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December 29, 1997

Home & Garden

End of the year garden thoughts

  by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
   Plants don't read calendars, so time moves on from growth to growth without an end point. But gardeners think of "year's end," as a marker for reflection and ideas about next season. Seed catalogs, new nursery plant introductions, and the prospect of a potentially mild winter all get gardening fever going. Isn't it hard to visualize the 20 inches of snow that covered gardens last winter?
   Wet, saturated ground isn't ideal for planting, cultivating or digging. If transplanting or planting are on your list, and your soil is heavy, wait a few days after a rain to allow the ground to dry out a bit. If you are concerned about whether the area drains well enough for planting, check by digging a 12-inch deep hole and filling it with water (yes, that is laughable considering how much rain we've had!). Water should drain out at a rate of about 1 inch per hour. In sandy soils, the drainage rate will be much faster than that. If the soil drains poorly, consider constructing a raised bed or building a berm (a raised planting area without wood edges).
   Look at nurseries and garden centers for winter-blooming shrubs and other attractive plants to add interest to the garden during January and February. Many of the very early bloomers give perfume to the air: Viburnum burkwoodii, Sarcococca ruscifolia, and Daphne odora are all wonderfully fragrant. None of these plants have common names, perhaps because they are plant royalty! Explore to see which ones engage your senses.
   Other winter bloomers such as Camellia sasanqua and various heathers do not scent the garden, but certainly enliven it with attractive foliage and flowers. Look for intriguing bark patterns on shrubs and trees like red-twig dogwood (Cornus alba) and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). Many native plants look terrific in the winter garden. Mahonias, particularly some of the cultivated types such as Mahonia aquifolium "Arthur Menzies" are showy when in yellow flower, but also have splendid foliage.
   Give the fruit garden some attention. Early warmth during December swelled buds on many fruit trees, and it's especially necessary to look at the peach trees. If the peach has been suffering from peach leaf curl, treatment's needed right now. Peach leaf curl is a fungal disease that deforms the leaves as they open and can severely restrict the fruit production. The fungus lives during winter on and under the scales of the leaf buds, and grows as the leaves open. Fungicides to manage peach leaf curl must be timed to get on the buds before they begin to open. Dormant fungicides suggested by Washington State University are lime sulfur, Daconil (chlorothalonil), or Microcop (copper). Apply the selected fungicide 3 times, applications 3 weeks apart. If treatment is started too late, it's ineffective.
   If fruit trees have summer insect infestations such as scale (turtle-like bumps on the branches and twigs), or aphids (sucking insects that attack leaves), consider using a dormant spray. The word "dormant" refers to the tree's situation, when it's not actively producing blooms and leaves. (WSU specialists suggest a superior-type horticultural oil plus lime sulfur). Aphids live through the winter as eggs tucked into bark, and the oil smothers those eggs, reducing the number that hatch for spring. Check and follow the label exactly. Dormant sprays do not work for control of apple scab, brown rot on stone fruit, codling moth or apple maggot. Those common diseases and insects must be dealt with during the vulnerable part of the life cycle, which isn't during the dormant season.
   For more information on growing fruit, contact your local WSU Cooperative Extension office for specific bulletins. In Pierce County, call 253-798-7170 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. In King County, call 206-296-3900 weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. In Snohomish County, call 425-338-2400 weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In January, many nurseries will have bare root fruit trees available, and it's a good time to plan additions to the home orchard.
   Prune spring-flowering bushes such as forsythia and quince, bringing the branches indoors for decoration. Watching the blossoms open is a great hint of spring. Check stored fuchsias and geraniums to make sure they aren't drying out. Water lightly if they are. Make some notes on what was satisfactory in the garden during 1997, and what could be changed. There's an old saying that reminds us all how valuable writing can be: "Even palest ink is better than the most retentive memory." Keeping a garden log or journal need not be complex, but it's rewarding and can add to the pleasure of the garden. Take some time to appreciate the garden and to be grateful for the presence of plants in our lives as this year ends.