Delay Some Gardening Between Seasons

Plants are still going to seed.

For gardening, this is one of those in between times of year, when summer chores are under control, but it is a bit too early for much of the work that will need to be done in autumn. Automated watering systems have already been adjusted for the longest and warmest days of summer, so will only need to be adjusted the other way as days eventually get cooler and shorter. Growth of most plants slows; and some of the plants that will later be the earliest to show fall color begin to fade from bright green to paler green.

The last of the summer fruits should be gone, leaving the trees that produced them looking somewhat tired. The weight of large fruit, particularly peaches, might have pulled stems downward where they may now be obtrusive. Pruning a few minor stems should not be a problem. However, trees are still too vascularly active for major pruning. That needs to wait for dormant pruning while trees are bare in winter.

A few plants with sensitive bark are susceptible to sun scald if pruned to expose too much bark on interior stems while the sun is still high and warm. This is not so likely to be a problem if pruned during winter because the sun is lower and cooler, and foliage grows back before the following summer. Actually, that is why English walnut and various maples are able to defoliate during winter, even though their smooth bark needs to be shaded.

Pruning of plants that are potentially sensitive to frost should likewise be delayed. Otherwise, pruning is likely to stimulate development of tender new growth that will be even more sensitive to frost during winter. Besides, new growth develops slower this time of year, so plants look freshly pruned for a longer time than if pruned late in winter, just prior to spring.

Some types of pittosporum are more susceptible to disease if pruned in late summer or autumn because their open pruning wounds heal slowly and stay open to infection during rainy winter weather. However, slow recovery from pruning can be an advantage to formally shorn hedges that are not so sensitive to frost or disease, such as the various boxwoods, or glossy or wax privets. If shorn now, they might stay trim until spring.

The dried foliar remains of any summer bulbs that are finished blooming can now be plucked and disposed of. Gladiolus and montbretias that are still green can be deadheaded (pruned to remove deteriorated flower stalks), but should be allowed to turn completely brown before getting plucked. Watsonias are not so easy to pluck without also pulling up the bulbs, so should instead get their dried foliage pruned off.

Weeds outside of landscaped areas may not seem to be a problem, but many are now producing seed that gets blown into the garden. Even if such weeds do not need to be pulled, their flowers and seeding stalks should still be cut off and removed if possible.

Peach

Fresh tree ripe peaches are best.

Of all the stone fruit trees like apricot, plum and cherry, none need more aggressive and specialized pruning while dormant in winter than peach, Prunus persica. The distinctively fuzzy fruit is so big and heavy that the weight of too much fruit tears limbs down. Pruning not only limits fruit production, but improves structural integrity, fruit weight distribution, fruit quality, and tree health. Mature trees should be kept less than ten feet tall, but often get twice as tall with much of the fruit out of reach.

Squirrels Fear The Unknown Too

Pierre Francois dutifully protects ripening fruit.

It is embarrassing when my mother teaches me a practical gardening technique that I should have known about, especially if the particular technique is as simple and downright silly as what my mother does to protect ripening fruit from squirrels. A friend of hers suggested it; and it seems to be significantly more effective than the few fancier ideas that I recommended.

I should first mention that there is nothing new about repelling animal pests with effigies of other animals that they are afraid of. Scarecrows and stuffed snakes and owls have been around for centuries. As the name implies, scarecrows scare crows who perceive them to be potentially troublesome people. Rats and terrestrial rodents avoid snakes. Squirrels and some birds are afraid of owls.

When I was in about the fourth grade, I remember that National Geographic World magazine (which is now National Geographic Kids) featured a silhouette of a predatory bird that could be cut out and taped to windows to deter birds that might otherwise break their necks as they tried to fly through the clear glass. The associated article explained that the cut-out silhouette was effective because birds instinctively knew what to fear. A silhouette of a harmless seagull would not have been as effective.

However, some deterrents are not so specific, but instead rely on the fear of the unknown. Beach balls outfitted with decals of huge eyes look weird in the garden, but work because so many birds have bird brains that think such contraptions are big, scary and possibly predatory animals. Flash tape and old compact discs work simply because birds do not know what the reflected flashes are.

Scarecrows and other inanimate effigies should be relocated occasionally so they seem to be alive. They should stay near what they are in the garden to protect, and not loiter when it is gone. For example, if protecting ripening fruit, they should leave after the last of the fruit is gone. Otherwise, the target pest animals realize that they are fake or dead. Beach balls, flash tape and compact discs are more animated, so need not be moved so much, if at all, but are too tacky to stay all year.

All this may seem complicated, but can be simple enough for my mother to master with . . . well, allow me to explain.

