Guilt Free Winter Gardens

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

Gardeners may take more delight in winter than in spring.
Spring is a time of running back and forth, of hectic weekends at the nursery, of frenzied planning and planting, as you determine that this year, finally, neighbors and visitors will be stopped dead in their tracks when they see your garden.
Spring is full of ambitious schemes and exhausting exuberance.
Winter, by contrast, is a quiet, contemplative time.
The nicest part about a winter stroll through the garden is that you are not overcome by guilt – or, at any rate, shouldn’t be.
At all other times, there is a gnawing feeling that some chore that needs to be done is not being accomplished. There is some seeding, planting or pruning that is called for, but you just don’t have the time; maybe you’ll get around to it next week.
In winter, by contrast, plants stop growing. Even if you want to start something new, you can’t. You’ve either planted bulbs and overseeded your lawn by now or you haven’t.
Winter peas are either vining up the backyard fence or they’re still in the packet – which you meant to plant but forgot about. No need to panic, though. Just relax and enjoy the garden for what it is – or isn’t.
Among gardeners, there is a common obsession for planting every square inch of ground. Los Angeles lots are often small, and room for creativity is further limited by the presence of lawn both front and back. Yet insistence on making something happen on every bare patch of earth can lead to chaos.
This year, instead of replacing spent bedding plants with more of the same, contemplate covering the earth with a rough mulch such as redwood compost, shredded bark, fallen leaves or pine needles. These materials may, in fact, be more aesthetic – and certainly more reliable and economical – companions to trees and shrubs than many kinds of annuals or ground covers.
Certain shrubs and trees are of such stature that they do not need embellishment from plants growing underneath.
One such plant is the red clusterberry, Cotoneaster lacteus. This time of year, a mature 10-foot plant will show off thousands of bright berries along arching shoots. The leaves of this cotoneaster are olive green on one side and fuzzy dull white on the other. In the spring, there is an enormous display of creamy white flowers. One deep soaking per month, throughout the year, is all the water a red clusterberry requires.
A related plant, with similar flowers and fruit, is the firethorn, pyracantha. Its red or orange berries, depending on the variety, are numerous. The pyracantha has dark green leaves and forbidding thorns. It can be trained to grow any which way, is a favorite subject for espalier and nicely covers up a chain-link fence.
The Christmas berry, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is native to Los Angeles and has the distinction of having the most famous part of our town named after it. When people first came here to make movies, they mistook this plant for the holly they knew back East. Soon enough, they were calling the land of their dreams Hollywood. The Christmas berry, also known by its Chumash Indian name of “toyon,” fruits this time of year and has a spiny-edged leaf. However, it is as much a tree as a shrub, and may grow to a height of 20 feet. The state Department of Transportation has begun to landscape with the toyon, a sure sign of this plant’s durability.
The cotoneaster, pyracantha and toyon are members of the rose family (which includes the photinia, rhaphiolepis, apple, pear and quince). Their berries are bland but edible and attractive to birds. All are susceptible to fireblight, a disease caused by a bacteria that enters the plant through the nectaries in its flowers. This disease is most likely to occur when it rains during bloom time. The disease is called fireblight because affected branches suddenly turn black, as though they had been torched. When pruning out dead growth, dip pruning shears or loppers in a 10 percent bleach solution between cuts. Otherwise, the cutting tool, which picks up bacteria from the sap of the plant, will be a vector for spreading the disease.
There are many species of cotoneaster and pyracantha, including small- leaved, dwarf and ground-hugging species. The red-tipped photinia (Photinia fraseri), another plant belonging to this group, always should be considered when thinking about hedges because of the bronze red color of its new leaves. Rhaphiolepis, a sturdy shrub with white or pink flowers, is another popular relative. All of these plants are kin to the rose and, like roses themselves, should not be watered with overhead irrigation to minimize insect problems.

Photo credit: K Schneider / / CC BY-NC

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