The Loma Prietan - January/February 2008

Gardening Green

Gardening During Winter

Get in Sync with Mother Nature and Save Water

Story and Photos By Arvind Kumar

Upper: The hanging red flowers of fuchsia-flowered gooseberry are a magnet for hummingbirds. Lower: Franciscan manzanita is a water-wise groundcover that flowers in winter.
Upper: The hanging red flowers of fuchsia-flowered gooseberry are a magnet for hummingbirds. Lower: Franciscan manzanita is a water-wise groundcover that flowers in winter.

Winter might seem like an odd time to be talking about water conservation. Yes, it is true that more than half the water used in urban California goes to watering home gardens. But water is also more abundant during winter, so why worry now?

Well, what we do in our gardens during the winter months determines how much water the garden requires the rest of the year. By planting at this time, when the soil is moist and temperatures cool, young plants get established more easily with less water. Think of it as aligning your gardening schedule with California's natural calendar.

Why isn't this simple fact more widely known? Here in California, we look eastward to the East Coast and Britain for gardening knowledge. Even today, most gardening books sold in California have little California content. The horticultural industry continues to promote a style of gardening that is more suited to moist climates like the East Coast than the dry, Mediterranean climate of California.

But you know better. Instead of staying indoors, fussing over houseplants and dreaming of spring, I encourage you to step outside during winter when you can garden on all but the rainiest days. At this time of year, the ground is moist and easy to dig. The humidity is high and temperatures mild, reducing the transplant trauma on young plants. This is also the best time to germinate wildflower and other seeds.

What should you plant? Just because something can be grown in California doesn't mean it should. Life is all about making conscious choices, and for our home landscapes, let's pick what's appropriate instead of what's possible. Instead of gardening by whim or fancy, let's garden for the environment and for the planet.

Nothing is more appropriate for California gardens than California native plants. These plants have evolved in California over thousands of years and are naturally suited to our soils and climate. They have coevolved with local critters and provide incomparable habitat value. For this column, I have picked California natives that look their best during winter. Introduce them in your garden to liven up even the dreariest of days.

In the middle of winter, Chaparral Currant (Ribes malvaceum) is covered with pendulous pink-white blossoms set off nicely against the bright green fragrant foliage. The long-lasting displays attract hummingbirds and native bees. This sun-loving, drought-tolerant shrub may drop its leaves during summer, but in my yard, it has been evergreen in part shade for many seasons. It grows to 5' and is suitable along a fence or as a hedge or divider, or as a specimen in a bed of its own. Cuttings propagate readily during winter.

Try Golden Currant (Ribes aureum gracillimum) for a splash of lemon yellow in the part-shade spots in your winter garden. This charming 8' shrub produces berries the birds love to feast on. Once established, this plant can get by without any summer water.

For a striking winter display, plant Fuchsiaflowered Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) in a sunny spot and be charmed by its scarlet pendant flowers that are a magnet for hummingbirds. The thorny stems make this an ideal barrier plant around birdbaths (to keep felines at bay). The plant goes dormant in summer, so be sure to interplant with evergreen subshrubs or perennials.

Also blooming in winter is a signature species of California: manzanita. California is home to many varieties, ranging from groundcovers to large shrubs. The flowers are borne in umbels of urn-shaped flowers, hanging upside down. Manzanitas prefer full sun and fastdraining soils (perfect for sunny slopes) but mine grow just fine in clay soil. Here are two that have done well in my San Jose garden.

Bigberry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) grows all over the Santa Cruz and Mount Hamilton ranges. Its mahogany bark and blue-gray leaves look attractive all year round. In winter, it is lit up with white-pink flowers that are loved by hummingbirds. On the other hand, Franciscan Manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri franciscana) is a low groundcover (6" tall by 4' wide) that looks charming in winter. It is originally from San Francisco, where it is now extinct, and survives only in the native nursery trade. Loves sun and once-a-month light watering.

There is one other signature species of California—ceanothus—which comes into its own in late winter. Of the 50 species of ceanothus in North America, an astonishing 41 occur in California! Our state has a ceanothus for every type of soil and climate: from beaches to foothills to mountains to the desert. They want sun, fast-draining soil, and no summer water.

For a large shrub, try Buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) which covers huge swaths in the Mount Hamilton range. The white flower clusters have a soapy fragrance, and are loved by native bees.

For a mounding subshrub, choose Yankee Point Ceanothus (Ceanothus griseus horizontalis). This 3' tall and 6' wide shrub sports shiny green leaves all year round, and is covered by bright blue flower clusters in late winter. Loved by native bees and butterflies. Can be pruned to the desired height periodically.

In cultivation for over a hundred years, many ceanothus cultivars are available. I encourage you to explore and learn more about them.

Remember, by gardening during winter, you establish plants more readily and conserve water. With the right choice of plants, you will have a beautiful, water-wise, low-maintenance garden within 3-5 years.