Observations in a Small Garden: Winter Pleasures

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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A Little and Lewis hosta leaf echoes the colors of hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus), Veltheimia bracteata, and Heuchera ‘Dale’s Strain’ at midwinter in the shade garden. Author’s photograph

A Little and Lewis hosta leaf echoes the colors of hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus), Veltheimia bracteata, and Heuchera ‘Dale’s Strain’ at midwinter in the shade garden. Author’s photograph

As I write this, the crape myrtle (Lagerstroemeria ‘Muskogee’) outside my office window is aglow with the gold, orange, and scarlet of autumn. At its base is the first flower of a tiny, creamy white, petticoat daffodil (Narcissus ‘Taffeta’), given me by the late Wayne Roderick. Nearby, responding to just two inches of rain thus far, the green shoots on Watsonia aletroides are already three inches tall, and Aloe polyphylla has plumped up its fleshy leaves, which had curled inward with summer’s desiccation. It is only the middle of November, but these small events mark the beginning of winter, my favorite season in the garden.

Perhaps, as a recovering Midwesterner, I embrace the winter months in my San Francisco garden more than others do. Frozen soils in a Michigan winter would bring a complete cessation of outdoor gardening activities, a focus on miniature gloxinias under lights indoors, and hours spent poring over seed catalogs. In contrast, here in California, most of my gardening activities—planting, dividing, pruning, weeding, and new construction—are concentrated in the winter months. A reduced travel schedule then gives me more time to observe the day-to-day growth and flowering of plants in the garden.

I find my soils are perfect for setting out new plants roughly forty-eight hours after a good soaking rain; the soil is moist and crumbly and easily worked then. With cool air and low light, young plants put energy into expanding their root systems rather than producing foliage and flowers. Rainwater moistens the soil more thoroughly than even the best of irrigation systems, giving roots every encouragement for rapid and expansive growth. I try to get a year’s worth of new acquisitions into the ground during November and December, providing them with nearly a full season of rain before summer’s dryness.

With winter rains comes new growth, especially on native plants and those from other mediterranean climates. I divide clumps of grasses and native irises just as the new shoots are developing, but before new leaves appear. Replanted immediately, the divisions easily establish before summer and require only minimal watering during their first summer.

Of all the winter tasks, weeding is the one that ultimately brings me most closely in touch with the garden. The rains spur the germination of countless seeds. Some are garden plants that I happily encourage; others are wildflowers like poppies, clarkias, or Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). Most, alas, are weeds. The challenge is to distinguish between the desirables and the weeds, a skill that only comes with close inspection and hand weeding.

The slow pace of hand weeding gives me time to enjoy my eclectic collection of plants, many of which only stage an appearance during the rainy season. Cyclamen of several species and cultivars have been tucked into nooks throughout the garden. Winter is definitely their season, perhaps not always for their cheerful flowers (some bloom in fall, others in spring) but certainly for their foliage. Patterned leaves of pewter, silver, and shades of green are endlessly varied and fascinating. By summer, most will have withered away.

Likewise, the succulent and geophytic pelargoniums from South Africa sit dormant and leafless (sometimes stemless) during the dry summer. With the first rains, however, furry new leaves burst forth in a variety of shapes and textures; sometimes the leaves appear before the rains begin, perhaps as a response to shorter days. The subtle flowers are easy to miss later in spring; what appeals to me, however, is the clear expression in their growth cycle of an adaptation to the summer-dry mediterranean climate of their homeland.

In the shade garden, hellebores capture my attention, their fat buds rising slowly on sturdy stems, opening cups of white, green, and (my favorite) deep plum. The first are open by mid-January, the last still opening their flowers in March. As the flowers fade, the new leaves expand like slowly unfurling umbrellas.

Native shrubs on the hillside—manzanitas, ceanothus, garrya—begin their growth and flowering cycle after the winter rains have thoroughly moistened the soil. Silk tassel (Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’) starts the season in January with pendant, creamy white catkins. Several manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) follow with tiny, white or pale pink, urn-shaped flowers in drooping clusters. The effects are subtle, but particularly appealing on close inspection. A chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum ‘Dancing Tassels’) flowers from November through March, its pendant racemes of pale pink blossoms feeding the hummingbirds throughout the most difficult months.

Soon spring will be here and, with it, so much activity in the garden that it will be hard to focus on any one aspect. Garden tours, plant sales, and travels will keep me busy and away from the garden more than I would like. So I treasure these winter months, when I can enjoy the exquisite detail of flower and leaf and rejoice in the miracle of growth.

RGT