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Gardening: Seasonal spectacle: Extending the richness of the garden into winter

Jan./Feb. 2009 California Country magazine

Find plants that revel in the cold, gray weather and you can enjoy a rich winter garden.



Even though the calendar says winter, the camellias are blooming. Orange red rose hips dangle from thorny branches. Waxy yellow flowers hang like baubles from leafless winter sweet bushes. Clusters of Daphne flowers fill the air with an intoxicating perfume, and masses of stringy yellow flowers cover brown witch hazel branches. Generous swags of fat red berries cover pyracantha branches. The variegated holly stands unscathed by Mother Nature’s sometimes icy weather, and outside my window a forest of leafless black oaks makes a dark and lacy silhouette against the gray sky.

So I’ve banned the phrase “dead of winter” from my garden. Instead, I hunt for plants that revel in the sharp, gray weather of January, and that burst into bloom those frigid February days when you can see your breath. Like horticulturist Graham Stuart Thomas, I don’t want a garden in winter; I want a winter garden.

With rare exceptions, winter is not our harshest season, so it makes sense to extend the richness of the garden into winter. Fortunately California’s Mediter­ranean climate and relatively mild winters let us grow winter bloomers and winter foliage plants from many parts of the world. There’s no reason for us to think of winter as the end of the gardening season.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Flowers—camellia, Daphne, wintersweet, witch hazel, sweet box, Lenten rose, red hot poker, star magnolia, viburnum, salvia
  • Foliage—ferns, aeonium, camellia, holly, gardenia, incense cedar
  • Berries—beautyberry, Washington hawthorn, toyon, nandina, pyracantha
  • Bark—coral bark maple, red twig dogwood, birch

Gardening to-do list for January/February

  • Remember to water plants beneath overhangs where the rains don’t reach them. Even though it’s winter, they’ll still need some water.
  • Prune roses and fruit trees now while they’re dormant. Spray with dormant oil to prevent diseases and kill insects such as scale.
  • Protect frost-tender plants when temps fall below 32 degrees. Use pieces of row cover, newspaper, sheets, even shade cloth, to protect them on cold nights. Also be sure to water plants, except succulents, when freezing temperatures are expected.
  • Cut ornamental grasses to the ground. Pick up fallen camellia blooms to prevent the spread of camellia blight. Plant dahlias and gladioluses.
  • Shop for bare root roses and fruit trees.

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