- Author: Denise Seghesio Levine
In the coldest days of winter we can all use a little splash of color in the garden. This month your nursery or garden center should have plenty of bedding plants to fill the bill. Look for upright, colorful primroses in bold, primary colors; mischievous-faced pansies in yellows and blues; and delicate Iceland poppies in translucent salmon, pink, white and yellow.
The word primula is the Latin feminine diminutive of primus, meaning first (prime), and is applied to flowers that are among the first to open in spring.
Primroses (Primula vulgaris) do well in Napa Valley, bringing color to our grayest season. They thrive in the winter chill. While many varieties of primrose bloom through spring and summer, the English, Chinese and fairy primroses are especially good choices for winter.
The flower stalks of primroses shoot up from low, ground-hugging rosettes of thick green leaves. Whether the stocky English variety or the more ethereal-looking fairy type, most primroses bloom for weeks.
Primroses will grow in shady, damp parts of the garden that might thwart other flowers. Try them on the north side of the house or under deciduous trees. They appreciate sun in the spring but do better in shade when the summer heat hits.
Primulas prefer slightly acid soil rich in organic compost or leaf mulch. Most varieties require well-drained soil, but there are exceptions: Helodoxa, Bulleyana and Beesiana will grow in relatively wet soil, and Florindae and japonica will even thrive in wet, boggy spots.
When you buy primroses, choose plants that still have unopened blossoms. These will grow vigorously when you set them out in well-dug soil amended with compost or leaf mulch. Primroses are easy to transplant, but beware: some gardeners develop itchy dermatitis after transplanting primroses. Pull out the gloves for this chore.
Space primulas six to eight inches apart, and plant so that the crown is even with the soil. Mulch and water well. Primulas are usually pest free, although slugs and snails can do some damage.
Perky-faced pansies (Viola tricolor) in a multitude of colors make wonderful bedding and container plants for winter. Pansies and their cousins, violets and violas, are perennials but are normally grown as annuals or biennials because they tend to get leggy after one season.
Pansy "faces" are made up of five flat petals: two top, two side and one lower petal. Typically, each flower exhibits two or three colors. The side and bottom petals often have contrasting veins radiating from the center of the bloom, teasing the imagination into seeing perky little faces. For gardens designed to delight youngsters, pansies, violets and violas are essential components. They create magical habitats and memories that last.
Pansies grow successfully in a well-drained, sunny spot. Bring home six-packs or flats and plant them directly in the garden. Pansies normally grow about nine inches high with most blossoms measuring two to three inches across.
Pansies look great planted in mass in a bed, or in flower pots or containers on porches and decks where you can see their cheery faces up close. Never overwater pansies, but if rain is not keeping the ground moist, give them a good soak once a week.
As for Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), they do best in cool weather. They grow about a foot tall with cream, white, pink, red, salmon, orange or rose-colored papery petals on tall, leafless stems.
Plant Iceland poppies carefully as their roots do not appreciate being disturbed. Make sure the crown is just slightly below the soil surface to avoid rot. Water weekly if rain is scarce.
Iceland poppies make wonderful cut flowers, and a handful can make a whimsical bouquet. Your poppies will bloom more prolifically if you pick them often. Iceland poppies will stop blooming when the weather gets hot, so enjoy the winter color and their frilly blossoms indoors and out.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4221, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions?