J Is for January

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Chard, meyer lemon, Bibb lettuce, and new shoots of iris in the January garden

Usually our coldest month and often our rainiest, January in the Northern California garden seems sleepy, but offers a lot of life and new growth to charm gardeners and keep them busy. January 2017 brought extreme rains to our area that challenged home gardeners, including this one.

In the 6th consecutive year of drought in the state, January’s rains–more than 16 inches as measured at our closest airport–were great enough to have the state weather experts declare Northern California no longer in a drought condition, at least temporarily. Not only the rains along the coast and in the Sacramento Valley, but, more crucial, the 20- and 30-foot snows in the Sierra brought this confidence to the weather analysts. To us, the steady and often pounding rains caused the spontaneous pond on our back terrace to creep within a few feet of our sliding doors, even as nearby roads were closed by flooding and venerable trees crashed throughout the area. The wide floodplain of the Sacramento River, known as the Yolo Bypass, looks today like a vast lake stretching many miles, as authorities opened the floodgates, known as weirs, to ease the huge muddy burden  on the river itself.

Our most dramatic event occurred on the night of the 18th, when the strongest winds we’d felt in our ten years in California (60 mph) pummeled our walls and windows. The next morning we looked out to see that our back fence had blown down and lay in our neighbor’s yard.

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Well, the fence did last twenty years…

Fortunately, a year and a half ago, in response to some heavy Fall rains two years earlier, we had had a local landscaper regrade our side and front gardens to forestall flooding near the house. We had also added downspouts and improved our guttering. Hence, we have had so far no pools form by the house.

Trimming

January is usually the month when I cut back the 17 rosebushes that partially ring our back garden and that hug our side and front windows. That job is only partly done this year because of the lack of sunny days, but I have managed to  trim back almost to the ground the five fountain grasses and the five Mexican bush sage plants that annually grow wide, high, and luxuriant in the front and side gardens. The January cold turns the feathery pinkish-tan and green fountain grasses to straw-like shoots, while the deep purples and greens of the bush sages have grown dull. But once the temps begin to warm later in February, the trimmed-back grasses begin to take on color and the new shoots begin their steady return to grandeur. Meanwhile, the rose trimming will get done over the next month, and so the spring and summer will see the booming, multi-hued blooms that our well-soaked soil has promised.

New Plantings in January–and the Steady Regulars

Even in our coldest month, with many mornings just below freezing, we start a few new plants outdoors, while our winter vegetables keep growing and producing. Meanwhile, the citrus trees–the navel orange and the meyer lemon–whose bountiful fruit grew ripe in early December, continue to keep the fruit supple and fresh despite the slightly frosty conditions.

The steady, heavy rains and wind did bring down more oranges and lemons than in previous winters, and the heavy water on the ground meant that those that fell would more quickly turn to mush, if I wasn’t on the spot to gather them. But I continue to marvel at how the trees, and the fruits on them, withstand the onslaught and stay virtually perfect in their stately silence. Every day I am thankful for the opportunity to behold these environmental miracles, for that is what they are, day by day, morning and night, through all kinds of weather.

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Navel orange tree stays strong through January rains and winds

Our newest planting this month is culinary garlic, shown below. We have flowering garlic in our front garden (the bright pink flowers are subtly garlicky when tasted), but when Jean, who was making a stew, handed me three store-bought cloves that had just started sending out tiny green shoots while in a dark ceramic container, I took it as an opportunity to try growing the culinary kind. The web sources on growing garlic recommend planting the cloves two inches deep in well-drained, composted soil, with the cloves spaced eight inches apart. They also recommend a slight covering with mulch to maintain moisture. Garlic hates sitting in swampy soil, so there’s no need to water a lot.

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As you see in the above photo, taken a week after planting, it takes little time for the buried cloves to extend those green shoots into the sunlight and air. As the shoots grow higher, they can also be snipped and eaten; but, of course, letting the shoots grow will ensure that the real treasure, the buried clove, will multiply and form the large bulb that you are familiar with from the grocery store. I can’t wait to see that happen in my own garden!

Winter Veggies in the January Cold and Rain

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This winter’s other new veggie for me has been broccoli (photos just above). It will become an annual winter favorite, along with the invincible chard and arugula, and one or more lettuces. (See “G Is for Greens” for more on these favorites.) When I planted the three broccoli plants in October, the leaves were initially attacked by cabbage leaf worm, a typical pest for them. Rejecting sprays, I occasionally treated the leaves with a fine coating of cayenne pepper, which helped ward off the critters. But what really worked was that the weather got colder, and as it did the plants flourished. Three months after planting, all three had produced large heads, shown above, ready for harvesting. Next year, I’ll plant more, as the tasty florets and stems go so well with many dishes, like Jean’s crabcakes and her hearty broccoli and potato soup, both shown below.

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Epilogue: On to February

A new storm is on its way in two days, but then that will be February. A new fence is going up to replace the one that blew down mid-month. The broccoli has been picked, but the chard and arugula go on and on, as do the lettuces and the citrus trees. Before we know it, the fuzzy baby apricots will begin to appear. How high will the garlic shoots have grown in another month from now?

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