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The Definitive Guide For The Winter Gardener

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Compared to much of the rest of the country, California winters might be considered downright mild- but they're not without their challenges. The days are shorter, the nights are cooler, the rain and fog seem nonstop, and don't tell anyone, but the temperatures can even dip below freezing. Life in the garden simply isn't as action-packed this time of year -- but that doesn't mean there's no fun to be had. To help prevent my fellow gardeners from going stir-crazy, I've compiled a list of ways to keep your garden healthy and happy all winter long.

Plant Your Cool-Season Vegetables
This one is the most exciting to me! Just when you're mourning the end of tomato season, you remember that it's time to plant cauliflower, onions, fennel, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chards, arugula, and most other greens. No more buying a pre-washed bag of arugula every day! You'll grow your own. Just remember, you'll want your cool-season crops to grow in cool weather only to avoid bitterness, so get them in the ground or pots now. Follow the planting instructions on your seed packets (usually there are two sets of instructions, one for fall planting/winter harvest and one for late-winter planting/late spring harvest -- you'll want to pay attention to the former) and don't despair if there are brief periods of freezing temperatures and frost. My chards, chois, and kales are thriving after a few chilly nights that killed off less-hardy plants.

Get Bulbs Into The Ground
California's milder winters mean that there are many bulbs to choose from -- but if your area's winter is too mild, your bulbs will need a little help from the fridge. Emulate the chill that the rest of the country is experiencing by storing your crocus, tulip, freesia, and iris bulb in the refrigerator for a month or two, only planting them in November (or later), when the temperatures have cooled. In Southern California, the rule of thumb is to plant your bulbs the day after Christmas -- a lovely tradition!

Put Your Roses To Sleep
Without a proper chill, many rose bushes in California will remain active -- so you'll need to help put them to bed. According to California Garden Clubs, spraying your roses now with a dormant spray will help them maintain a proper cycle throughout the year, as well eliminating disease spores and harmful insect eggs. You'll also want to keep your precious plants free of mildew-encouraging dead leaves. In a few months, "prune after the last possible hint of freezing temps -- or in January for coastal and lowland gardeners."

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
The University of California Sustainable and Fire Safe Landscape division shares many reasons why Southern California gardeners should mulch thoroughly, including erosion prevention, fire hazard reduction, and weed control. I would never think of "help discourage destructive fires" as one of my gardening chores, but it's so nice to do we can all do our part to help. If you happen to have any plants that were killed by frost (or any other mysterious garden reason), be sure to trim the dead matter away so it doesn't become fuel in case there is a fire. In cooler, wetter Northern California, mulch protects roots from fluctuating temperatures and prevents erosion, especially in the rainiest areas.

Make Notes For Next Year
Of course we'll all remember what we'd like to do differently next year, but just in case we forget, now is the perfect time to make notes. Mine would include:

  • Plant more cherry/grape tomatoes! I eat them by the handful in a way I would never snack on larger slicing tomatoes.
  • Plant more broccoli. I have always been a broccoli fiend, but garden broccoli is a million times tastier than any I've ever had.
  • Get cold weather crops in the ground sooner rather than later. Even just an extra week or two can protect delicate plants from surprise frosts.
  • When freezing temperatures are predicted (even just at freezing), harvest all tomatoes. One chilly night can destroy them all.
  • Harvest strawberries more vigilantly. It seemed like the strawberries would never end so most days I only picked enough for my morning bowl of cereal. Now I dearly wish I had a freezer full of berries and jars of jam.
  • Make more pesto. A basil plant in full force is a thing of beauty -- especially considering a little sprig costs $3 at the grocery store. The pesto I froze has kept beautifully. I only wish I had 10 times as much.

Observe Your Winter Garden
Even if your winter is mild, your garden won't be as exuberant as it is the rest of the year. Take time to observe it in its low-key state, and think about what you'd like to do differently for next winter. Perhaps plant a few shrubs with bright autumn foliage or cheerful winter berries? Notice any dead spots in your garden and consider adding some of these to keep you company next winter:

  • Manzanita arctostaphylos flowers in December/January and holds its delicate pink-edged blooms through the spring.
  • California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum) also holds onto its flowers all winter, and is hardy to -10ºF.
  • Snowberries (Symphoricarpos) provide a touch of bright winter white, especially great if you don't get any actual snow.
  • Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia californica) will fascinate you all winter long with its heart-shaped leaves and purple-striped pipe-shaped flowers.
  • The bright red berries of California holly (Heteromeles) provide food for birds all winter -- and can be used to make jelly!
  • As I've mentioned (very enthusiastically), sumac bushes provide vibrant fall and winter color, and so much more.

Start Making Your Dream Seeds & Starts List
Oh, packets of seeds are so cheap! And yet the total in my cart is already over $100? Such is the magic of Seed Catalogue Math. To be sure you order what you want without wasting money, start your wishlist now and edit throughout the winter. Sometime around January you might realize you don't need five different types of Thai basil and every color of tulip. On the other hand, you might discover a new green at a restaurant that you absolutely must grow, or maybe you'll remember how much joy dahlias brought you last summer and devote your entire garden to them. The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue is a great place to start scheming and daydreaming -- they have 10 varieties of radicchio and 37 kinds of cucumbers! You'll need at least until February to narrow it down to 2 or 3.

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