winter garden notebook
But it almost never snows in the Central San Joaquin Valley, so if we have a “White” Christmas it is quite likely due to a dense fog.
December often finds us shrouded in white. A thick blanket covers the meadow and lane in early morning, leaving the world moist and chilly. On average, we get about 40 days of dense to moderate fog during the winter months.
It seems as if the garden has clothed herself in a white gossamer gown for the Holidays, taking a well deserved break and offering a holiday to her caretakers, too. This is the season for taking a cup of tea to the sun porch and planning next summer’s flower beds.
In celebration of this quietest season we brighten the herb beds with pots of jolly red poinsettias from the greenhouse and string glittering lights along the fence tops and through the trees.
The winter birds add color and joyful praise to the otherwise silent days. On those glorious mornings when the sun does put in an appearance, we search the flower beds for winter violets, and bulbs who might be poking their heads up through the fallen leaves, with promises of spring by late February!
Some of our favorite Christmas Gifts come from the garden. We make wreaths and swags, potpourri and sachets for friends and neighbors. The dried herbs and flowers enhance the meaning of the gifts, because they came from “our garden”. The harvested fruits go into jams and jellies. There are home dried raisins, tomatoes and apricots, walnuts and cooking herbs. There are lemons, oranges and grapefruit. All of these make delightful natural remembrances for special people in our lives.
January arrives, bringing the new year, still wrapped in a thick blanket of fog. The garden drips moisture from every twig and bough. Winter birds flock to the feeder and bath, decorating our days with a flash of feathers and a song. Often their cheerful presence is the only bright spot in otherwise colorless days …days passing with no sign of the sun. But we know the fog won’t last. The sun is waiting behind the fog and winter only stays a few short weeks.
In colder climates winter is just settling in and making himself at home for a three month stay. He brings ice and snow, freezing temperatures and misery aplenty in his bag. But here, in our California Garden, the old boy makes a brief, quiet, visit …offering, at worst, a few frosty nights, before the greening of spring.
February finds our snowdrops, tulips and daffodils already poking their heads up, asking questions about the night time temperatures. We planted pansies and Iceland poppies in November and they bob along as if nothing is going to happen. But one day soon they’ll give spring their nod of approval and another season will begin.
The garden sleeps. Weighed down under its warm red and gold
blanket of leaves she slumbers undisturbed by human interruptions. Summer’s outdoor chairs are safely stored away and if one ventures out, on the rare
sunny morning, looking for a spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and the paper
a cool breeze and a shower of falling leaves is offered as a reminder… “I
am at rest!”
- Maintain – Listen for frost warnings and protect plants from damage.
Move container plants to shelter under the eaves. Cover the plants you can’t
move with cloth or cardboard (not plastic). Tomato trellis or bamboo tents
from the summer garden can be pressed into use. Make certain the covering
doesn’t touch the plant.
Plants will survive a frost better if they have been well watered
so don’t let them dry out.
Prune deciduous trees after they lose their leaves, except for spring-flowering
varieties which have already begun to set flower buds..
- Water – only as necessary. Your automatic sprinklers should be turned
off for several weeks during the depth of winter.
- Enjoy – December is such a busy month! If I don’t get out to work
in the garden, I don’t worry. It can wait. On the other hand, a few hours
with my hands in the dirt works wonders to relieve the tension from all the
festivities, and hardly a day passes I don’t walk the quiet peaceful paths.
To my Colorado born mind, violets blooming in December are still a miracle,
even after 20 years in California!
A garden is fundamentally a humanized outdoor space, an idealized form of
the natural landscape. The term garden can mean a discrete planting
such as a perennial border or a vegetable patch. At other times it can refer
to an entire property…The Complete Garden Guide
One month is past, another is begun,
Since merry bells rang out the dying year,
And buds of rarest green began to peer,
As if impatient for a warmer sun;
And though, the distant hills are bleak and dun,
The virgin snowdrop, like a lambent fire,
Pierces the cold earth with its green-streaked spire
And in dark woods, the wandering little one
May find a primrose.
