THERE ARE TWO times of the year when a Southern California gardener can just kick back and do nothing, or next to it. One is the very end of summer, during the month of August, when it is too hot to do anything but water; the other is now, in the dead of winter.
After all the wind and dryness this January, it may be hard to imagine but February is historically our rainiest month and it's often too stormy and wet to do much of anything.
It's important to stay out of rain-soaked garden beds so you do not compact and damage soils (which later makes them hard to water or even weed) but if you do decide to wade in, here are a few February opportunities.
This is the tail end of the big rose planting and pruning season so make sure you have planted any new roses you have found; pruned all your existing ones; transplanted any that are in a bad place (and are not more than a few years old); and drenched leafless roses with a special, nonpoisonous "dormant spray" (available at nurseries).
If you haven't done any of these, you can go about it -- when soils are not too wet -- until about the middle of February. If you bought roses to plant and they are beginning to leaf out, it is OK to snap off the young shoots, which are often lacking in chlorophyll, and new ones will sprout in their place.
When pruning, don't worry about sealing cuts, often recommended in rose books, because the insects that bore into the ends of rose canes are mostly active here in August.
If you must get into a wet garden bed -- to prune a rose, for instance -- keep a few pieces of plywood handy, about 2 feet by 2 feet square, to toss onto the wet soil. Standing on these will at least distribute your weight so you do not do the soil too much harm. Digging in a soggy wet soil is another story. There is no good way, so wait until it dries for a few days, or even a week, before digging after a drenching rain. The test: Squeeze a handful of soil and if it turns into a mud ball, don't dig any further.
In case of a freeze
Extremely cold weather sometimes follows storm systems as they pass through the Southland, cold enough to brown or blacken some plants, such as orchids, bananas, hibiscus or even bougainvillea. If it is windy after a storm, frosts are seldom a problem, but be alert when the air is still and calm. If you know freezes are due that night, you can move sensitive container plants under eaves. Cover sensitive plants with plastic; just be sure to remove it before the sun cooks them. Should something get nipped, do not prune off damaged growth until early spring. In spring, it will be quite clear what needs to be removed off and what doesn't. You don't want to prune off any more than necessary.
Plant a pot of ...
Many spring flowering bedding plants are already blooming at nurseries -- most in quart or 4-inch pots -- and they will continue to bloom if planted quickly. They may not get as large or bloom as long as those planted in the fall, because they have not had much time to grow roots out into your garden soil, but they will flower for weeks before fading for the summer. If you don't want to plant a whole bed full, a few put into large, shallow containers will go a long way toward making a garden spring-like.
Last call for cool-season crops
This is a tough month to get seed of anything to sprout because it is so chilly, but man does not live by buns and burgers alone. Try sowing some winter vegetable seed so you are never without. Good bets are carrots, beets, lettuce, mesclun mixes, spinach and any other crops that will grow quickly in the cool weather. Some gardeners living in really warm and protected areas such as Anaheim have found they can plant the earliest varieties of tomatoes, such as 'Early Girl,' and get them before anyone. The rest of us can only dream about such things. The time to plant spring vegetables is two months off, and most wait until May to put in peppers and tomatoes.
Camellias coming in
What would the north side of most houses look like without camellias? These shade-tolerant shrubs are among the most useful and valued in California, and they begin blooming this month. At nurseries, this means that you can see what the flowers actually look like before you bring one home. Since they are best planted while in bloom, or soon thereafter, you can plant them right away. Be sure to plant camellias "high," with about an inch of the root ball aboveground so the plant's base does not become covered by soil later as things settle. This can be fatal for camellias and also azaleas. One way to prune or shorten camellias that are getting too big is to cut off entire flowering branches and bring them indoors. It's like having your cake and eating it too.