poppy seed podsLearning about plants enriches our lives, regardless of age, ethnicity or political leaning. Growing up in a family of plantsmen and horticulturists gave me the inspiration to follow in their footsteps. I once thought that studying western horticulture á la British Gardening Journals would give me a permanent and unchanging knowledge of plants. I was wrong.

During this season, our most dreary time of year in the garden, I find myself thinking of all the garden lore that I have had to “unlearn.” Here are some examples:

1) “One must work the soil deeply incorporating manures or compost in order to have success.” FALSE.

Actually, the simple act of mulching the soil surface with some form of organic matter will greatly improve the soil texture.

2) “Flowering plants should be deadheaded as soon as possible after blooming.” FALSE.

How will you or the birds ever get to enjoy the fruits, pods or seeds unless they are allowed to develop?

3) “Leaves, twigs and other garden debris should be raked up in order to keep planting areas clean and free from pests.”  FALSE.

See #1 above (and there are other ways to control slugs).

4) “You must prune your fruit trees in winter, when they are dormant.” FALSE.

A tree pruned at this time will grow rapidly back to its original size; too big for a small garden and too tall to harvest the fruit.

This last item has caused me a great deal of anguish. Conversion came for me after many years of preaching the virtues of winter pruning. It isn’t so much that I was wrong before; after all, this is the time of year when there will be the least impact on the vigor of the tree. But now is the ideal time to prune only if you have a large garden with full-size trees, the ability to pick fruit 20 feet above your head, and a way to use or dispose of a pile of branches.

How many Bay Area residents have these options? I secretly envy those who do. But they have their work cut out for them. For all the rest, consider summer pruning.

At Berkeley Hort we have the time and space this time of year to offer free workshops on pruning. Check them out. You’ll be glad you did.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon
the ground, they spit upon themselves. Man did not weave the web of life,
he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

—Chief Seattle, 1845