Real Estate

A great time for gardening

Digging, pruning, planting and cultivating will reap rewards both now and in the spring

We spend enormous amounts of money on kitchen remodels. A car these days costs more than ever, and home prices are through the ceiling. When I think about it, I usually spend an hour -- max -- in the kitchen, if I am cooking for a group or making a big deal out of a meal. Time spent in the car is often just what it takes to get to work or school or to run some errands. And for many of us, if we have more than a day and a half in the house, we get cabin fever and have to go out shopping or to the club to be with people.

This is where the garden is different. At about a tenth of the cost of a home and significantly less than a modern kitchen, we can spend hours, and even days, in the garden reaping the rewards of health, beauty, food, flowers and the true joy of all who see it.

The garden at this time of year seems daunting, and yet, all is well and waiting for us to join in the changes that will make the show all the better come spring.

Yes, it means work. Good old down-and-dirty digging, pruning, planting and cultivating make for plenty to do between the showers we're seeing. I like the feel of old, well-made clothes and boots. With tools that were made to last, I take pride in keeping them sharp, clean and oiled.

This month I am going to recommend spending a few hours more than usual in your garden. Yes, it is damp and muddy, and possibly moldy, but you can do it. Grab a rake, trowel, some clippers and gloves, and let's get to work.

1. Trim everything away from the house. If it is growing too close, dig it up and replant it -- or divide it and then replant it. If attached to the house, take it down. If it is overhanging, call the arborist and get some estimates on the other trees on the property while you're at it.

2. Throughout the rest of the property, do a rigorous assessment of the health and beauty of all your plants. If I could be there, I would encourage you to be bold. My arboriculture teacher from College of San Mateo must have said it 25 times during the course of the class: "BE BOLD!" If a plant that should look shrubby is woody, take it out. Replacement, unless it is a rare species, is usually only a few dollars for a one-gallon plant, and that will give you five to eight more years of good, new, shrubby foliage.

3. Rake up all the debris in your beds, and pull out all of the annuals. Dig up the beds with a shovel or rototiller down to at least 10 inches. Then add compost on top to a depth of at least 4 inches and go over the whole bed again to homogenize it. This is an important process for the soil. It adds nutrients to refresh the organic elements of the soil. Microorganisms live off of the compost and give off waste that is beneficial to the plants. I know this is a vague description of what happens, and if you are a professor of soil science, I'm sorry. Just know that it's good for the plants, and if you want to study the biology and botany of compost to find out how it works, then great. I've seen it in action for years and have studied it in college, but I am getting too old to remember all that science.

4. Know that this is the perfect time to replant. This is when the plants are growing the slowest and will go into shock the least. Go to your favorite nurseries (you do have several, don't you?) and stock up on annuals, perennials and even trees. There will probably not be any price breaks, but know the prices won't be any higher either.

5. When buying plants, if at all possible check the roots for spiraling and root-bound clumps. If the pot is smaller than five gallons, you should be able to tip the plant and lift off the pot to see if roots fill up the soil space. If they do, there may be a problem for the plant to send out new roots out of that clump. Look for roots that just reach the edge of the pot. Ideally, when planted these roots will start to grow into the newly amended soil, and by spring the top of the plant will grow more vigorously.

6. I cannot emphasize enough that when planting it is important to embed each plant a little higher than you might think. The reason for this is that the fluffed up soil is going to compact, and the plant will sink. If it sinks below the normal surface of the soil, the soil around it will migrate to the trunk and seriously inhibit growth from there up. I have seen this so many times, including in very expensive plantings, that I feel everybody who gardens need to learn this. Plant high!

7. If you have bulbs, plant them now. Put them in at their recommended depth. Do a search on bulb-planting depth. The basic instruction is to plant bulbs two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Over-plant the bulbs with your annuals like pansy, primrose, snap dragon, cineraria and ornamental kale. When the bulbs come up, you will have a double show.

8. Prune for effect and for fruit and flower. Pruning is a living sculpture technique in ornamentals and a food or flower production technique for deciduous trees. As for Japanese maples, the finished tree can be as stunning as a marble statue in your yard. Thinning is the key. Whacking is for the ignorant and does not deserve attention. Pruning can be learned, and for me, the best way was to pick up the cuttings left behind by a master. When I could not see how he made the plant look so good without it looking pruned, I searched out his cuts and noted his tried and true techniques.

9. The best thing about gardening for me is that the work is never really finished. Each day brings new tasks to take on. Pacing is important so that you don't hurt yourself and get discouraged. Know that everything you do for your garden is noticed. And even if no one says so, you will be credited with the admiration you truly deserve.

Good gardening. n

Garden coach Jack McKinnon worked for Sunset magazine for 12 years and now walks homeowners through their gardens. He can be reached at or 650-455-0687 or by visiting his website,

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