Pierre Francois is a cute, fuzzy and seemingly French plush toy bunny made in China, who knows all about protecting ripening fruit from squirrels. (‘Stuffed animal’ is no longer politically correct.) After seeing how expensive a fake owl would be, my mother put Mr. Francois in the peach tree. He and his sort are free if borrowed (stolen) from the grandchildren, or very cheap at garage sales or thrift stores. Although cute and soft to us, Mr. Francois is big, intimidating and unfamiliar to squirrels. Before the squirrels get acquainted with him, the peaches will have been harvested, and Pierre Francois will have been reassigned to an apple tree.

Olive

Olive trees are compact but gnarly.

For millennia, olive, Olea europaea, dutifully produced oil and edible fruit for civilizations of the Mediterranean region. During the last several centuries, it migrated to do the same in other regions of similar climate throughout the World. At least two centuries ago, it got to California, and became a major agricultural commodity. Now, it lives in home gardens. 

The abundant and oily fruit that justified cultivation of olive trees for thousands of years is ironically a potential nuisance for home gardens. Few people harvest and process them. Olive fruit can stain pavement and attract rodents. Fruitless or mostly fruitless cultivars of olive, and dwarf cultivars, have been increasingly popular for only the past few decades.

Olive trees are not big, but slowly develop grandly sculptural trunks. Some might be little more than twenty feet tall when mature. Few get more than forty feet tall. Most have a few leaning trunks, which become furrowed and distended with age. The narrow and grayish evergreen leaves are about two or three inches long. Olive fruits are about an inch wide.

Highlight: ‘Meyer’ Lemon

‘Meyer’ lemon is an interesting hybrid.

Of all the cultivars of citrus that are popular for home gardens, the ‘Meyer’ lemon is likely the most popular. However, it is not overly common in markets. That may be an incentive for growing it at home. Technically, it is not totally lemon. It is an odd hybrid of lemon and orange. Hence, its fruit has a distinctly rich flavor, but a bit less acidity than other lemons. 

‘Meyer’ lemon is distinct among citrus trees. It grows more like rigid shrubbery, with a few irregular trunks. Because it naturally develops compact form, it does not require dwarfing understock. Most old trees therefore grew from cuttings on their own roots. Modern trees commonly grow on understock though, so can develop suckers below their graft unions.

‘Meyer’ lemon fruit is abundant during autumn and winter. Minor quantities ripen through spring and summer also. All ‘Meyer’ lemon trees from nurseries nowadays are ‘Improved Meyer’, whether or not their labels say so. Their improvement was selection of stock that lacks a particular tristeza virus that was inherent to the original cultivar prior to the 1940s. 

Citrus Trees Are Dutifully Fruitful

Citrus are most abundant through winter.

Winter is the primary season for citrus fruits. Some ripen significantly earlier. Some ripen significantly later. Many citrus trees continue to produce a few fruits randomly throughout the year. Nonetheless, citrus fruits are collectively most abundant during winter. It seems odd that trees that are vulnerable to frost are so productive during the coolest of weather.

Citrus trees are fortunately only marginally susceptible to frost in only the cooler climates here. They mostly recover from minor damage where they get a bit too much chill. Those in coastal climates may never experience damaging frost. Some types of citrus are more resilient to frost than others. Vulnerable citrus trees may need frost protection when new.

Home garden citrus trees are different from orchard trees. Most orchard trees, particularly older trees, are ‘standard’ trees. They grow on standard rootstock that allows them to get larger, and therefore produce more fruit than ‘dwarf’ trees. Most home garden citrus trees are ‘dwarf’ trees. They grown on dwarfing rootstock that keeps them dense and compact. 

Furthermore, the many cultivars of citrus that are available for home gardening are more diverse than those that commonly grow in orchards. ‘Lisbon’ lemon is very profuse within season, so is preferable for orchards. ‘Eureka’ lemon, although a bit less productive, may be a preferable option for home gardens because it produces a few random fruit all year.

Now that citrus are in season, some last longer than others. Grapefruit can hang on their trees for months. They actually develop richer flavor with mellowing tartness as they age. Conversely, Mandarin orange and tangerine are the most perishable citrus. Because the rind is loose, their pulp within begins to oxidize after ripening. Lime eventually gets pithy. 

Although this is the time of year to enjoy fresh citrus fruits, it is not the season to do much else with citrus trees. Pruning and application of fertilizer will be more timely after winter. Premature pruning or use of fertilizer is likely to stimulate premature growth. Such growth either languishes through cool weather, or succumbs to mild frost.

Pitahaya

White pitaya looks almost otherworldly.

