Garden and fruit tree care for February

By Jane Gates, Signal Staff Writer

Although we are prone to occasional frosty nights in the winter months, this time of the year can offer some of the most productive and comfortable conditions to work outdoors. There are few insects to bother you and the sun is milder, so you are less likely to have skin damage or overheat while doing strenuous work.

General tips for February

Do keep in mind that the soil structure is also impacted by rain. Avoid working wet soil since it will compact and the helpful air pockets between particles will be compressed. Gooey mud-prints tracked indoors are not much appreciated, either. The clay soil that is dominant in most of Santa Clarita is particularly sticky. 

Use the cool weather to clear, clean and prune. Chop trimmings small for composting. But expect the speed of composting to slow down or even stop when the thermometer falls under 55 degrees F.

Wear layers so you can stay comfortable as your body heats up or cools down depending on how much effort you are expending. In our area air temperatures can heat up and cool down in minutes when the sun shines or ducks under a cloud. It is easier to have your clothes in layers than to keep stopping your work to go change.

Wear gloves. Hands become chapped
and damaged even easier in cool tem­per­atures. Factor in the abrasion of work and occasional garden cuts and scratches and you’ll save a lot of discomfort with little effort by wearing gardening gloves.

Use cold, windy or rainy days to garden inside. Look through books for garden ideas. Surf paper and internet catalogs for the most recently introduced items or to find old favorites.

Focus on fruit trees

We’re coming to the last chance for major pruning of woody shrubs and trees. By the end of February, most of these plants will already be sprouting into active growth — meaning they can be more easily damaged with active sap flowing.

If you are planting new trees, do it soon before they start to bud out. Fruit and nut tree varieties should be selected for your micro-climate. They all have different needs. 

Equally, fungal infections and insect pests have favorite areas and favorite host trees. For example, in warmer coastal parts of Los Angeles, citrus trees fall easy prey to scale, whitefly and mealybug. In others areas, black rot can eat into the limbs of stone fruit trees (plum, apricot, nectarine, etc.). Fire blight can turn branches of fruiting and ornamental pears black just about everywhere. And leaf-rollers and aphids can attack a whole assortment of fruit trees in warm winter climates where they are not killed off by frosts. Our area is now vulnerable to all of these since the climate has changed and our temperatures in winter are mostly 5 to 8 degrees warmer at night than they used to be a little over a decade ago. The warming has allowed many of these pests to overwinter and start infesting more and more fruit trees. 

Just as you have a lot of choices with tree cultivars, you also have a wide range of tree protecting winter sprays. There are plenty of commercial products for sale, but I prefer to use the organic or old fashioned remedies that are less toxic and work as well – if not better. The best sprays to use in the winter are the dormant oil sprays, usually lime-sulfur or copper-sulfate. These sprays will help suffocate over-wintering insects and discourage fungal infections. Try to spray trees as soon as you can after leaf drop and, ideally, spray every three to four weeks until the flower buds swell. 

Sprays can harm pollinating insects, so avoid any treatments while trees are in bloom. Do not use lime in any form on apricot trees — especially after they bud up — since they are lime sensitive. For more sensitive and evergreen fruit trees growing in the milder regions, try using a lighter fine oil spray made for leaf contact. Most of these treatments are all-natural and organically acceptable.

It is best to spray when winds are not blowing. Coat the whole tree from branch tips to base. Some fruit or nut trees can also be sprayed after bud drop. Do a little research into the needs of your specific kind of fruit tree(s). Always read all spray labels and follow directions carefully. 

Weather and timing are critical for fruit spraying to be most effective. Proper winter spraying of fruit trees can make the difference between beautiful, fruitful trees and struggling, nonproductive trees. Sometimes these treatments can even save a tree’s life.

So, February is a good month to work in the garden. And, it’s an important month to tend to fruit and nut trees. Many of these trees are highly decorative in spring when blooming and in autumn when leaves can color up. They come in a convenient range of sizes from small shade trees to little miniatures, — some can even be clipped to cover walls as an espalier. Not only are they colorful, versatile and adaptable to our weather conditions, but they offer fresh, healthy edibles.

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