Hartley Coleridge (Feb 1st. 1842
Blanketed in fog, the garden waits—for spring. Across the lane,
the meadow is shrouded in mist almost every morning. This is the San Joaquin,
California’s Great Central Valley, where winter fog of weeks duration serves
to differentiate it from any other microclimate. Winter temperatures down to
16 degrees F. allow the growth of forsythias, lilacs and peonies and provide
adequate winter chilling for peaches, pears and cherries.
- Maintain – Continue to listen for frost warnings and protect
plants from damage. Move container plants to shelter under the eaves.
Cover the plants you can’t move with cloth or cardboard (not plastic).
January opens the bare-root planting season. All kinds of deciduous plants
may be set out now. Bare-root roses are arriving in the garden centers.
Also look for strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and certain perennial flowers.
If you haven’t already set out winter-blooming annuals, now is the time to do it.
Pansies and Iceland poppies, snapdragons and violas are offered in
garden-supply stores and are a delightful source of winter color in the garden.
Prune peaches and nectarines heavily this month to encourage fruit production.
- Water – only as necessary. Plants will survive a frost better
if they have been well watered so don’t let them dry out.
- Enjoy – Most days in January may be softened with fog, but
there are bound to be a few days of sunshine. On sunny days the garden
demands that I come out to play! Flower beds want to be cleared of
fallen leaves. There are always a few impudent weeds to deal with.
A determined gardener, I can always find some reason to spend time
playing in the dirt. On a sunny January day I can pretend it’s spring.
Even if the only thing I do is take a cup of coffee and a new seed
catalog out to the patio for a few minutes, for those precious minutes,
it IS spring in my California Garden.
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
_Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
The Garden Blossoms! Almonds come first… closely followed
by stone fruits (peaches, nectarines & plums), pears, cherries
and apples. The walnuts and Oaks flower too, but are more subtle in
their greetings to the fine warm days soon to be upon us.
The joyous sight of dainty almond blossoms and delicate leaves
bursting forth from yesterday’s barren branches are impossible to resist,
and often as not I cut a few to grace the kitchen table with their bliss.
The bulbs bright blooms and blossoms must surely be the most welcome of
any year. They poke their sweet faces up from the sleeping garden’s earth,
full of optimism and enthusiasm. Their fragrance thrills me with its
Getting ready to Celebrate the romantic season. Valentine’s Day, February
14th, not only prompts us to add “Hearts and Flowers” to our
decor, it is also falls in the “love month” of our winter birds.
A few hours before dawn, on any sparkling, cold morning, it is not
unusual to step outside for a few moments to listen for the plaintive
love calls of the little owl who inhabits the old oak tree across the
After sunrise the ground under the feeders is continually peopled
with our little feathered friends. Purple finches, gold finches, common
house finches, several types of sparrows, and the occasional junco share
our offerings of seed and running water. Everyone flocks together peacefully,
scattering to the trees and bushes at the intrusion of the local “bully” (a
fat sassy bluejay) from across the street. Then, slowly, they begin falling
like leaves to the ground again when he turns his unwelcome attentions
elsewhere. Occasionally, however, as the finches gradually begin to don
their courting colors, a squabble breaks out among the boys, sending
everyone fluttering across the lane to the safety of the meadow. The
constant coming and goings and ever changing panorama of their “love
season” is entertainment that could only be provided by a wise and
wonderful producer. Even the sparrow finds a home!
- Maintain – Frost warnings are not beyond the scope of February so protect
plants from damage.
Concentrate on finishing dormant pruning before plants leaf out. Don’t
delay too long though. Warming weather will trigger growth spurts that
you’ll want to direct with pruning.
Wait to prune spring-flowering plants until after they finish blooming.
Keep after weeds as the sprout. Pull ’em out. Hoed weeds can root
themselves again and sprayed weeds leave ugly corpses. What ever
you do, don’t let ’em go to seed or you’ll be fighting weeds all year.
- Water – only as necessary. Sparingly, once a week should do it.
- Enjoy – Many days in February may still be chilly and damp, but
there will certainly be days of sunshine. If spring fever bothers me, I pull
out my gardening catalogs and place an order for summer stuff or plant
a few flats of summer annuals in the greenhouse to get a jump on next
The busiest gardening season starts now. California grows more than
half of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetable, and one reason for that
is our amazing spring weather. By March the flower
beds will be glorious and we will be planting the vegetable gardens with
cool weather crops.