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Winter Is the Season of Hope and Opportunity


Under drifting storm clouds, I was out planting roses the other day. The weathermen said it was going to rain, but a spectacular sunrise said it wouldn't happen right away. (Dallas, Fritz and Steve: Are all these glorious sunrises and sunsets El Nino events?)

So I started digging the immense holes roses require. The soil was perfect--not too wet, not too dry--and I added some homemade compost to make it richer. I used an old board as a level to make sure each rose was at the right depth, with the bulging bud union just above soil level, and soon there were four new bushes in the garden--two Taboos, a Blueberry Hill and a Lady of the Dawn.

My wife spotted these last year and loved the colors. The Taboo is a deep, velvety red, the then-new Blueberry Hill has flowers colored a soft lavender and Lady of the Dawn has flowers like giant apple blossoms. We had removed some overgrown shrubs and had more room.

In the afternoon, it finally rained, watering in my new plantings and making the garden too wet to work in for about a week, which is why I was up early to get the planting done. At this time of year, you must plant when the opportunity appears. When the soil is wet, stay out of it.

I also moved some perennials, including a few agapanthus that sat out of the ground for about three weeks (in the shade) and were still looking fresh. At this cool time of the year, many plants can stand abuse they wouldn't tolerate in other seasons, which is why it's the best time to shift things around in the garden.

These kinds of winter games I thoroughly understand, but there is much about Southern California winters that I still find bewildering, even after gardening here for some 30 years.

For instance, why does my garden look so dormant this year?

No Sure Thing

In contrast to the northern half of the state, where I grew up, winters here are seldom clear-cut. All the leaves don't drop at once, lots of things don't go dormant but simply look drab, and the weather is never a sure thing. Storms don't always arrive, and they seldom leave the garden dark and moist. Instead, they are usually followed by Santa Ana winds that leave it bleached and dry, on the surface at least (the soil underneath stays wet).

There are spots of color, to be sure. Mandarin oranges hang on the tree, a noisette rose is blooming and a bushy heliotrope is covered with clusters of little lavender flowers. There are some camellias in full bloom (including one of the new, delightfully fragrant kinds, called 'High Fragrance,' that we got at Nuccio's in Altadena) and some salvias are still flowering--Salvia confertiflora with its odd, fuzzy orange spikes and S. chiapensis, which never stops.

But the front garden in particular, full of natives, herbs and drought-resistant things, looks like a High Sierra meadow after the first frost. Well, not that brown, but a dull, steely gray, as if the rains have not yet washed away summer's dust, which is a little puzzling because our hills are getting so green and this is supposed to be sunny Southern California, land of the Rose Parade and perpetual flowers.

Maybe it's an unusually cold year? A friend on the Westside says his Bermuda lawn is brown for the first time in the 20 years he's lived there, completely dormant. It hasn't felt that cold, but perhaps that's it.

Or maybe I've planted too much that goes dormant, or nearly so, or that needs cutting back in winter. Some perennials like Verbascum bombyciferum, coreopsis and yarrows have shriveled up like balloons after the party. Others, like Verbena rigida and a perennial veronica, have been cut completely to the ground.

Some plants look positively ratty, like the lamb's ears, which needs thinning or replanting. Whole chunks of it are dead and rotting in the rain. This is next weekend's project, if the weather allows.

There are certainly some very green gardens around, and they're filled with very common plants. Perhaps that's why these plants are so common: They have no winter. One of my neighbors has a garden of azaleas and camellias, and they're all in bloom.

Removing the lawn in front has made a difference. It would now be a bright, glowing green if I had over-seeded it with annual rye, and it is the annual grasses that are making our hills so green right now. We had Saturday brunch in Topanga and found that the sycamores were nearly dormant while the native willows along the creek still had bright yellow fall foliage. It was all the grasses underneath that were so green.

So perhaps that's it, the downside of having no lawn. The brightest greens in my garden right now are the annual bluegrass, oxalis and other weeds sprouting where I've not mulched. Getting after them will be another chore for next weekend, before they make seeds for next year. Annual weeds like these are why some vacant lots appear to be greener than my garden right now.

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