Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2005
Regional Report

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Primula obconica is a hardy winter-blooming perennial.

Welcome Winter!

Leaves are falling fast now. The long nights are cold and damp, and the weak winter sun bears little warmth. Dew lays heavily on the ground, making life easy for snails and slugs.

I love winter in the garden. The ripe berries on the cotoneaster and pyracantha take center stage, at least until hungry flocks of cedar waxwings and robins arrive from the north. The fragrance of daphne and sweet olive (Osmanthus) invite me to venture into places where I know I will be showered down upon by raindrops that are still clinging to the foliage. It seems as though the trees have a much different sense of humor than my own.

Very early on just such a morning, rake in hand, I followed the squawks from an outraged tangle of blue jays to observe a noble barn owl perched serenely in the California buckeye. His tawny cloak of feathers made him almost invisible. The morning was so overcast and gray that he felt no need to retreat to his home and was content to observe a world of light that must have been as foreign to him as a damp December garden is to most people.

My footsteps are muted on a sodden layer of leaf fall. The fragrant scent of decay is music to my nose as I fall into a brisk rhythm with my rake. Working up a sweat takes a little more effort when the air is frigid, but the welcome internal warmth mingles with the cool outside temperature and feels like an icy tonic on my face. Layers of clothing come off as the pile of leaves grows higher.

Winter is a time to rest and reflect, except in the garden and especially here in northern California. We are so lucky to have a 365-day growing season. It's not too late in the season to plant primroses (Primula polyantha) fairy primrose (P. malacoides), or Primula obconica. These winter-hardy plants will provide gems of color in containers and flowerbeds all through the dark days. I have experienced fungal problems with the delicate P. malacoides in extremely wet weather, but the P. obconica are almost indestructible, and the flowers are large and showy, if you like purple, pink, blue, and white.

Pansies ... who can resist their sweet faces? They, too, can be planted now to provide a jolly note in a winter-weary garden. Stock (Matthiola), calendulas, poor man's orchids (Schizanthus), and snapdragons (Anthirrhinum) are annual bedding plants that add a cheerful note of color in the cool weather and can be planted any time between now and spring. Don't forget nemesias! I love the lobelia-like flowers of this cool-season annual. It's wonderful in a hanging pot and will last through the rest of the winter months.

For something a little different, try planting ornamental kale from cell packs. As the plants grow, the foliage turns beautiful deep purple and pink with ruffley edges. The plants resemble large cabbage roses, which in a way they are. As the season wears on and the days get longer, the kale begins to stretch out and set seed. It's then that the plants get overpoweringly stinky! It's a scent that will stay with you until spring rolls around.

Don't let winter pass you by....

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