All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I went for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
On such a winter’s day
– Mammas and Pappas, California Dreamin
While most gardeners across the country are reading seed catalogs and gardening only in their imagination, our gardens are active and alive, deserving of our attention. Gardening continues here, even though sun’s light soon will reach its lowest ebb of the year. Daylight is now less than ten hours and shadows are long. But, for the Coastal Gardener, there is still much to do . . .
Seeds may still be germinated. Flower seedlings can fill gaps in the winter garden, while vegetable seedlings will allow the harvest to continue well into spring. Fresh lettuce, chard and spinach, picked right from your garden is delicious, nutritious, and economical.
All of the cole crops, like broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower are waiting to be planted. Sow bibb, buttercrunch and romaine lettuces, mustards, flat-leaf parsley, green or bulbing onions, leeks, radishes, beets, peas and favas now. A few sprinkles and most will sprout within two weeks.
To increase germination in the cool soil of December, cover the bed with clear plastic. Hold down the edges with soil or rocks to hold it in place and exclude slugs. When the seedlings are all sprouted, remove the plastic.
Plant artichokes, asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb, blackberries and boysenberries, as well as grapes and strawberries. Potatoes can still be planted along the coast and make a terrific project for children to grow in a large tub.
Leafy crops, like lettuce, romaine and spinach can be harvested by removing only the outer leaves, leaving the center leaves to grow and be harvested later. By removing only the outer leaves the plant may continue growing for months, providing leaves the entire time, until the lengthening days of spring eventually trigger the plant to flower.
If you forgot to apply a dormant spray last month to your peach, nectarine, plum, apple or apricot, do it now. Your second application will be about New Years Day and the final application should be just before the buds open in late winter or early spring. Dormant sprays are essential on these trees to control various foliage and fruit diseases that cannot other wise be treated.
Prune deciduous fruit trees, berries, grapes and kiwi vines later this month or next, after the leaves have fallen. Most shrubs can also be tidied up from summer, but don’t cut shrubs like lilac, ceanothus or hydrangea, or you’ll remove next year’s flowers. Fuchsia should have been pruned hard a couple of weeks ago, but you can still do it now. Cut hanging plants to just past the edge of the basket. Don’t worry that you may be cutting the plant back to bare wood, that’s not a problem. Feed the plant aggressively with liquid fish fertilizer and begin pinching the tips every three or four weeks through February, then let it bloom. It will be spectacular.
Plant ageratum, alyssum, baby-blue-eyes, calendulas, candytuft, canterbury bells, forget-me-nots, larkspur, lobelia, nasturtiums, pansies, poppies, primrose, stock, sweet peas, violas and violets. My favorites, cyclamen, anemones, and ornamental cabbage, are planted now.
Plant California native plants, like ceanothus, zauschneria or epilobium, toyon, flowering currant and Cleveland sage now, at the beginning of their winter and spring growth period.
When planting, be careful not compact the soil. Wet, soggy soil should not be walked upon or you will compress it, eliminating the spaces between the particles and depriving the roots of precious air.
Continue Fertilizing most potted plants and hanging baskets, but many shrubs, vines and trees in the ground have little use for fertilizer at this time of year; small, cool-season flowers, vegetable and herbs being an exception. If gardenias, citrus or other plants show iron deficiency, don’t bother applying any, as it is too cold for the iron to be effective.
If you haven’t yet, lift begonia, caladium, gladiolus, and dahlia, tubers and corms. Leave them to dry for a couple of days, then gently remove any remaining soil by hand. Store them in a shallow tray of dry peat moss or clean potting soil in the garage or another dark, dry and cool place.
This is the preferred time to prune pines, conifers and eucalyptus to avoid attracting life-threatening bark or longhorned beetles and will not disrupt nesting birds. Proper pruning lessens the chance of wind damage, and provides trimmings for holiday decorations. In addition to pine and cypress, eucalyptus branches and twigs can be wired into lovely, long-lasting and fragrant holiday wreaths and garlands. Rose hips or the berries from nandina, toyon or pyracantha make a nice accent.
The abundant fallen leaves and garden trimmings of December should be composted, not disposed of. Give all your garden tools a thorough once over. Clean, sharpen and oil pruning shears. If you’re not certain how to perform this essential chore, don’t guess – you may ruin your valuable shears. Instead, bring them to a garden center that offers a professional sharpening and tune-up service. Apply linseed oil to all the wood handle of your tools, wiping off the excess the next day. This annual treatment will help your tools last for years.
Finally, provide food for winter’s visiting birds. Sparrows, finches, goldfinches and towhees will be attracted to high protein seed. Western bluebirds, wrens and warblers prefer mealworms. Anna’s hummingbirds, and the occasional Allen’s Hummingbird, will need nectar sources, either provided by winter blooming plants with tubular flowers or from a feeder.
There is still much to occupy the coastal gardener’s time. Although winter is just around the corner we’re still gardening, while the rest of the country is California Dreamin’.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar
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