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How's Your Garden?

By Lois Trigg Chaplin

It’s Fruit Planting Time

The start of a small orchard might be a Christmas gift for a loved one on your list, complete with a drip irrigation to be sure that the new plants are well-watered until their roots are established. It’s a gift that gives back, and you can expand it on other gift-giving occasions. Fortunately, our climate allows us to grow many fruit trees and vines: apple, pear, peach, persimmon, pawpaw, kiwi, muscadine grape, fig, blueberry, mulberry, blackberry, pomegranate, and on the coast even satsuma and kumquat. So, you can be adding to this gift for a long time! Select varieties carefully to extend the fresh harvest from early summer through fall. The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service publishes helpful advice on varieties, winter chilling, timing and techniques. Look for their series titled “Fruit Culture in Alabama.” If breaking new ground is an issue, fruit trees can mix in an existing vegetable, flower or shrub bed. For example, peppers appreciate a little afternoon shade in the summer, as do herbs. Greens can tolerate some shade any time. Remember that any pesticides used on the ornamentals must also be labelled for the fruit.

Perennials: Trim Back or Not?

Some cavity-nesting native bees find winter homes in hollowed stems (or holes in wood). A pile of old perennial stems, especially with hollow stems like daylily bloom scapes, make good housing for a season or two. If possible, leave the dead tops of perennials in place, or find an out-of-the-way corner to pile pruned stems; there the cavity-nesting bees can access them and you can move them to the compost pile in a year or two as they break down. Keep in mind that marginally hardy perennials such as some salvias in North and Central Alabama do better when the tops are left in place; the old tops help protect the crown from cold. Finally, the tops of seed-bearing perennials offer winter food for foraging birds, so don’t cut back hardy tops of purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susan and asters. The seeds of some annuals such as tithonia, zinnia and marigolds also provide winter bird forage.

Berry Good Clean Up

On the other hand, blackberry and raspberry stems are best pruned and discarded. The old canes may harbor diseases that can attack healthy canes next year. Also, leaving the dead, thorny plants makes the berries harder to pick next summer. If you’re planting for the first time and would like to avoid the thorny canes typical of blackberries, there are many thornless selections such as Natchez, Navaho, Arapaho and Ouachita. These grow like regular blackberries, only you can work with them without wearing rose gloves and heavy denim sleeves.

Onions for Storage

A garden hero of mine, the late Jim Wilson of Crockett’s Victory Garden, once told me that onions are among the most productive crops per square foot that a gardener can grow. This past June, I harvested about 50 pounds of onions from 150 bunch plants, and we are still eating them from basement storage. Red Creole, White Sweet Spanish, Candy are known to keep 2 to 3 months. Generally, the stronger the onion, the longer it will store because the same sulfur compounds that give the onion its pungency also inhibit rot. The popular Texas Super Sweet 1015 keeps 1 to 2 months. The key to garden success with onions is good drainage and a weed-free bed. However, they have shallow roots and need consistent moisture, so don’t let the soil get completely dry. A one-half-inch layer of chopped leaves around the newly set transplants will help keep the soil moist. Look for spring onion bunches and sets to be for sale soon.

Christmas Cactus

One of the easiest holiday plants to care for is a beautiful Christmas cactus because it would rather be left alone than doted over. Place it on a table in a cool, bright room and water only when the soil feels dry. After the blooms fade, it needs a complete rest, so set your phone alarm to water it again in 6 weeks. In spring, new growth is a signal that it is time to water and fertilize every month or so with liquid plant food until fall. In autumn, take it outside in shade for a few weeks so cooler temperatures can trigger flower buds, watering only when the soil feels dry. Before a freeze, bring it indoors to begin the bloom cycle again. By repeating the “ignore-me” and “water-and-feed-me” care cycles, your Christmas cactus will live for decades.

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