Winter Flower Garden

Viola 'Apricot Sorbet'

Viola ‘Apricot Sorbet’

Although winter skies may be overcast and gray, a number of annuals, bulbs and perennials that bloom this time of year will promote a sunny attitude, at least when you step into your garden. However, to maximize the bright and uplifting value of these beauties, you should consider planting them next to entrances and walkways, whether in the ground or in containers, so that you may encounter and enjoy them every time you leave or enter your home.
Dianthus: Although Dianthus literally means flower (anthos) of God (Di), the English call Dianthus sweet William, stinking Billys or pinks, this last name having nothing to do with flower color but referring, instead, to the serrated margins of the petals, which appear to have been cut by saw-toothed pinking shears or scissors that are used to cut saw-toothed patterns in fabrics.
Dianthus gleefully accepts Southern California’s relatively mild winter weather but is suitable for planting any other time of the year as well. Properly cultured, Dianthus may bloom virtually nonstop for several years. The key to keeping Dianthus in bloom is giving it lots of compost when planting, fertilizing it on a steady basis and deadheading flowers as soon as they fade.
Primrose: There are three main types of primrose (Primula species) available in nurseries now: obconica, malacoides and polyantha. My favorite is Primula obconica. It has large leaves, which are virtually round in shape and, under ideal circumstances, can reach 4 or 5 inches in diameter, while the plant itself will not grow more than a foot tall. Even without flowers, which appear mostly during fall and winter, Primula obconica can be appreciated for its unusual foliage.
Primula malacoides is a species whose leaves are also roundish, only much smaller in size than obconica’s. Malacoides is a larger plant than obconica, reaching a height of 18 inches, but its flower panicles consist of individually smaller blooms. Both types of primroses have flowers in the pastel range, including salmon, rose and lavender.
The third member of the primrose triumvirate is Primula polyantha, the English primrose. Its flowers are bright and vivid, especially when glowing from a shady spot, and open up in all the colors of the rainbow.
These three primroses are partial to an acid soil and will show chlorotic or yellow leaves where soil is too alkaline. In order to acidify the soil prior to planting, make sure you work in lots of compost with a spading fork. If you add peat moss, which is also acidifying, make sure you also add some washed sand (one part sand for every two of peat). The reason for this is that peat moss is water-retentive and, unless sand is also added, will interfere with the good soil drainage that primroses require.
Snail control is vital when planting primroses if you have mollusk issues in your garden. If you have pets around, consider using Sluggo brand snail bait since it is harmless to pets.
Incidentally, the worst snail problem can usually be solved at no cost and without use of chemicals as long as you are not squeamish about picking up the creatures each morning and tossing them into the trash. After three weeks of daily picking, they should no longer be in evidence.
Ranunculus and Anemone: These two members of the buttercup family have gaudy flowers, resembling roses and poppies, respectively, and lacy leaves. They grow out of underground bulbous structures known as corms. A corm may resemble a bulb except that, instead of being composed of layers of scales, it consists of solid tissue. Baby corms form around the base of the mother corm and may be detached and grown independently the following year.
Osteospermum and Chrysanthemum: These perennial members of the daisy family can produce blinding sheets of blooms in winter gardens. Osteospermum, sometimes called freeway daisy, is available in mauve or white while perennial chrysanthemum, including Marguerite and Leucanthemum daisies, as well as florist chrysanthemum, may appear in white, yellow, amber, pink, burgundy or brick red.
Viola and pansy: Resembling diminutive pansies, to which they are very closely related, viola or Johnny-jump-up may be the most delightful of all winter flowers. Although delicate in appearance, violas are tough as nails and do not mind freezing weather or a layer of frost on their petals. The flowers of viola are about one-third to one-half the size of pansy blooms.
Hybridization of pansy and viola has resulted in many new eye-catching configurations, with facelike and whiskered markings on petals of blue, violet-black and every shade of yellow.
The Viola ‘Sorbet’ series includes enticingly named varieties such as ‘Blackberry Cream,’ ‘Lemon Chiffon,’ ‘Blue Heaven,’ ‘Sunny Royale’ and ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,’ whose flowers change from white to blue after they open. Viola self-sows in the garden and, from one crop to the next, has been known to stay in bloom continuously for 12 months or longer.
In winter plantings, the best exposure for violas and pansies is full sun, while an allotment of no more than partial sun is required for a spring planting.
Viola and pansy seeds may be sown throughout the year. Violas should be planted in well-amended, quickly draining soil.
Violas and pansies are susceptible to fungus diseases and, if they die not long after planting, do not replace them with more of the same. The fungus that decimates a crop of flowers will remain in the soil for at least one year and would be equally unkind to a second crop of the same flower type. Replace fungus-killed pansies with Dianthus, which is resistant to viola and pansy plagues.
Tip of the Week
You can create an attractive living tapestry by judicious planting of two vines that have roughly the same growth rate. The other day I saw a combination planting of variegated English ivy (Hedera helix ‘Variegata’) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Virginia creeper turns crimson in the fall, contrasting well with variegated ivy’s cream and green. Both vines experience a moderate growth rate.

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