Silhouettes of leafless trees impart an ethereal quality to the winter landscape. Leafless trees go well with wet and chilly days. They make you want to curl up and hibernate or, alternatively, take a walk outside and glory in the wind, rain and cold.
Los Angeles gardeners love winter because it allows them to go about their business without apology. In the summer, as one blazing day follows another, water reserves are relentlessly depleted. We live in the only arid zone on Earth where everybody must have a lawn – with its exhaustive daily demand for water. Gardeners know that a drought alert is never more than one stormless winter away. It is a sign of true faith that, despite a limited and unpredictable water supply, we continue to plant lawns.
In any season, no tree can match the dignity of the California sycamore. And this time of year, once its leaves have fallen from its limbs, nothing can compare to the California sycamore as an embodiment of the bare-bones beauty of winter. Its mottled bark and sculptured branches would make it Exhibit No. 1 in a display of winter-dormant arboreal masterpieces.
In general, tree bark is most visible and most beautiful on overcast, wet winter days, even on trees that don’t lose their leaves. Smooth red bark is especially prized and may be found on several trees that are grown in our area. The most famous is the California native manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), which can reach a height of 20 feet. You must be patient with the manzanita and give it some protection from the sun. It grows wild on the slopes that overlook Castaic Lake near Lake Hughes Road. A related native with similar bark is the madrone (Arbutus Menziesii). Both the manzanita and the madrone have bell-shaped flowers that bloom in winter.
Crepe myrtle trees also, on occasion, have red bark. The few examples I have seen were breathtaking; if you are thinking of planting this small, summer-flowering tree, insist on a red-barked specimen.
Upon visiting a retail nursery the other day, I was struck by the number of plants promoted as “dwarf.” In an age of overpopulation and shrinking lot sizes, people have less and less room, it would appear, for normal or old-fashion-sized plants.
This is true, for example, among winter annuals, where you will find dwarf primroses, dwarf snapdragons and dwarf stock. Stock (Matthiola incana), by the way, got its name from the fact that its flowers are wrapped stiffly around the stem much like a certain kind of clergyman’s collar also known as a stock. According to flower expert Stirling Macoboy, “stock are rarely grown to good quality in the home garden” because they need the kind of heavily composted soil that few people are able or willing to provide. It is advised not to plant stock where they have grown before. Stock flowers are fragrant and are meant to be cut for vase arrangements.
I have never found dwarf annuals as satisfying as their taller relatives. It seems that dwarf plants do not live as long as taller strains do, and that the flowers on dwarf plants fade the moment after they appear. In creating smaller-sized plants, the qualities of vigor and longevity appear to have been lost.
Nurseries are carrying a large variety of brambles and berries for winter planting. Cranberries, blueberries and lingonberries are available. To be successful with these plants in our area, you must excavate the native soil and replace it with pure peat moss, as these bush berries require extremely acid soil conditions to produce. It might even be wisest to grow these plants in containers filled with peat moss – until they have reached a foot or two in diameter – before planting them out. The thornless Ollalie blackberry, which is not so picky about soil, is a good brambly vine for the Valley.
Several clumping plants worthy of experimentation may also be found in local nurseries now: asparagus, artichoke, horseradish and rhubarb. The first three may be grown without much difficulty in the Valley, as long as the soil is well-drained and composted. I have not heard of any local success stories concerning rhubarb and would welcome testimonials from readers who have had luck with this plant. Unlike asparagus, artichoke and horseradish, rhubarb supposedly requires some shade to prosper in our climate.
Tip of the week: The first of the year is the traditional time for major cutting back of roses in Southern California. Remember: The farther you cut back, the bigger your roses will be next spring, although you will have a smaller number of roses than if you cut back less severely. You should remove all leaves at the time of pruning so that your plants can experience complete dormancy.