Carolyn Singer: January in my garden — Early blossoms & time to prune |

Carolyn Singer: January in my garden — Early blossoms & time to prune

Carolyn Singer
Carolyn Singer warns that alder catkins are a feast for bees on warm days.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

In between rains I try to be outside in my garden. Even on chillier days I always find something to do, but most of all I do not want to miss those precious early signs of spring.

Visible from a distance, a recent visitor to my garden commented on the hellebore in bloom under an alder. The glowing chartreuse flowers of evergreen bear’s foot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) open in January and for weeks their vibrant color is a focal point. Even shallow tree roots do little to restrict their growth and beauty.

Gifts of nature

Bulbs are pushing growth through the natural mulch of leaves and pine needles.

Very tiny, and easy to miss if I am not outside, are the early flowers of squill (Puschkinia) bulbs. Under three inches in height, the strong foliage surrounds a sweet ice-blue cluster. I planted the bulbs near a walkway so I would be certain not to overlook them. Still, they surprised me this week when the flowers barely showed above the leaf mulch. I gently pushed aside some of the decomposing autumn leaves.

Since December the winter iris (Iris unguicularis) has treated me to multiple blue-violet flowers. The individual flowers don’t last for long, but the continuous bloom of these delicate flowers for weeks through January is a winter delight. I received my original start from an old garden in Grass Valley. Unfortunately, this special winter bloomer is uncommon in the nursery trade.

Under the white alder I found my first daffodil in bloom this past weekend, a single Narcissus “Little Gem,” one of the miniature daffodils. How did that lone bulb establish there, I wonder. A gift of nature. The fall planting I did years ago of this early-blooming bulb is several yards away.

The alder is definitely a winter highlight in January as it begins its cycle of bloom. Loaded with pollen, the flowering catkins hang gracefully from delicate branches. Honeybees feast on the warmer days and I am drawn to the buzz. Sometimes I sit under the tree to listen. From that vantage point I can also enjoy the nearby bird feeders, which are always busy unless I am gardening too close.

This week a pair of house finches arrived at the feeders. Resplendent in his spring attire, the male finch fed quickly then waited patiently on a nearby perch while his mate lingered at the feeder.

With all these distractions, I can easily overlook the many garden tasks to do in January. Fortunately, the cooler temperatures on most days motivate me to keep moving.

Time to prune

Pruning fruit trees is at the top of the list, a task best performed when wood is dry. Sharpen your pruners and keep them disinfected with alcohol. I wipe the blades clean before putting the pruners away.

Try ratchet pruners for ease of pruning, especially on branches of larger caliper.

I prune all the raspberry canes back to the crown each year then mulch with straw and compost. If you want to increase your raspberry patch or share healthy plants with friends and neighbors, now is the time to dig up the stray plants. Try to remove as much of the root system as possible back to the outer roots of the parent plant. This will reduce rampant growth for at least one season.

If you need more information about pruning fruit trees (and roses) attend the free clinic at Weiss-Baldoni Nursery on Saturday, Feb. 3, at 10 a.m. rain or shine. This is an opportunity to learn about fertilization too.

The Felix Gillet Institute will also be represented at this event. Adam Nuber of Felix Gillet Institute will be present to educate the public about this non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Sierra foothills’ heirloom fruit trees and other local heritage edibles.

Nuber tells me that he has been very busy digging trees for bare root sales. These valuable trees may be ordered through Weiss-Baldoni Nusery.

A beautiful catalog is available at the nursery to guide your choices, or check out the Felix Gillet Institute website at

We are fortunate in our foothill community to have individuals committed to local agriculture. Take time to learn more about Felix Gillet Institute and its efforts to preserve and propagate heritage fruits.

Many years have gone into the project, and your support will ensure its success.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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