Season 1 • Episode 12 - January 2, 2023

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The coldest time of the year is here and if you are like me you struggle to find the motivation to get outdoors and get some garden chores done. A lot of people think that there is not a lot to do in the garden during the winter but we had Jan McNeilan, retired Oregon State University Extension Agent with us to dispel that myth. Lately we have been outside cleaning up the storm damage and fallen limbs from our fir trees, but she shared a bunch of other chores that we can do right now that will help get our gardens ready for the new growing season right around the corner. That’s right. There are some things that you can do now to help you deal with pests, have a better harvest and help you enjoy healthier plants.

Jan showed up with a literal ‘book’ of tips. This was written by Jan and her husband Ray, but was never published. We knew that we couldn’t cover it all but we discussed a few of the points. If you would like to have more details or to get a more comprehensive list of things to do, check out the Oregon State University Extension website for more details. We started by talking about winter fruit tree pruning. Pruning is one of the hardest jobs in the garden. A lot of gardeners are afraid of cutting back their plants for fear of damaging them or possibly killing the plant. This is especially true of fruiting plants! Some believe that if you cut too much or at the wrong time you can reduce your yield! That’s true, but if you don’t prune, you can reduce your yield as well. If you have an apple tree remember that apples fruit on older wood. Fruit spurs are formed on wood that has been cut back, forcing growth to these spurs. Pruning here is to not only promote the highest quality fruit, but also to increase the size of that fruit. An unpruned tree will produce a lot of fruit, but it will always be small and will probably all mature at the end of the branches creating weight problems and possible damage to the tree. What makes pruning easier is knowing the difference between a leaf spur and a fruiting spur. A fruiting spur looks like it has a wrinkled collar where it attaches to the tree.

Raspberries and blueberries are very popular fruits. If you have them in your garden you might notice that they will produce less and less over time. This is because of a lack of pruning. The blueberry plant will continue to produce vegetative growth (leaves and branches) as it grows and all the plant energy will go into this ‘green’ growth. By pruning you will focus the plant on fruit production instead. Take a survey of what you want to do and visualize the end result. How tall and how wide do you want the plant to be? Then go in and cut out the diseased and broken canes. Next look for crossing branches and remove those. You will need to limit the heavy pruning to two or three mature canes. They are generally an older brown color. Never remove more than a third of the plant when cutting. Try to keep the base of the plant narrow and open up the center of the plant to promote airflow. This type of pruning will promote new cane growth and more fruit in the future. You can tell these newer canes by their brighter green color.

For raspberries you will also look for those older canes and remove them, focusing on saving the newer canes which will carry all your new fruit in the coming season. Be careful not to trim the newer canes. You might be removing the fruiting spurs.

When you approach your grapes in the spring you may not know where to start. There are so many vines that it is hard to know where to make the cuts. Here you want to look for the new buds. For the home gardener it could be as simple as leaving two vines with four to five buds on them. These buds will grow new canes and those canes will grow your grapes. The key is to not be afraid of cutting. Cutting (pruning) is the key to success. If your vines start to bleed while you are cutting them, don’t worry, that’s normal. It is caused by the warming of the vines and they will seal up not long after you finish cutting. Also, we recommend that you put your vines in an area where they will receive a lot of exposure to the sun. Grapes will survive very nicely (once they are established) without a lot of supplemental watering. In fact, the vines are not watered at all during the late summer unless there is a drought. This helps to create the sugars that make them so sweet. You should also hold off on fertilizing the vines. The fertilizer will only create more foliage on the plant and that will limit the sunlight that can reach the fruit.

What if your plant looks like a big mess with a ton of vines (like a bad haircut)?  Then you can cut a bunch off and leave two larger vines to become trunks. From those two ‘trunks’ you can leave upright vines with two to three buds on each to produce your fruit for the season. It is less intensive on the details and will still give you a great harvest of fruit. Just follow these simple rules and you should have a great crop of grapes on your table this late summer and fall.

