February is not the easiest month in the garden. The weather is dreadful, the ground is soggy, and some indoor project is probably demanding your attention. Income taxes, perhaps, or the last of the earthquake repairs. It is too early to think about a summer vegetable garden. Tomatoes and squash and green beans will not go in the ground until May, and perhaps even June if we have a chilly spring. Nothing is blooming except the rhododendrons. The garden just isn't a terribly inviting place.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the garden entirely right now. This is bare root season, a time of year when you can buy fruit trees, berry vines and a few other perennial food-producing plants. The term "bare root" refers to the manner in which they are sold: You're mostly buying roots with a little top growth attached, and the plants are not potted, but simply buried in a tub of soil. One of the great pleasures of bare root season is getting to go down to the garden center and actually get your hands dirty as you dig around for the perfect clump of roots.
Bare root plants are usually quite affordable, and they tend to be surprisingly healthy and robust. Garden centers bring them in just after the holidays and keep them around until the spring planting season gets into full swing. Here are just a few of the culinary delights you're likely to find in bare root form this year.
Apple trees. If you haven't planted an apple tree in your backyard, you are missing out on one of the great delights of gardening in Humboldt County. We have the perfect climate for apples, and depending on the varieties you plant, the season begins as early as August and extends as late as January. Even if you don't consider yourself much of an apple eater, I guarantee that you will quickly grow to love the experience of wandering out into the backyard to pick an apple and eat it within seconds of it coming off the tree.
Humboldt County is home to a number of unique varieties that originated right here, including two of my favorites -- Pink Pearl, with its beautiful pink flesh, and the crisp, delicious Waltana. Choose a variety that suits your taste, and be sure to ask about dwarf rootstocks if you've got a small space. Apple trees are surprisingly easy to care for, but they do need a little pruning and can sometimes benefit from an application of horticultural oil to knock back pests. For more information about our local varieties, visit www.greenmantlenursery.com; I also recommend Michael Phillips' book The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist as an easy reference book for home gardeners.
Artichokes. No California garden is complete without artichokes. The spiky silver foliage is gorgeous in an ornamental garden, practically shining on foggy days. If you don't water them in the summer they will die back, but they'll reemerge once it starts to rain. My only complaint about artichokes is that they are difficult to grow organically -- or maybe I should say that they are difficult to grow in the conditions of utter neglect that I impose upon them. Without some kind of pest control, aphids and earwigs will show up and nestle between the leaves of the artichoke. The sight of boiled bugs hidden inside an appetizer is -- well, unappetizing. So if you're growing the artichokes for something other than their good looks, plan to use insecticidal soap to kill the aphids. If earwigs are a problem, try trapping them in rolled-up newspaper or cardboard tubes. You'll find them clustered inside; what you do with them when you catch them is your business. Most people drop them in a bucket of soapy water.
Raspberries: Make a little room for some raspberries. You won't be sorry. You'll need a very simple trellis -- it could be nothing more than two sturdy poles with wires strung between them -- and at the end of the year, you will need to cut down the woody canes after they have fruited. That's pretty much all there is to it. I bought a variety that produces fruit in June and again in September, and after just two or three years we get so many berries out of a six foot-long patch that we actually can't eat them all and end up freezing a few bags. A friend of mine makes an amazing raspberry liqueur by filling a glass bottle with fresh raspberries from his garden and pouring vodka over them. How bad could that be? (Oh, and I like Stella Otto's The Backyard Berry Book for advice on growing berries organically.)
Everything else. You'll also see pears, citrus, rhubarb, asparagus, blueberries and strawberries available in bareroot form. Get down to the garden center and check it out. Be sure to ask lots of questions: You will want to choose varieties that work for your own microclimate. A few degrees of heat one way or another can make a big difference.
It's important to keep bare root plants in soil until the minute they go in the ground. Keep them well covered while you prepare your space, and do everything you can to minimize the amount of time the roots are exposed to sunlight while you are planting them. Add plenty of compost and a little organic fertilizer when you plant, and plan on continuing to apply an organic fertilizer blended especially for fruits and vegetables at least once a year as they begin to leaf out and flower. Don't expect much the first year: Almost all of these plants will produce more after two or three years. Once they do, you'll realize they're the best investment you've ever made.