It's January and, although it may be cold and damp, the days are getting longer by a few seconds each day—just enough additional daylight to stir a gardener's blood. While plants and soil are taking their winter rest, it's a great time for us humans to take stock, think about new possibilities and contemplate how we might do things a bit differently in the year ahead. Here are four ideas for doing just that in 2024:
Adopt an Edible Aesthetic
At some point in our history, areas for growing vegetables and fruits became separated from the rest of the garden landscape. Now, this norm is being shaken up by an idea known as “foodscaping” or “ornamedibles,” wherein edibles are intermixed with ornamentals to grow together in an attractive and harmonious way. It's not only an intriguing horticultural idea, but also a way to grow food almost anywhere.
Other than making sure that the plants you select have the same requirements for sun, soil, irrigation and drainage, the possibilities are endless.
Where garden space is limited or not available at all, this concept affords anyone with enough space for a pot or hanging basket the ability to grow their own fresh food, often with spectacular visual results. Imagine a shrubby blueberry bush surrounded by bright pink petunias or chartreuse/lime green lettuces and purple violas.
Edible plants come in many forms--upright, trailing and vining-- so they are perfect for providing the “thrills” and “spills” needed for dramatic potted plant arrangements.
Pare Down on Plastics
Even small garden projects can generate a lot of plastic waste and you may be surprised to learn that most curbside waste recovery programs don't recycle those ubiquitous black plastic pots. Unfortunately, those items end up in the landfill and, since they are meant to be quite durable, they will be around for a very long time. The good news: home improvement stores offer active recycling programs for plastic pots and other materials that are difficult to recycle. Here are more ways to shrink plastic waste:
• Shop for plants in pots made of compostable or biodegradable materials.
• Grow plants from seed and circumvent the need for pots altogether by making soil cubes.
• Use wooden shims instead of plastic markers to identify plants and seeded rows. Use a soft pencil to write plant names on the shim as felt markers will fade with exposure to UV light. When it's time to replant, toss the shims in the compost where they will break down and add carbon to the mix.
• Use string made of natural fiber instead of plastic plant ties.
• Avoid the use of landscape “fabrics” to control weeds. These materials are another form of plastic, are not effective at controlling unwanted vegetation and are damaging to the soil. Planting ground covers and using organic mulch is a much better and sustainable way to suppress weeds.
• Protect plants from birds, squirrels and insects with metal mesh or fabric row covers instead of plastic netting.
There's no better time than the dead of winter to get ready for fire season! Starting early reduces stress and makes the task a lot less daunting. It's also a much better time of year to make changes to your landscaping as most plants and trees are not actively growing.
Get started by drawing an imaginary line five feet away from the perimeter of your house. Remove anything flammable from this area, including plants. That camellia bush adjacent to the front window? Yes, sorry! It needs to be moved. But the good news is that with care, it will be more able to take hold in a new location at this time of year. Also-remove any flower buds so that the plant will put more energy into establishing roots. Any worries about curb appeal can be remedied by indulging in decorative ceramic and metal sculptures, intriguing rock arrangements, etc.
Now is also a great time to consider existing vegetation past the 5-foot perimeter. Consider removing more combustible plants with fire-resistant varieties.
Other fire preventive measures include getting rid of dead vegetation, removing tree limbs up to 10 feet above the ground, pruning back any branches within 10 feet of other trees and readjusting plantings to create groupings rather than continuous lines.
Provide for Pollinators
Pollinators are at risk worldwide due to habitat loss, improper use of pesticides, herbicides and other factors. But if you provide plants for pollinators, they will come, and you will have a garden that buzzes with life. What is a “pollinator plant?” Flowering annuals, perennials and shrubs (especially natives) that produce nectar and pollen are considered plants that will support a pollinator population. Pollinators themselves come in a variety of sizes and shapes including bees, beetles, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and many more.
A pollinator garden can be large or small—even a planter or pot can be a source for beneficial insects. Establishing a pollinator garden can be as simple as sowing a few handfuls of seeds and needn't be elaborate but the more pollinator plants you can add to your garden, the better. Our mild winter climate and long growing season allows us to provide a wide variety of plants for most of the year, an important factor in sustaining a healthy population of pollinators.
Fun fact: Bees don't just buzz for the heck of it or because they might be irritable--they buzz for a reason. The pollen in some plants is harder for the bees to extract so the buzzing you hear is vibration created by the bee to help release the pollen. This process (called “sonication”) is accomplished by the bee disengaging its flight mechanism and rapidly moving its wings.
Another fun fact: Bumblebees buzz in the musical key of middle C. Evidently, they have perfect pitch.
Wishing you and your garden a happy, healthy New Year!
For more on recycling plastic plant containers: https://corporate.homedepot.com/news/sustainability/plant-it-again-plant-pot-recycling-program and https://corporate.lowes.com/newsroom/stories/fresh-thinking/are-you-wishcycler
For more on soil blocking: https://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu/?blogpost=55580&blogasset=125102
For more on how to become Firewise: https://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu/resources/Firewise_landscaping/
For more on pollinator plants: https://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Pollinator_Plant_List/
Maggie Mah is a UC Master Gardener who is looking forward to longer days and doing new things in the garden.
UC Master Gardeners of San Mateo-San Francisco County are volunteers who are trained under the auspices of the University of California to provide science-based information on plants, horticulture, soil and pest management at no charge to the public. For more information and to find out about classes and events in your area, visit our website where you can also sign up for our newsletter and contact our Helpline: http://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu/