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Ask Garden Gal: Winter Vegetable Blues, Nixing Narcissus, Hydrangea Hiatus

Dear Garden Gal,

I am getting frustrated with my winter vegetable garden.  I’ve allocated 20 square feet for lettuce seeds which turns out to be way too much lettuce for two people.  And, oh brother, my six broccoli plants aren’t producing enough for the bugs.  Realistically, how much land does one need to grow enough food to live on?

-Annoyed in Altadena

Dear Annoyed,

If you farmed smart 1/20th of an acre or less would allow you to grow enough food for five vegetable servings daily for two people.  That said, you would also be spending several hours a day weeding, watering, staking, trapping insects and yes, even picking your crop.

So the question becomes: what do you want from your winter garden?  Few home gardeners actually live off their crop but grow food to supplement store-bought produce.  If you’re tired of lettuce keep notes and take photos for next year’s garden.  Plant half as much till you get it right. garden_gal_1

Meanwhile, we still have three months of cool evening temps to keep your winter crops happy.  Tear out some of your baby lettuce and plant cell packs of mustard greens, bok choy, Swiss chard and more broccoli.  Don’t forget to stir fry the leaves and stalk of the broccoli plant as you cut out the crowns.

And figure out some new lettuce recipes. Daisy Mint Thai restaurant (218 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91106  (626) 792-2999) has delicious spring rolls which you can duplicate at home.  Use any tender new vegetable, especially baby lettuces and tiny green onions.  Use lettuce for garnishes on sandwiches and tacos, and even in gazpacho made from canned tomatoes with store bought cukes and plenty of fresh garlic.

Dear Garden Gal,

I usually save my holiday narcissus bulbs and plant them outside each year after they’ve bloomed.  They usually re-bloom the next year but this time around they’re just wispy grass-like stems.  Why didn’t the old ones flower this year?

-Sans Narcissus in San Gabriel

Dear Sans,

Some varieties of narcissus bulbs will repeat bloom for many years, up to eight years.  If your bulbs are continuing to issue green foliage without blooms these may actually be juvenile bulbs that have grown off of the mother plant.  Narcissus bulbs usually flower in year two.  Be sure to leave foliage intact and on the plant until it dies back completely.  Sometimes cutting the flower allows the bulb to store more energy for its next bloom cycle.  Don’t neglect to feed your bulbs in the fall as the roots begin to grow and the shoots are readying to emerge for the winter.

You might also want to dig up one or two of your bulbs to examine the roots.  Make sure they’re fat and filled with water.  If the roots or bulbs are soggy, smelly or mushy you might have a fungal problem.   Dig the lot of them up to see what you can save.  Dust the plants with a fungicide, and transplant them to a container of new potting soil.  Turn the infected soil to expose it to light and air and mind your watering.

Dear Garden Gal,

I haven’t yet pruned my hydrangea this season. A few years ago I pruned it according to a book that said, “prune to the second joint” which I took to mean almost all the way down to the ground.  I realized my mistake when it took two years for the plant to grow out again.  Now I usually prune it very lightly but what if I just skip the pruning this year entirely?

Hydrangea Happy in Highland Park

Dear Happy,
It’s good that you haven’t yet pruned!  Our freak winter weather of a couple of weeks ago was a great reminder not to prune most winter-dormant plants until we’re sure the final frost has passed.  Trouble is, we can never scientifically know when that date is.  So, we estimate.  We estimate the dead of winter at January 15.  And just like PeeWee Herman says, “Everyone’s got a big But!”   Here it is February, with unseasonably warm days and cool to cold nights.   It’s still possible for plants to freeze back for another six weeks or so.

So.  You still have time to prune your hydrangea.  If you possibly can get to it before early April, don’t neglect at least some pruning.  Tip it back, and now you know the second joint means the second from the top of the plant, not the bottom, remove all spent blossoms from last year, remove dead and crossed branches.   Basic sanitation goes a long way toward making a plant happy and pruning is just that.

By Sandy Gillis

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