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Master Gardener: The joys and challenges of the winter garden

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Master Gardener: The joys and challenges of the winter garden

One of the joys (or challenges) of gardening in Southern California is that we can garden all year round. In chillier climates, the garden is covered with a white blanket of snow until spring, letting you off the hook for a couple of months. Having grown up in New York, I can say that the first few snowstorms are magical when everything is dressed in a sparkly white blanket. By the time it’s May, the snow is disgusting and gray, and there’s 6 months’ worth of dog poop lurking under it. It’s not exactly the stuff of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

With a bit of planning, the winter garden doesn’t have to be a boring wasteland. When selecting plants, look beyond the pretty flowers and interesting leaves. Interesting branch texture, color, and structure can liven up your landscape. Evergreen trees and shrubs, many bearing colorful berries, are attractive and provide food to birds. Some flowers that can’t tolerate the summer heat will thrive during the cooler, wetter months.

Manzanita is a California native that has an interesting branch structure and attractive mahogany-brown bark. It also bears flowers in the winter, providing a welcome source of nectar for hummingbirds.

Toyon, another California native, is a small slow-growing tree often grown in a multi-trunked form. It is an evergreen and bears beautiful bright red berries in the winter. Other winter fruit-bearing native trees or shrubs include lemonade berry, sugar bush, and barberry.

Winter flowers for Southern California include snapdragons, hydrangeas, pansies, violas, sweet pea, calendula, alyssum, nasturtium, and stock. I recommend planting these in a space that is not accessible to rabbits. I once foolishly planted over 100 pansies in my front yard, and they were all gone by the next morning.

Winter gardening is relatively laid back when compared to summer gardening. The temperatures are no longer in the triple digits, so it’s more pleasant to work outside. Most (but not all) of the pest insects have gone dormant. The most vexing pests (gophers, rats, mice) are less active. Best of all, we get almost all our rainfall in the winter, so there’s no need to hand water several times a day. Remember that the garden still needs some attention.

If you turn off or cut back automatic irrigation during the winter, keep in mind that new plantings may need supplemental watering. Likewise, if rain is in the forecast, turn off the sprinklers.

If you’ve had problems with scale insects during the summer, applying dormant (winter) oil can give you a head start on controlling them the following spring. Some antifungal sprays must be applied during dormancy, specifically sprays for peach leaf curl.

Pruning and shaping trees is easier during the winter. Once the leaves have fallen, it’s easier to see the branch structure so you can plan your pruning more effectively.


Looking for more gardening tips? Here’s how to contact the Master Gardener program in your area.

Los Angeles County

mglosangeleshelpline@ucdavis.edu; 626-586-1988; http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu/UC_Master_Gardener_Program/

Orange County

ucceocmghotline@ucanr.edu; 949-809-9760; http://mgorange.ucanr.edu/

Riverside County

anrmgriverside@ucanr.edu; 951-683-6491 ext. 231; https://ucanr.edu/sites/RiversideMG/

San Bernardino County

mgsanbern@ucanr.edu; 909-387-2182; http://mgsb.ucanr.edu/