Winter Gardening

My friend Bernice reigns as gardener-queen of our neighborhood. Her rose plants grow like big bushes; her citrus trees hang heavy with fruit, and her vegetable garden produces more than her family can eat. We Kellys, on the other hand, have brown thumbs. We succeed with succulents and cacti.

Husband Patrick and I have resolved to improve our gardening. Patrick wants to get tips from experts before we begin, particularly since we're launching our flora-improvement program in the tricky winter months. Of course, when Patrick says he wants to get expert advice, he means he wants me to get it for him. So I phoned Mission Hills Nursery and spoke with owner Fausto Palafox. "It's common in many of the eastern states where it snows," he told me, "to do a whole winter preparation process so that your plants survive. There's pruning, soil, and for tender plants -- ones that need their roots protected -- they use some sort of organic material, most commonly hay, covering the plants with several layers in an effort to insulate the root area. The root system is tender and if it freezes, the plant dies. So by creating these areas of insulation with hay, it protects them for the winter. Here in San Diego, we don't do any of that. We rake up the fallen leaves, clean up, and prune our plants to prepare them for the following spring. It is customary to prune about the first week of January, although you can prune in the fall. We also do a lot of transplanting, so that everything is established when the spring months finally come. We do get some frost inland. For our store in Alpine, we don't do any root protection, but we are tentative as to what we leave outside during the winter months."

What about fertilizing?

"Fertilizers work with bacteria," Palafox answered. "When it is cold, bacteria is dormant. It just sits there or it washes away. Bacteria need to be active in the ground in order for fertilizers to work because the bacteria eat the fertilizer, which creates the release. Temperatures need to be above a certain level -- I think it is 72 degrees -- in order for the bacteria to be active. That is one of the reasons that when there is rain followed by a few days of warm weather, all the gardens and all the greens kind of blow up in the ground. Everything bursts into bloom and that is the bacteria being activated.

"There are winter fertilizers," he continued, "that are designed for winter to continue the feeding process. You do want to continue feeding periodically in late winter, typically December, January, so that as soon as that burst occurs in spring, you are ready for it. Your plants are taking advantage, taking up the fertilizer, and growing."

Bernice, who has a quarter-acre veggie garden, plants a cover crop in early winter, which she tills into the soil come spring. I asked Palafox what he thought of that idea.

"Our properties here are so small," he answered, "so not everybody uses cover crops." For those with big gardens, "typically they are going to be crops that are nitrogen-rich, usually green foliage plants. You grow the plants and then rototill them into the ground and they release their nitrogen in the soil."

What do you do with perennials during the winter?

"Typically, in the fall, either cut down your perennials, or, in many cases you divide them at the roots and then replant them. The other thing to remember is that fall is the best time to plant. The summer months warm up the soil, and when you get into fall -- our fall is typically October, November -- the daytime temperatures are cooler but the ground is still warm from all those months of hot weather. Planting your winter garden, or transplanting, the plant is not trying to push out a ton of growth and the days are cool, so you are not stressing the plant. However, because the soil is warm, the plant establishes very nicely through the winter months, it gets the cold rains, so then by the time spring rolls around, the root system is well established. That is the beauty of fall planting.

"The watering depends on what kind of garden you have," continued Palafox. "If you have a lot of dormant plants -- plants that drop their foliage -- then the water is minimal. Depending on how well established the vegetation is, watering would be from once every couple of weeks to once a month.

"When it comes to dormancy, on your roses, fruit trees, and some of your shade trees that go dormant, use a dormant spray. In the wintertime, especially after you prune, some of your plants are susceptible to various airborne diseases. You want to eliminate those before they manifest themselves. So you use a dormant spray, apply it two to three times during the winter and it will protect the plants once they start leafing out."

Any pest problems during winter?

"Not much in the way of insects because most bugs die with cold temperatures," he offered. "The only thing that people do get behind on is that right when spring starts, with the nice days, all of a sudden you get a lot of little critters, like aphids that pop up right away. You have to stay on top of them, right off the bat."

Before I hung up I asked Palafox to give a short list of essential gardening supplies. He started by recommending a general-purpose organic fertilizer such as the Whitney Farms All-Purpose Plant Food [$8.99 for four pounds at the nursery]. "And in the area of insecticide," he said, "there are products that are organic and are broad spectrum meaning they kill a variety of little critters, but are also safe to the garden and to the homeowner. Rose Protector [$21.99 for a quart] is a great product that is organic. Also the product called Envirepel Bug Killer $19.99 for one quart], which is also very good." For the dormant spray, Palafox recommended the Lilly Miller Summer & Dormant Spray [$8.99 for one pint].

1. Lilly Miller Dormant Spray

2. Garden plants

3. Whitney Farms Fertilizer

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