Then we moved to dormant spraying. If you have fruit trees, now is the time to dormant spray before they start to flower. Dormant spraying will help control insects and diseases during the coming growing season. There are a lot of different sprays and treatments that you can use so be sure to check with your local garden center to find the products that will work for you. We talked to an expert once and he had a simple rule for spraying your trees during the winter months: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. If you apply your dormant spray during those times you will have the best chance of success. Some people prefer to not apply any sprays at all and for them it is recommended that you keep a close eye on your plants so you can target problems before they get too big. A lot of the commercial sprays will smother insect eggs, preventing problems before they start. You can spray now before the flower buds open. Once the flowers are open you can let the pollinators go to work and get your tree pollinated. Once the fruit has formed you can spray again to prevent any other problems. When applying these sprays, you will want a nice dry day with no wind.

The change of the seasons also signals a change for your local bird populations. Some of the non-migratory birds will be hanging around and may need a little help from you to survive the cold and wet of winter. We started with food. For seed eating birds you can use a black oil sunflower seed. This is a good basic seed that provides calories for high energy birds. For insect feeders you can set out a suet cake. Use different types of suet to attract different types of insect feeders. For most suet feeding birds, they love insects and if you see a suet block with seed it is generally used as a filler in the suet. Once you have their food needs met, then you need to think about water. You may want to take a look at heaters to keep their water from freezing. You should also remember to put out fresh water whenever you can, since the birds prefer that over standing, dirty, water. The one bird that has special needs in the winter is the hummingbird. They use lots of calories and so their food needs are more critical than other birds. You can keep their nectar in the feeder fresh by changing it every week or so. You can find a simple recipe for making their nectar online at various sources including on the OSU website, https://extension.oregonstate.edu/ask-expert/featured/tasty-hummingbird-feeder-recipe. Plus, they need to have a nice clean feeder so they don’t get sick over the winter. You can also welcome birds to your garden by incorporating different types of shrubs and trees. For a list of winter interest plants you can check with your local garden center. To learn more about attracting birds to your garden during the winter you can check with Backyard Bird Shop or The Audubon Society of Portland.

We took a break to try and catch our breath and then we tackled a few other subjects.
We then turned to talking about hardiness zones. We’ve all seen them. Sometimes on plant tags, or on the table signage in your local nursery; ‘Good to Zone 7’, or something similar. This refers to a ‘Zone’ hardiness designation that was developed many years ago by the USDA. The ‘zones’ were a way that gardeners could find out how low a temperature a plant could survive and thrive in. That is the simplest explanation. A zone refers to a range of temperatures where a plant will survive. Each zone represents a 10 degree range. The lower the zone, the colder the temperature range. For example, parts of Alaska are a Zone 2 that means a temperature range of -40 to -50 degrees. A plant needs to be pretty hardy to survive those temperatures, whereas San Diego could be a Zone 10, with a range of 30-40 degrees. If it gets below 30 degrees, a Zone 10 plant may not survive. Talk about your tropical plants!   That doesn’t mean that a Zone 2 plant will survive in a Zone 10.
In the Willamette Valley we are in the Zone 8 (10-20 degrees) range. Eastern Oregon would be closer to a Zone 6 (-10 - zero). When you are buying a plant, a zone can help you make the right decision on choosing a plant that will survive in your garden. Pick the wrong zone and you may be throwing your money away. To find out your zone, you can go to the USDA website. Then you can make an informed choice when you go plant buying!

