare-root roses, fruit trees, berry vines and California natives


January is historically a dry month in the garden, so most years it is a fine time to plant roses and deciduous fruit trees, such as apples and plums. They will be more plentiful at nurseries in the coming month than at any other time of the year. Don’t wait too long to do garden jobs because February and March are usually our rainiest, months when soils will be too wet to dig in or walk on.

The bare-root rose season

Nurseries are well-stocked in January with roses that are just dormant, leafless sticks with no soil around their roots. But because the health of the dormant bush depends completely on how moist and numerous the roots are, more nurseries pot their bare-root roses to keep them from drying out in our sometimes-warm winter weather. A few nurseries may simply keep the plants in bins filled with moist sawdust; many sell only prepackaged plants with the bare roots wrapped in sawdust and plastic.

Before taking a plant home, make sure the roots are plump and moist and that there are lots of them. This is impossible to tell with prepackaged plants, so don’t be afraid to return inferior plants if you unwrap them and discover too few roots. The more roots, the better that plant will be in spring.


It’s important to ask the nursery how to best plant their roses. Some may suggest shaking off the temporary soil and planting them in the traditional way (spread the naked roots over a cone of soil in the bottom of a planting hole); others may suggest planting them just like any other potted nursery plant.

Rose pruning and dormant spraying

Modern bush roses (hybrid teas, floribundas) do best if they are pruned in winter. Coastal gardeners can start now, but inland gardeners often wait until after mid-month to avoid untimely frosts. Pruning is a craft not easily learned unless you can see someone else demonstrate the principles. Fortunately, there are demonstrations at public gardens by rose groups at this time of year. Basically, the idea is to remove dead, old or crossing branches, plus one-third or more of the twiggy growth, so only sturdy canes capable of hefty sprouts (and more or bigger flowers) remain. There will be few sprouts from canes that are old or covered with bark, so new canes must be encouraged throughout the life of the bush. However, many heritage or “old” roses don’t need this kind of pruning at all, though they can do with a little shaping.

Finish by pulling off all the leaves, then raking them up for disposal since many pests and diseases survive winter hiding under rose litter. Once the plant is leafless, spray it with a safe dormant spray that contains an oil to smother pests and something like sulfur or copper to control over-wintering diseases that might still be on rose branches. The rose is now ready for spring’s explosion of fresh growth and flowers.

Don’t forget deciduous fruit and berries

These are also available bare root, though they may also be potted up at many nurseries or wrapped in plastic. The same precautions and instructions about bare-root roses apply to fruit trees. Make sure you are buying a healthy specimen and plant it properly.

Many fruits sold bare root, such as apples, apricots, Asian pears, nectarines, peaches and plums, need room to grow. But there are dwarf varieties of some and specially trained versions that fit in more confined spaces.

Make sure to buy only varieties of these colder-climate plants that will do well in our very mild climate, especially if you live near the coast. There are lists available online, including at and, or at . Fruit trees need pruning too or they will produce less and less each year. Each type has its own needs, so consult a good book. Dormant spraying is also important, especially on peaches.


Blackberries and boysenberries are vines that might take a little work to keep in bounds, but they produce lots of fruit over several weeks or longer.

Last chance for natives?

Some consider January the best month to plant California natives, and it’s a favorite time for revegetation in habitat restorations because you can plant natives and never tend to them again. The reason, of course, are the approaching rainy months and mild spring weather (assuming 2007 will be a fairly normal year).

You can also continue with the “fall” planting of other trees and shrubs from areas with Mediterranean climates similar to ours, and of spring-blooming flowers and spring-bearing vegetables. Wait too much longer and plants will have a much harder time.

In case of rain

If it does rain, don’t dig holes. In fact, be sure to stay out of garden beds while soils are wet. Walking on wet soils seriously compacts them, squeezing out the necessary open spaces that allow plant roots to breathe.

If you must get into a bed to prune a rose or weed a patch, toss down a 2-by-2-foot piece of half-inch plywood to disperse your weight.

Don’t dig in soils while you can still make dirt balls in your fist. Squeeze the soil; it should fall apart or be easily pushed apart after you release your grip.