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Winter Pruning

bug on berries

I feel like I am saying this all the time – winter is a sad time for the gardener. But this is the natural way; the tomatoes get smaller as the summer heat is blown away by the refreshing autumn air, the trees shed their leaves & soon the snow will be falling. Though the winter is an off-season (until we get some land with high tunnels or greenhouses :)) it is one of the most critical seasons for reflecting, planning, & executing a great next season.

There is great pain in destroying all that you created to support your garden, but also great satisfaction in looking back to all that we harvested & enjoyed, and the lessons learned along the way. Just from clean-up I learned 1 thing – I am never using bamboo as a staking method for tomatoes again. Bamboo is a go-to stake because of cost & the sustainability factor, but I ran into a few issues:

  1. Insert the thicker end of cane into the ground, not the skinny end. Once the tomato plants got loaded up with fruit, the weight coupled with wind & rain, caused some of the stakes to actually snap!
  2. A little too flexible for the Florida Weave Trellis (check it out here).
  3. What do I do with all this used bamboo?? Once the season was done, I pulled out the bamboo stakes – 50 from the tomatoes & 60 from the peppers. The labor wasn’t difficult, it’s just the clean-up & disposal that takes time. And the fact that the stakes can’t be reused makes me feel wasteful – even though bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet.
  4. Tying & securing plants to stakes is another area I want to modify. Next year I’ll be moving my plant tying to a Max Tapener Machine – basically, it holds plant tie ribbon in a dispenser & with one hand you can secure a plant to a stake. The tie holds up to the elements, but the main challenges we kill with this machine are labor for plant tying & saving money switching from the ADC bands I’m currently using.

As a gardener, you want to reuse everything; to be the most sustainable & resourceful steward of the land that you can possibly be. But this isn’t always the case. You need to pull yourself from your emotions & throw your old & consumable supplies away to prevent the spread of disease from this year’s plants to next.

When you think of a gardener, you probably envision someone covered in dirt and who isn’t afraid of getting dirty – you wouldn’t think it, but cleanliness of the garden is the first thing on their minds – and it starts in the off-season.

Winter is about reflection, but it’s also about pruning the excess from your life in order to facilitate growth. We must clip dead limbs & branches from our trees & shrubs, opening the plants to more sunlight exposure, managing excessive growth in some parts of the plant, and encouraging new growth in other parts.

It isn’t only the plants that need pruned. Take a minute to examine where you’ve grown so far this year – is it where you wanted to be? Why not? What grew unexpectedly from your inputs & maintenance throughout the year? Or maybe, what stunted your growth?

The most important thing to realize through all of this is that the environment had less of an impact than you think, or less than you want to think. In the case of overgrowth, is this “good” or “bad”? What were your goals? If you wanted to grow, then “overgrowth” is just your first reaction to growth because you’re not sure how to manage it; how to deal with success. There were so many areas you excelled, shouldn’t you leave all that success in place to grow & thrive naturally? We are so scared to cause a flaw, that we would rather let it grow untamed & without a purpose other than rampant growth. You need to take a look and say, this was a great year – what can I remove from this success to make the next year even more successful. It is so hard to cut branches from a beautiful rose bush – but it’s just as painful to watch it grow without a purpose, plan, or care for the aesthetic pleasure.

And in the case of stunted growth we can only ask “why did this happen here”? Is the environment to blame for this?

With my garden, stunted growth came in 3 forms.

  1. Lack of irrigation for plants in Root Pouches. Due to the wet start to the season, I did not set up drip irrigation, so watering depended on hand watering with hose attachments.
  2. Lack of growing space or planted too densely. With the trends of square foot gardening, vertical growing, etc. all touting the benefits of packing plants in & increasing the yields per square foot. This works for certain crops, but not as well for tomatoes that seemed to need a little bit more room – I do this every year because tomatoes start so small & then just grow like crazy and jungle-ize the garden.
  3. Growing location. Growing too closely to other plants cuts down on air circulation, water circulation, and light. This can leave some plants without the proper ventilation, too wet, or too shaded. Next year we’ll only interplant with manageable options like garlic planted with tomatoes.

Environment wasn’t necessarily my issue, but how I was using my environment. In the garden, and in life, our first reaction is to create MORE. More is better, more plants = more tomatoes = more salsa = more tomatoes to sell. We did get MORE, but the quality of the plants eventually suffered. Bugs are natural & expected, and were controlled for organically with Neem Oil, Hot Pepper Wax, & Diatomaceous Earth. But the fungus & disease is what got the tomato plants in the end. We harvested a ton that we used for salsa, pico, spaghetti sauce, chili, and anything else we could use them for, but would we have harvested longer with healthier separation of the plants? Or was the disease already present in the soil?

These questions lead me to envision what my future garden would look like – and I’m not even quite sure what that will look like next year. It seems like every year that I garden on, I narrow my growing focus. The first year I grew everything from broccoli to watermelon & this past year I cut the varieties, but still had:

  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Green Peppers
  • JalapeƱos
  • Habaneros
  • Raspberries
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Mint

Okay, so that seems like a lot, but the onion, garlic, and lettuce were mainly in the spring, we didn’t add mint or oregano until late summer, and our main focus was Tomatoes & Peppers. Right now I’m tossing around the idea of growing a slew of peppers next year. There are so many different varieties that I have never tried & think it would be a great talking piece for the Farmer’s Markets.

Leave a comment below with what you want to see me grow!

The garden does have some current tenants – raspberry plants in their first year, blackberry, some garlic, and tree seeds that I planted in Root Pouches. Those trees are: Paper Birch, Japanese Flowering Cherry, Boxwood, and Blue Spruce. These seeds need to be vernalized; exposed to the cold in order to induce seed propagation. I hope that they’ll be okay in the Root Pouches they’re growing in, but may cover them with a frost blanket before deep winter sets in.

I am really excited to see what happens next year. This is my first foray into growing trees & I feel like a “real grower”. That and I feel confident & curious enough to grow just about anything. I truly believe that the garden is my one small step for Dan-kind – I’m just preparing for my giant leap!

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2 thoughts on “Winter Pruning

  1. My husband is the gardener in our relationship, he has green thumbs while my ability is to look at plants which then wilt and die. Sadly, we’ve had to give up on a lot of gardening as somehow or other we’ve ended up owning four dogs here in North Cyprus plus caretaking four foster dogs.Not conducive to gardening at all!

    1. Wow, that is a lot of dogs! I have 2, so I can’t imagine what’s on your plate! What all did you grow when you were able to garden?

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