Purple pansy flowers in the garden

January is always an exciting month for me. It marks the beginning of a new year out in the garden. I left full-time employment in 2020, and decided that in 2021, I would work just 10-15 hours a week, in a private garden plot that is around 6,400 square feet. It’s a perfect choice to continue vegetable gardening on somewhat of a large scale and do what I love – growing plants! Our home site is not big enough for anything beyond container gardening and a few small landscape plants, and I have maxed out the best growing spots, or at least my husband says I have! Secretly, I wonder if there can ever be too many cheerful containers bursting with colorful foliage and blooms.

Here in coastal Zone 9b, we can expect the frost-free date to be around March 15. With average winter daytime temperatures of 55-65°F and nighttime temperatures above 40°F, there is still time to plant lettuce (25-40 days), collards (50-60 days), onions, including shallot and scallion (90-110 days), cilantro (40-45 days), arugula (30-60 days), carrots (50-80 days), turnips (30-60 days), radishes (30-60 days), snap and snow peas (50-65 days), and kale (50-60 days). The seeds of lettuce, collards, snap and snow peas that I planted directly in the soil at the beginning of this year have germinated and I can’t wait to see how they do. Normally, I am planting seed in late October or November but my former full-time job at a farm near Jesup and family obligations had other plans for me. I just didn’t have time to plant a single seed in the island garden or even maintain it once the tomato plants were pulled in early August.

Now is a great time to introduce some fruit trees into the garden. We have had some successes and failures over the 35 years of living on a barrier island. Sometimes it has been the cultivar and sometimes the planting site wasn’t just right. We finally discarded a satsuma tangerine that had been declining since we planted it five years ago. We have bought a replacement and will relocate the plant to another site in our garden. On a whim, we picked up a Key lime, which is not hardy here. It’ll be planted in a large container on the patio and will require being moved indoors in severe weather. For the larger garden I maintain, I’ll be introducing six plant species, two of which will be new. The garden had a fig that produced small fruit in late summer that never fully ripened; it’s going to be replaced with “Brown Turkey” fig that offers sweet fruits twice a year, in early summer and again in late summer. The fruits are medium-sized with a brownish-purple exterior skin and amber flesh. It is a self-pollinator and hardy in Zones 7-9. The wonderful low chill “Tropic Snow” peach that has heavily produced amazingly sweet white peaches that past few years is getting a friend, “Tropic Beauty,” another low-chill fruit tree, but with red skin and yellow flesh. The two blueberries (cultivar unknown) in the garden haven’t done very well so I am going to relocate them and add two additional Southern Highbush blueberries (cultivar, “Farthing”) as an experiment. Blueberries grow beautifully on the mainland of Southeast Georgia when Mother Nature cooperates, but not so well on the barrier islands; pH might be a factor (too high) and I’ll have to add sulfur to the soil where I plant these four little guys. Temperatures that fall below freezing can be devastating to commercial blueberry farmers growing Southern Highbush varieties. What can be even worse is warm February weather that encourages the plants to bloom followed by freezing temperatures in early March which kill the buds and developing fruit. The native rabbit-eye blueberry offers smaller fruit that ripens a bit later; the plant species requires a bit less care for the homeowner, but I chose the Southern Highbush for its large, plump berries.

Two new plant species I am introducing include a multi-stemmed Arbequina olive tree (now that’s exciting) and a self-pollinating low-chill plum, “Scarlet Beauty.” Olives are evergreen plants in zones 8-11 but can lose some foliage in very low temperatures. Plants bloom in February-March and fruit ripens in September-October. Olives grow best in full sun in well-drained sandy soil rich in organic matter. Once established, olive is quite hardy to heat and drought. Ultimate size is about 20 feet in height. Although this one will be planted in the ground, an olive is a very attractive container plant. As for the plum, “Scarlet Beauty” is an early blooming plum with medium-sized fruit with excellent flavor, bright red skin and scarlet-streaked juicy flesh. It is well-suited to Zones 8b-9. I can’t wait to see how it does.

Our containers of flowering winter annuals (dianthus, pansies, sweet alyssum) will continue to thrive until temperatures start to creep above 75 degrees. I try to plant only twice a year, late spring and late fall so that the plants last from May-October and November-April. There are many plant selections that thrive in 65-75°F weather that are available throughout the year in large home improvement centers that offer plants, but don’t perform well when temperatures get too hot or too cold. Since low-maintenance is key to my garden, any plant that is too temperamental isn’t going to last long.

Of course, January does finds me pulling winter weeds. However, the sunny days we have seem make the cooler temperatures perfect for this never-ending work while keeping mosquitoes and no-see-ums from being a bother. The annual late winter pruning of the existing fruit trees and muscadine grapes is just about finished. Dead wood, cross branches and sucker shoots are removed.

On some, I deliberately lower the height of the tallest branches so that harvest is made easier. A balanced organic fertilizer application will soon follow; buds are already swelling on the existing fruit trees and some have burst into bloom. I want to get all the winter gardening chores done because the spring and summer vegetable garden planting is just around the corner!