Cold Weather Gardening

Even in subtropical Los Angeles, there is a down time for plants. Despite balmy late-November weather, the shortened days and colder nights signal to plants that dormancy is at hand. For the next eight weeks, plants will grow scarcely, if at all.
For gardeners, this is a precious time, a Sabbath season. No need to worry about doing anything, no need to assess whether it is too late to prune or too early to plant. If you plant now, what you put in the ground will just sit there; it may as well be in a pot. If you prune now, you will force new growth that will be killed on any frosty night. It is enough, for now, to walk in the garden and take stock of what has grown well and what has not, to see how various combinations of plants have developed, to make vague plans about what kind of garden to create when the seasons change.
December is generally our coldest month. We can get frosts earlier (as occurred about three weeks ago), and as late as March, but significant Southern California freezes nearly always come in December, typically in the last two weeks of this month.
Certain plants can be killed by cold weather, and residents of the Antelope Valley, where snow and severe freezes are not unusual, need to be especially aware of which plants are cold sensitive and which are cold hardy.
Harry Bard, who lives 14 miles north of Lancaster in Rosamond, communicated to me his misadventure with a fig tree. He planted a tree and enjoyed wonderful figs for a time, but then along came last winter’s cold snap and the tree died.
The Antelope Valley is at the edge of the fig tree’s hardiness zone. Winter-protect fig trees and other sensitive plants by covering them with shade cloth on nights when cold weather is predicted. Another strategy is to keep your fig tree in a large pot or tub and move it underneath a patio overhang during the winter; on cold nights, it is always several degrees warmer under an overhang than it is just a few feet away in the open yard. Also, some heat from a house always leaks through its walls, insulating plants placed close by on the outside.
It is tempting at this time of year to think revolutionary thoughts about gardens and landscapes. With nothing to plant or prune, the gardener steps back and wonders what it would be like if, for 12 months out of the year, there was nothing to plant and nothing to prune. You do not have to travel far to find out what sort of a garden you could have.
All of Los Angeles is surrounded by and intertwined with chaparral, a name derived from “chaparro,” which is the Spanish word for dwarf evergreen oak. Many chaparral plants never need to be watered or pruned. One of my favorites is the California scrub oak (Quercus dumosa). It has small leaves and a grayish white trunk. At this time of year, having survived for months on only a pittance of precipitation, the leaves of some scrub oaks have closed up like clams so as to minimize water loss. With average rainfall this winter, the leaves will open up again.
Another appealing chaparral plant is deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Its evergreen clumps, which can reach several feet in height and girth, can weather the hottest, driest summer without any sign of wilt.
Walking among those huge rock formations adjacent to Topanga Canyon Boulevard and the Simi Valley (118) Freeway in Chatsworth, you quickly learn to appreciate the bond between rock and tree. You see an oak tree growing from the base of and providing a canopy over a massive 20-by- 20-foot boulder and understand that the water that collects beneath the rock sustains the trees, giving it a drink and keeping its roots cool. Perhaps the landscape of the future will contain rocks and trees, with some deer grass and sage scattered about, a minimalist statement that matches our natural surroundings to a tee.
< Bettye Hawley has always been interested in gardening, and her gardening is, well, interesting.
Among her prize crops? A philodendron that cascaded from ceiling to floor like a hairy green mat, planted in 1976 – and which she finally gave away in ’97. A zucchini she had trouble lifting with one hand. And, of course, a pair of size-10 Army boots bursting with succulents.
“I used to plant anything in everything,” Hawley says. “Anything that’s nice-looking,” including ceramic pieces, decorative bowls … and the boots.
“I bought those boots in the ’40s, at the Goodwill right after the war was over. After the boys came home, they gave their boots up. I bought a pair for $1 and planted the succulents in them.”
After the Northridge Earthquake in ’94, a lot of the makeshift planters in her Van Nuys home were cracked and broken, so she planted everything in the ground, except for the boots. She sets those in a pan of water once a month for the roots pushing out through the leather, and sprinkles them with fertilizer once a year.
With the heavy wind a few weeks ago, she lost more of her planters. But the boots remain.
“These boots still have some plants in them from 60 years ago,” she says.
– Mike Chmielecki

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