Winter Flower Beds

snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

In Los Angeles, the selection of flowering plants for winter gardens will provide long-lasting color until warmer days arrive in the spring. With adequate pre-planting fertilization, winter-blooming annuals and perennials will produce flowers from now until April or beyond. Here are a few guidelines for growing them.
Pansy and viola: These are the tough guys of the winter flower garden. Their velvety petals belie a durability unmatched by any other winter bloomer. I have seen a layer of frost deposited during the night on pansy petals melt away in the late morning sun.
Afterward, close examination of the frost-coated petals showed no cold burn or other blemish. The ‘Majestic Giant’ pansy hybrids have black markings resembling faces in the center of their petals. Viola flowers are less than half as large as pansies but possess similar qualities. Pansy and viola grow well in both full and partial sun exposures.
Snapdragon: These should be planted in early fall to ensure nonstop winter bloom. However, if you can find mature, blooming snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) now, and pay careful attention to soil preparation, you can keep them flowering for many months. The key to growing snapdragons is to prepare soil so that it drains well but retains moisture. This may sound like a contradiction until you understand that superior soil has the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. You build soil of this description by mixing lots of compost or soil amendment, whether homemade or purchased, into the ground.
The soil level will rise several inches and become fluffier as the amendments are worked into it, and this softening and mounding is a sign that improved drainage has been achieved. Snapdragons are highly susceptible to a variety of soil fungi when drainage is imperfect. Yet snapdragons quickly wilt where soil is too dry.
Mulching will help mitigate fluctuations in soil moisture.
Nemesia and linaria: These snapdragon relatives have cultural requirements similar to those of their more famous cousins. They produce masses of tiny flowers on plants with a clumping growth habit. Pink and lavender colors are strongest performers and may persist in the garden for two years or longer. Linaria spreads by rhizomes and self-sows as well.
Primrose: Several types, each with its own charm, are available. All favor lightly shaded exposures. English primroses (Primula polyantha) are the easiest to spot, with their bold red, pink, purple, blue, and yellow blooms. Then there are fairy or baby primroses (Primula malacoides) and obconicas (Primula obconica), the former noted for lots of tiny, wispy flowers on the stem and the latter famous for round leaves up to half a foot in diameter. The pastel palette of baby and obconica primroses includes pink, lavender and salmon colors. Primroses are magnets for snails, and planting instructions should include a mandatory application of snail bait.
Iceland poppy: Flowers have the look of champagne glasses, and fat, nodding flower buds add a whimsical look to the winter garden.
Unlike other winter annuals, Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) cannot tolerate any amount of shade.
Cyclamen: These are the most expensive winter flowers but worth every penny of additional investment. They are covered in silky red, pink, white, magenta or violet flowers until spring. Cyclamen grows best in partial sun.
Azalea: The soil in azaleas’ Asian habitat is acidic and so they have a hard time adapting to our soil when small specimens are planted. For the best chance of success with azaleas, transplant nursery stock that is growing in seven- or 15-gallon containers.
Soil should drain well and be richly amended with peat moss. Most azaleas demand sun protection. Certain red varieties (‘Red Bird’ or ‘Redwing’) accept more sun exposure and also bloom longer than other colors.
Tip of the week: The two most famous California native woody plants, manzanita (Arctostaphylos) and California lilac (Ceanothus), also bloom in the winter. Manzanita is renowned for urn-shaped flowers and deep cinnamon-red bark. Ceanothus has fragrant inflorescences (when crushed between your palms) in every shade of blue. Make sure soil drains well for these plants, a wide variety of which may be found at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley.

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