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How pruning and seed sowing embody hope in the garden's cycles

The Robins are hopping all over lawns in now, like spring's attempt to get our attention.

Some of earliest singers each morning, they are the quintessential early bird getting the worm. Because they forage for earthworms mostly on lawns, they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning, reminding me again why I choose organic gardening.

Source Image: Canva

The daffodils join them in the tenacity of spring woven into the earth. They are bursting through the cold winter soil, undeterred by the chill, preparing to unfurl their yellow banners to the world signaling that winter is on its way out. Soon it will be time to thin out and transplant these overwintered lettuce seedlings. Red Russian kale is a particularly cold-hardy variety that is a beautiful and dependable crop for the front yard edible garden.

I planted our apple tree before understanding that apples do not grow well in our region, preferring more winter chill hours. I keep it mostly because our pet rabbit loves to eat the leaves and bark. But it is quite a tangle of unpruned chaos at this point in the year. Asian pears rival and even surpass the taste of an apple, and with a high price point in the stores it makes sense to grow them.

Asian pears are much easier to grow here than apple. The angles of the young branches need to be wide, almost at a 90 degree angle, and so today I will stretch them with a bit of counterweight. I gather a few recently pruned branches from our fig tree along with some twine and begin to tie them carefully to the still pliable branches of the young tree. This forcing can only be done at this stage as you run the risk of harming more mature branches with this technique. I also take time today to prune the Whitney crabapple tree that I have grown from a young whip into a mature form called espalier. This is a technique of training a tree or shrub to grow in a more two-dimensional shape. It allows greater air flow and sun exposure and is also a wonderful space saver.

The nearby fig tree has dropped leaves that have been caught by the crabapple and I cleaned these out. I then carefully trim the fruiting spurs and clear out the tree of all crossing and dead branches, collecting them as a gift for our rabbit Harvey as their bark truly seems to be a delicacy he cannot resist.

it is then time for the annual shaping of my pineapple guava hedge along the front driveway. There are six mature shrubs that I planted about eight years ago that have grown into a wonderfully fruitful evergreen privacy hedge. Talk about multifunction! It sets delicious and nutritious golf ball sized fruit in the month of October that tastes something like a cross between a pear and a pineapple. Not a true guava, it is the national fruit of New Zealand and is starting to catch on here in the States.

I choose not to compost the trimmings as they are too woody and too numerous to break down quickly and set them on the street to be collected by our county compost service. This hedge has become quite sparse for the first time and I am hoping that by a fresh pruning and a layer of compost it will fill back out this spring.

On the contrary, our fig tree is anything but sparse and tenaciously sends out runners in its attempt to spread even further. These branches need to be trimmed to the ground in order to allow better air flow around the trunk, but they can also be dug out and potted and will develop roots. This will create another young fig tree that can be then planted in the ground in a few weeks.

One of my favorite garden tasks in January is seed starting. I use a high quality seedling mix along with worm castings to feed the young plant as it grows. After years of attempting many methods, I have settled on this simple one that almost seems too good to be true. Taking an empty water container I cut it in half and add the soil mix and castings to the base about 2 inches thick.

I wet the mixture thoroughly and incorporate it into the mix. I then sprinkle a pinch of lettuce seeds all over the surface as if I am salting a dish. I gently pat them into place so that they have good contact with the soil.

Then, replacing the lid I secure it to the base with a wide piece of black duct tape. The black color also helps to absorb the heat from the sun and transfer it to the mini greenhouse. By removing the lid I allow this heat to vent as lettuce is sensitive to high temperatures which could prevent germination.

I set the mini greenhouse in an outdoor location in the sun, and will only need to attend to it to check to see if the seeds are sprouting. As an experiment I am also going to sow some lettuce seed in soil blocks. This method is more labor intensive but grows healthy strong seedlings that take well to transplanting into the garden.

First, I blend the casting and soil mixture again. I then thoroughly moisten the soil mixture so that it will hold well within the form. It is better to use too much water than too little.

By forcing the wet soil into the form, I can then squeeze out perforated soil cubes with indentations for the seed. These blocks will need to transplanted into even larger blocks in about 2 weeks, requiring another soil blocker and more soil mix.

I set the soil blocks into a container with sides so that I can add water by pouring it next to the blocks and avoiding overhead watering which can dislodge seeds. The soil will absorb the water from the bottom. This method is more tedious when it comes to actually sowing the seed but once completed this tray will go indoors to germinate by our wood stove. It will require more attention and not get the same light exposure as the outdoor mini greenhouse.

My third experiment is to sow the lettuce seed directly into the garden bed. I break up the existing soil gently and sprinkle in a handful of worm castings. This method usually results in delayed germination due to the cold exposure. This is fine with me as it will allow me to have staggered lettuce harvesting over a longer period of time. I pat them carefully into place so they have good contact with the soil. I will watch each of these three methods, taking notes and comparing them for ease, efficiency, seedling health, and materials cost.

Pruning and sowing seeds are the chief tasks of the winter gardener. I take my cues from earth's creatures that it is time to join them in their eager preparations for spring’s arrival. From the flocks of robins preparing for nesting season to the rising up of the earthworms to meet them in their need, the garden’s cycles invite me to embody this hope as well.

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