February in the Garden

This is what it’s like in the February garden. The soiled rag, the oilcloth hanging half off the table, the untrimmed ivy. (The forever untrimmed ivy.) But I love the warm morning light these days, and the towhees that come first thing when I go out to feed the pigeons. They know any seed left in the pigeons’ bowls from the day before means breakfast. I put it there in the plant saucer.

The giant camellia next to the entryway hasn’t bloomed, and I’m starting to wonder if it will this year. Do you like camellias very much? I have never liked them. It’s something about the way the flowers bruise brown and hang against leaves that look almost fake, they’re so shiny. If I were going to write a sad story about suburbia, I would probably set it in a house with an old camellia bush in front. That must sound terrible, given that there’s such a bush in front of our house. But our house isn’t sad at all, so I should really give up the negative thinking about it and just replace that grass, which has been dead for about three years.

Still, I’d probably rather have a navel orange tree in that spot.

You’re right, those aren’t navels . . . those are Valencias. And I grew them! (Well, the tree grew them — but I helped a little.) This is a first. I inherited a small tree from my grandfather when he passed away in 2010. The tree didn’t look well and I didn’t expect much from it, but the tiny thing has greened up, grown, and given us eight oranges this year. They aren’t quite ripe yet. I can’t wait to taste them.

One of my favorite things about January and February gardens in the Bay Area is daphne. The plant is called Daphne odora for good reason. Sometime at the end of January, I was letting myself in through the kitchen door and thought, “What is that? It smells like bergamot out here. No, that’s not it . . . ” Then I remembered the potted daphne and looked over to see that the blossoms had opened. Even the messy patio feels like heaven for the month or so that the daphnes are doing their exotic-spicy-scented thing.

The daffodils are sneaking up everywhere.

It’s hellebore time, too.

And I got another limequat. There’s a bad story about what happened to the first one, which I tried to grow indoors last year. I’ve decided that, living here, there’s really no good reason to bother with indoor citrus. Given a choice, they would rather be outside. This is a Eustis limequat. I like the name “Eustis” so much that I have taken to greeting him that way every morning. “Hello, Eustis. How are you doing in your new pot?”

February is a great month for garden chores — cleaning up, preparing beds, and so on. A few days ago, I got all excited because it was finally time to turn the compost. We keep two big Bio-Stack compost bins placed side by side behind the house. (I love them and am sorry the company that made them went out of business.) I figured it would be best to have two bins because we could fill one, then turn the contents into the other. Then the partially made compost can finish off for six months or so while we start filling up the first bin again. I was surprised that it took a year to fill one bin, but look how nicely it’s coming along. That black earth, which contains at least a thousand worms, started out as fruit and veggie scraps, leaves, straw, coffee grounds, newspaper, dryer lint, and pigeon poop.

Speaking of poop, another recent chore was heading out to the local horse stables with my friend in a ’78 Chevy she calls “The El.” (At first, I thought she said, “The Owl,” so that’s what I call it.) We filled nine 32-gallon trash cans with horse manure and, for my part, I was rewarded with three full cans. My friend’s garden has excellent soil, and she swears it’s because her grandfather started digging horse manure into it seventy-or-so years ago. I figured I’d better get started, so the manure is now breaking down in the beds I’ll use for veggies later this spring.

Right now, most of what’s growing in the veggie beds is nasturtium. Toss out a handful of nasturtium seeds one year and, if they’re happy, they’ll start plotting to take over your world. It’s time for a few batches of nasturtium pesto.

Also, nasturtium is a great crop for trapping pests — especially aphids — that could disturb your veggies. I recently read that they’re a good companion for both cabbages and curcurbits. This summer, I’m planning to use the biggest bed above for cukes and squash, so I’ll leave some of the nasturtium in place.

There used to be three dwarf citrus trees in half-wine barrels along the top of the retaining wall where the nasturtium is. I thought that was such a great idea, but it turned out to be a failure. The barrels settled down all lopsided and a big California laurel that hangs over the pathway prevented the citrus from getting anything like enough sun in the late spring and summer. It was a pain in the butt to move those barrels and trees, but we did it one piece at a time. (Dig up the tree, move it to a waiting barrel on the front deck, dig all the soil out of the barrel where the tree used to be, move that barrel to the front deck, move the soil to fill the barrel on the deck. Repeat. Repeat.)

Almost all of the citrus is now on the deck, hanging out with the blueberries. (From left to right, there is just a hint of Eustis, then three blueberries, a Rangpur lime in the corner where that funny power-line tower is, a dwarf Blenheim apricot, a tiny Meyer lemon next to the Valencia orange, and hanging off the right side is a Bearss lime.) If you want tips on prepping half-wine barrels for planters, I’ve got a post on that.

Finally, all of the tomato seedlings are up and off to a happy start. It brought me great pleasure when the seeds I saved from my favorite tomato plants last year — Beauty King and Paul Robeson heirlooms — proved to be faster starting and every bit as hardy as the seeds I bought as backups, in case my first seed-saving efforts went bust.

I scaled way, way back on seed starts this year. I’ve started a couple dozen tomato plants and many ground cherries, which I fell in love with last year, but no peppers this time. I’m trying to simplify and concentrate only on (1) what does really well here, and (2) what we will actually eat or preserve. We don’t have much in-ground space, so it will mostly be about tomatoes, cucumbers (for the pickles of course), and greens.

And so it all begins again!

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