January Garden Maintenance: The To-Do List

The Winter Garden photo by ptc24 on Flickr

If December is all about putting things to bed – raking, weeding, mulching,  and cutting back perennials – January’s for dreaming big dreams of the coming year’s harvest and blooms – pruning, spraying, and planting for a productive year.

You’d think while pruning a completely bare tree you’d feel wintry and rather desolate – but if you are like me, visions of next year’s homemade yellow plum liquor and fresh apple crumble keep you feeling cheerful and warm inside!

Even the non-gardeners know it’s pruning time, and I’ll be sure and talk more about how and what to prune soon; but what else is going on in the garden right now?

Dormant Spraying of Peaches, Apples, Pears

Now’s the time for the second application of Dormant Oil and Lime-Sulfur spray on your apples and pears. This is a great organic control which goes a long way in preventing insect eggs and fungus from living over in the crevices of your bark.

Learn from my mistake and spray that Lime-Sulfur first thing in the morning before you shower – don’t do it right before dinner, please. My poor partner was sniffing his meal suspiciously trying to figure out what in the world smelled so bad.

Spray peaches now with copper sulfate (Micro-cop) to prevent Peach Leaf Curl. This is another organic control that works wonders.

Rake Up Camellia Flower PetalsCamellia sasanqua - single petaled, photo by jam343 on Flickr

If you’ve seen those horrible clumps of brown flowers on your Camellias (especially the ruffly-flowered ones), you’ll know why you want to avoid Blossom Blight. As your Camellias drop their petals, rake them up and keep things clean to avoid problems. If you have experienced Blossom Blight in the past, you may like to add a layer of mulch each year after they’ve finished blooming.

I see this every year with the rose-like varieties, but rarely see any disease  issue with the single-petaled, simple-flowered Camellias, so if you are choosing a new Camellia, go for one with just a single layer of petals. The only way I’d say choosing a ruffly variety’s an OK idea on the damp coast is if it is in a covered area, like under a large overhang, where the flowers will miss some of the moisture from the sky.

Bareroot Fruit Trees, Roses, Berries, and More

This is the time of year to pick up your bareroot plants! Raspberries, thornless blackberries, fruit trees, and bareroot roses; plus the less obvious ornamentals – last year my local nursery had a great selection of Lilacs, ornamental Flowering Cherries and Golden Chain Trees, and some neat Hydrangea varieties.

My favorite bareroots to buy right now?

Honeycrisp apple photo by onefish2 on FlickrHoneycrisp Apples had a huge following when I worked at my local  nursery, and after trying them I can see why. They are crisp and sweet with a full flavor – none of the mealiness you sometimes get with Golden Delicious, and not too tart or too bland. Just great eating or juicing apples.

Espaliered Multi-Variety Apples are excellent for small-space gardens. Espaliered means that the apple has been trained so that it sits flat against a wall, so even if you have a lot of perennial flowers in your bed, you can still make good use of your sunny fence for food production. You can get dwarf trees that have three varieties grafted onto the one plant, so they pollinate each other and give you a few kinds of apple.

Espaliered Apples photo by pipiwildhead on Flickr

Frost Peaches are fantastic in the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. Most peaches need more chilling time than we can give them on the coast, but I’ve had great success with Frost Peaches. On a three year old plant about five minutes from the ocean, my client got a large bucket full of fruit!

Pruning Fruit Trees, Roses, Berries, Maiden Grass, Red-Twig Dogwoods, and Native Sword Ferns

I’ll talk more specifically about pruning soon, but suffice it to say this is major pruning season. Raspberries and Blackberries, climbing and other roses, fruit trees and other dormant trees, and many ornamental grasses but in particular the Maiden Grasses/ Miscanthus are getting cut back now.

I’m also cutting off all the foliage from our native Sword Ferns, Polystichum munitum. While some people only cut out the dead fronds, I’ve found that by August last year’s fronds are looking very shabby, and it’s hard to get in and cut them out individually without harming the fresh fronds.

They come back beautiful and fresh and over ten years I haven’t noticed any diminished vigor from our yearly prune. Just cut each frond back to right above that hard knob at the base where the new fronds emerge.

Red- and Yellow-Twig Dogwoods are also getting cut back now. Many people cut the entire shrub to a few inches tall in early spring and let the new stems come up afresh, since the young stems are the brightest.

I don’t see any need to be so drastic – I’ve had great success just pruning out the oldest one-third of the branches at the base. This keeps it constantly refreshed and ready to grow some bright new twigs for the year, yet you still get to enjoy the rest of the season with your pretty stems, plus your shrub stays a consistent size.

You can tell which stems are the oldest since they’ll be thicker and with a duller color than your other stems.

Cleaning and Sharpening Your Tools

Cleaning tools photo by Maine Coast Semester on Flickr

This is the perfect time of year to scrub off, sharpen, and oil your tools. Getting them clean and sharp will make for much better pruning cuts and a lot less effort on your part!

Fine Gardening has some in-depth tips on how to do it, but don’t be intimidated if you don’t want to spend all day on it.

I just scrub the caked sap off my pruning tools with an oiled scrubby dish sponge – you can use WD-40 or even motor oil – then wipe off any excess oil and sap, sharpen them (just follow the existing blade angle with your sharpener – I use a Speedy Sharp), and then apply oil or WD-40 to all the moving parts. Takes a few minutes per tool and makes pruning a lot more fun.

I hope this gives you some ideas of what to do outdoors this month, and here’s wishing you clear weather for all your pruning, planting, and spraying! If it rains, I guess we can pass the time with our seed catalogues and imagine warmer days…


  1. says

    OMG Jen, I still have so much to do. I love this article . . . so much info!! Thx. Some info about caring for Japanese Maples (Katsura)would be great. When to prune and how much. There seems to be conflicting info out there and I’m not sure what to do. Thx

  2. says

    I just found out about the apple trees with multiple varieties on the same tree this weekend. I have so much to learn about this stuff, heh. I want to plant several kinds of fruit and nut bearing trees now that I have a yard, but I’m such a n00b at growing anything.

    Very cool about the frost peaches. I picked peaches a couple summers when I lived in Spokanes (sooo good right off the tree!), but didn’t think they’d grow on the western side of the mountains.

    Lindsay’s last blog post..Review of Yaro Starak’s Blog Mastermind Program

  3. says

    Thanks for your kind comments Iona! I’d be happy to talk about pruning either Japanese Maples or Katsura trees! Is it a variety of J Maple you have called ‘Katsura’ or is it Cercidiphyllum?

    And Lindsay, I am so with you, when I bought my home a year and a half ago the first thing I thought was about getting some fruit and food started. There’s something magical about getting to eat your own home-grown food.

    I want a frost peach badly but have to battle it out for garden space with my partner, who doesn’t like peaches so considers them a waste of space. How do you not like peaches, I wonder? At least he’s on board for the lemons and limes!

    I should see if there is an espalliered frost peach, hey? That’d be awesome.

  4. says

    Hi Genevieve, what a lot of good information here. I don’t have any fruit trees, other than a six inch tall dwarf fig, petite black, but do love the look of espalliered apple trees. Honey crisp is my favorite apple too. We are overloaded with strawberry plants however, new to us last year, they sure did multiply!

    Frances’s last blog post..Moss Magic

  5. says

    If December is all about putting things to bed…

    Sigh… in Michigan, we put things to bed in September, possibly October. And I trim out deadwood in my dogwood in late March or early April.

    It’s so interesting to see the garden season in other parts! When does spring start for you? And what is winter like there? I’m assuming trees do lose their leaves? When?

    Monica’s last blog post..Blankets of Snow

    • says

      Whoa, whoa! I can’t imagine how professional gardeners make a living in Michigan! They must move snow during other times of the year.

      Yeah, we’re seriously spoiled here. I can’t imagine ever moving someplace besides the Northern California coast – we straddle that perfect zone where we can grow a few semi-tropical things in the right micro-climate, and we can also grow the things that seem to need a bit of cold to do well.

      Our trees definitely go dormant, though! This year they turned colors in September and October, dropped in November and December, and are getting pruned now. As for spring, well, I just saw a stand of very early crocus the other day in a sheltered fairy garden I designed and maintain! The Daffs are just peeking their foliage tips out of the soil. I’d call it properly spring in March/ April, but the signs are starting now!

  6. Larry Smith says

    I have a tree that I assume is a “Golden Chain Tree”. Our son and his wife has one in their yard and we had always admired the profuse blooms, but this is always at Thanksgiving when we visit. They told us it was a “Golden Rain Tree”. After looking at the pictures and the difference in the two, I think we have “Golden Chain Trees”.
    Now our son lives in Florida and we live in Louisiana. Their tree and our tree bloomed beautifully this year, but it didn’t start blooming until Thanksgiving week and if it had not been for our unusual temp drop into the teens, I think it would have still been in bloom at Christmas.
    Now from what I can find on the internet, these plants bloom in mid spring. Not ours. It only makes beautiful foilage all spring and summer on into the fall and then around Thanksgiving time, it blooms. Maybe we don’t have “Chain Trees” or “Rain Trees”. It may be something altogether different.
    At any rate, these chilling temperatures we had froze and killed back the foilage and blooms.
    When should I do any pruning on this tree. This particular tree that we have is multi-trunked kind of like a Crepe Myrtle. Any information you could share with me would be most beneficial. Looking forward to your response.

    Respectfully, I Remain
    In His Service
    Rev. Larry J. Smith

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