This weird tropical cactus gets mixed reviews. Pitahaya fruit, or dragon fruit, is abundant in favorable conditions, but develops potentially bland flavor. The green succulent stems may be vigorous, but develop distinctly pendulous form that resembles Sigmund the sea monster. Bloom lasts from summer to autumn, but individual flowers open for just a night. 

Selenicereus undatas is the most popular pitahaya. Its fruit weighs between half a pound and a pound, and has white flesh. Selenicereus costaricensis fruit is similar, but with red flesh, and perhaps slightly more flavor. Selenicereus megalanthus fruit is smaller, thorny and yellow, with white flesh and richer flavor. Home grown fruit is superior to market fruit.

Pitahaya grows very easily from cuttings or pruning scraps. Young stems climb with wiry aerial roots, so need substantial support. Fruiting stems hang downward from the tops of such support. Most modern cultivars need no pollinator. Some old cultivars need another of its same species for pollination. Pitahaya is vulnerable to frost where winters are cool.

Planting Bare Root Stock Properly

It looks like sticks in mud.

Bare root season began as the Christmas season ended. Literally, as the last Christmas trees relinquished their space in nurseries, bare root stock occupied it. Most of this stock grew in Oregon, where winter weather is cooler, so was ready for digging and relocation prior to arrival. Now that it is here, the season for planting bare root stock is quite limited.

Almost all bare root stock is deciduous. It defoliated through autumn, so the stems are as bare as the roots are. Most bare root stock is fruit and nut trees, such as almond, apricot, cherry, plum, peach, apple, pear, persimmon and fig. Grape, currant, gooseberry, wisteria and rose are ready for planting bare root too. All are dormant, so unaware of the process. 

They do not stay dormant for long though. They must be planted in their new homes prior to the end of winter, when warming spring weather stimulates new growth. They can not sustain such growth if their roots are unable to disperse into soil. This is why the season for relocating and planting bare root stock is so limited to winter. It relies on cool weather. 

Fortunately, planting bare root stock is surprisingly simple. Soil amendment that prompts root growth away from confined root systems of canned (potted) stock is not so important. Since new roots grow directly from formerly bare roots into surrounding soil, amendment is only helpful for soil of inferior quality. Fertilizer will not be helpful until growth resumes. 

A hole for planting bare root stock needs to be just big enough to contain the flared roots. It must be shallow enough to suspend any graft union above grade, without loose soil to settle below. Watering is only needed to soak and settle soil around roots, and will not be needed again until after the rainy season. Pruning removes crowded or damaged stems. 

Of course, not all fruit trees are conducive to planting bare root. Evergreen plants are not as dormant during winter as deciduous plants are. Their roots are therefore less resilient to separation from the soil. Pitahaya, avocado and some citrus, which can be marginally vulnerable to frost in some climates, are more vulnerable after autumn or winter planting. 

English Walnut

It may take a few years for a walnut tree to grow into a sculptural specimen with striking white limbs.

Like many ‘English’ plants, the English walnut, Juglans regia, is not actually from England. It is Persian, so is quite comfortable here in California. However, the foliar litter and husks contain a natural herbicide that can make nearby seed grown plants and annuals uncomfortable. Planted trees are typically grafted onto native California black walnut understock (roots) that is more resistant to disease, and improves stability.

Mature trees can be as tall as seventy five feet with trunks as wide as five feet, but are almost always significantly smaller, and even proportionate to urban gardens, although notoriously messy with bloom, leaves and nuts. The pinnately compound leaves are generally less than a foot long, with five to nine leaflets that can be between two to six inches long, and about two inches wide. The bark is notably smooth and gray until trees get quite old and furrowed.

Pomegranate

Pomegranates are autumn and winter fruit.

As for fig, date, avocado, grape and olive, the esteemed pomegranate, Punica granatum, has been in cultivation for a very long time. Several thousands of years of domestication have generated countless cultivars. They are now popular in many regions and cultures throughout the World. They produce very well here and in other Mediterranean climates.

Most locally popular pomegranate fruits are brownish red, and about three to four inches wide. Each fruit contains hundreds of seed, which are surrounded by juicy and delicately succulent flesh. They separate easily, like many tiny and tender berries. Most are garnet red. Some cultivars produce fruit with darker purplish, lighter pink or even colorless flesh. 

Without dormant pruning, pomegranate trees can get taller than fifteen feet, and develop dense thicket growth. Fruit is easier to collect from well groomed shorter trees. Individual trees may develop a few trunks, and live for two centuries. Orangish red flowers bloom in spring. Leaves turn yellow prior to defoliation in autumn. Fruit ripens in autumn or winter.