Speaking of zones, snow can still be a possibility in our area. We talked about the recent snow of the past couple of years and the problems it might create for the gardener. These ‘events’ are mainly snow with little or no frost. Snow events generally are not a big problem. The snow actually acts as an insulator and helps protect plants from frost damage. The only problem with snow is the weight. If we get a good amount, it can knock down trees and branches, doing damage to large plants in your garden. If we had a hard frost, then you would see significant damage to your landscape plants. Even with small events, some of the new growth on your plants might show some damage when it warms up, but wait to see if you DO have damage before you do any cutting or pruning. Your spring bulbs will be fine with this cold. They are used to this type of weather. Cold weather is a reminder though that you should wait to plant some of your tender garden plants until the soil temperature gets warmer, around 50 degrees. Otherwise, your plants will just sit there and do nothing, or they may die. Even if the day is sunny and warm, it is better to wait for the soil to catch up. Jan marks her seed packets with the temperature they need for germination. For some it could be 40 degrees, for others it could be 60. By doing this, she gives her seeds the best chance for surviving. You can still put your cold weather/early season crops in right now including potatoes, peas and lettuce.
One extra thing that we talked about was watering. Yes, even in the winter you may need to water your plants, especially those that are under your eaves or are in protected areas. Water them well during the warmer days and they will be well hydrated and ready to survive those cold drying winds during the toughest of storms.

If you are worried about your lawn you should remember that grass blades can survive the coldest of temperatures, but walking on them when they are covered with frost is probably not a good idea. Frozen blades of grass can become damaged and when they do it will weaken your lawn and open up the possibility of weeds getting a start. Applying fertilizers is not a good idea either since it is too cold for the plants to take up the nutrients that you are applying. Check the label to see the recommended temperature for application.

As we approached the end of the podcast we talked about planting in the winter and landscape design. Jan recommended that you find the window that you look out most frequently and plant for that view. Then when you are stuck inside you can look out and enjoy the small but beautiful view. For Jan that was her kitchen window. She has a nice variety of plants that are beautiful and also nature friendly so she can enjoy the local fauna.

We then moved to pests. You may see them inside your home during the winter. They are just like us and are looking for a warm and dry place for a few months. Seeing them indoors also may mean that they are outside in your garden too. There are a few things you can do now to reduce your pest problems especially slugs, moths and ants. When we get a nice extended cold spell (which we just had) then you will start to see the pest population drop. Sub-freezing temps will get rid of a lot of garden pests and their eggs, reducing your problems. Baiting outside right now is not a good idea. The cooler outside temperatures are not good for any baits to work to their full potential, plus the rains will wash the baits away at a quicker pace than normal. Wait until the weather warms a bit before baiting outside for your slugs. Baiting for slugs earlier in the season will lessen the eggs they lay. A slug can lay over 100 eggs, so reducing them in the late winter or early spring is very beneficial. Stink bugs can also appear inside during the cold weather. You can squash them or scoop them up and put them outside. Ants come inside too. Using a borax product or barrier product can help reduce their populations. Eliminating the food source that they are attracted to will also help get rid of them. A food source is where you will also find the pantry moth. These little guys get into your cereals, grains, and nuts and move quickly to many other foods. Jan has used a pheromone lure to trap the males and eliminate the populations. Once gone, throw out the foods that they have infected and seal up any remaining containers.

We ended up talking about wood ash too. A lot of people will spread wood ash from their fireplaces or woodstoves in their garden. It is good to remember that using a lot of ash can change the pH of your soil. It is recommended to spread wood ashes evenly on your vegetable garden. Use no more than 1.5 pounds per 100 square feet per year. Don’t use if the soil pH is greater than 7.0 or if potassium levels are excessive.

The winter is the time for planting too. Seed and plant catalogues are arriving in your mail, so it is a good time to start planning your garden for the coming year. While it is still fresh in your mind, write down areas in your garden that didn’t perform well and make changes to help the plants in those areas or look at replacing those plants. Jan also told us about selecting plants that don’t overwhelm you. She told us about planting rutabagas because she liked them but not knowing how much time and effort it would take to grow them. That was a real learning experience.

Just know that even when you plan for the coming season, things change. No two seasons are alike. Still, winter is a great time to at least get started on your garden and we hope these tips help you get started.

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