By Donna Woodward, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
One rainy winter day I looked out my window and saw a luscious white pansy in full bloom. I rushed right out and bought more pansies.
Anything that will bloom in the winter months is especially welcome. We expect to see legions of flowers in summer, but during the cooler months their numbers and varieties dwindle. I appreciate those that bloom in the off-season even more for their scarcity.
The flowers we see in late fall to early spring are those that thrive in cool weather. Our summers are long, hot and dry, so these flowers don't often last through the year. Some can stay alive if planted in optimal conditions and kept sheltered and watered.
The pansy's petals are delicate, but the plant is hardy in the horticultural sense, meaning it will tolerate frost. I object to the term “pansy” to describe a person who is delicate and fearful. Pansies are tough.
Even if the blossoms wither in the cold, the plants will often survive and bloom again. They are usually planted as annuals, though, because they can become leggy in warm weather.
Pansies can be planted in the early spring or the fall. The ideal planting site will get morning sun but avoid the heat of the afternoon.
One early-blooming flower that I have learned to love is the primrose. I think it, too, has an unfortunate name. Perhaps it's the word “prim” that sounds fussy and prudish. An individual primrose may not be stunning, but a group of them makes a bright, colorful border.
I planted a row of primroses ten years ago and they have continued to thrive year after year. Although they don't like the hot sun, they survive in full sun in my garden due to a trick I discovered by accident.
Alyssum was growing in the flower bed and happened to get established around the primroses. I realized that those primroses that were surrounded by alyssum managed to stay alive, partially hidden, through the summer. Now it's a regular cycle. Once the weather cools, the primroses explode with new life. The alyssum can then be thinned and will be back to protect the primroses by the time it gets hot again.
The first flower most of us see in the spring is the daffodil. Daffodils are a member of the genus narcissus and are sometimes referred to as narcissus or jonquil. They have been bred to include many different configurations of petals and color combinations, but the most common color is the familiar bright yellow.
These heralds of spring usually start to appear in early January but some hybrids bloom later. This year I saw the yellow flowers in January, and I had some white ones open in late March.
Another wintertime flower is paperwhite narcissus, which is often sold for forcing to bloom indoors in the winter. It doesn't require indoor temperatures and can be planted outdoors in our zone. It blooms in mid-winter.
I planted some paperwhites near my front door. They were pretty but they smelled so bad I thought we had a skunk. When I realized it was the flowers, I moved them to a bed farther from the door.
Considering their indoor popularity, I was curious about how people tolerate the smell. I read that the aroma is one of those things that is offensive to some people but pleasant to others. Also, there are several varieties, and their scents vary.
Many wildflowers bloom in the early months of the year. March and April offer vistas of mustard, California poppies, calendula and others. They make a spectacular display because their colors contrast so perfectly against a field of green.
A wildflower is not necessarily a native plant. The California poppy is a true native that deserves its status as our state flower.
Another low-growing orange flower, a species of calendula, carpets the roadsides and hillsides in Napa. It's the same color as poppies and often grows with them. Calendula is native to parts of Europe, Asia and Micronesia. You may be familiar with the larger calendulas grown in home gardens.
I planted a wildflower mix a couple of years ago, and the one species that took hold was calendula. They have spread profusely. I had a similar experience with California poppies.
I hope you are enjoying the beautiful displays of spring wildflowers. If you haven't done so, go for a drive in the country. Our hills offer many scenes of incredible beauty this time of year.
It is not too late to plant some of these cool-weather flowers from starts. Bulbs are best planted in the fall. Next year, just when the world looks drab and dreary, you may find your spirits lifted at the sight of the first flowers of the year.
Food Growing Forum: Second Sunday of the month through November. Sunday, April 11, 3 pm to 4 pm: “Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplants.” Register to get Zoom link: https://bit.ly/3lC3qs8
Workshop: On Saturday, April 17, UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a virtual workshop on “Soil is the Solution: Digging Deeper” from 9:30 am to 11:30 am. Learn about soil, its relationship to climate change and how to enrich your soil to produce healthier plants. Register to get the Zoom link: http://ucanr.edu/2021SoilRegeneration
By Cindy Watter, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
When Hernando Cortes brought his army to Mexico in 1552, he was looking for more than Montezuma's gold. The most durable treasure carried back to Europe by the conquistadores was plants. The invaders ransacked Montezuma's famous gardens, in search of new varieties of vegetation that could feed their people back home. Crop failures and food shortages were a regular feature of European life at that time, and anyone who could allay those inconveniences would be rewarded.
The Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) was one of those plants. Along with potatoes, peppers and corn, it went to Europe, where gardeners adapted it into the local horticulture, most famously in France, where "French" marigold blossoms appeared in salads and soups.
Farmers planted the Mexican marigold in vegetable gardens to attract bees and fed the dried flowers to chickens to produce eggs with bright yellow yolks. European colonizers took the seeds to South Africa, and the "African" marigold was born. These hybridized plants, however, originated in Mexico.
My interest in the Mexican marigold is fairly recent. I was walking down Sixth Street in Berkeley a few years ago and noticed a delightful daisy-like flower growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Plants that flourish under neglect rank high in my pantheon of flora, right up there with "invasive."
I was not, then, a fan of yellow flowers, except for sunflowers and daffodils, but this one was so appealing, and it looked charming planted next to red poppies and purple lavender. I took a picture and asked a friend what it was.
The Mexican marigold was unknown to gardeners in the United States until 1880. John and Sara Lemmon, a husband-and-wife team of botanists, discovered it while camping in Arizona on their honeymoon. Asa Gray, the famous Harvard botanist to whom they sent a cutting, named it after them. They took it back to their home in Oakland and propagated it.
The Lemmons were a remarkable pair. Both were highly educated Easterners, both teachers, both Civil War veterans. John was a soldier who somehow had survived the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. Sara's health broke down after being a wartime nurse, so she moved to California. She was the manager of a bookstore in Santa Barbara that eventually became the town's library.
The two met in Santa Barbara where John Lemmon was giving a botany lecture, married, and together launched a career discovering new plants. Their herbarium on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley was a great success. They traveled all over the West, and Mount Lemmon in Arizona is named after Sara, because she was the first white woman to ascend it. We can also thank her for writing the legislation that made the golden poppy (Eschscholzia californica) our state flower. After the Lemmons died, their plants went to UC Berkeley's University and Jepson Herbaria, and their papers went to the University as well.
I bought a potted Mexican marigold at a California Native Plants Society sale, left it in its pot for too long and finally put it in the ground. Today it is six feet tall and six feet wide. It can easily go three weeks without water, making it perfect for our dry climate.
It likes full sun but does well in the dappled sun in my yard. I apply compost regularly and prune it haphazardly to keep the flowers coming along, but it's fun to reserve a few branches so the flowers can go to seed. Hummingbirds and bees love it.
Mexican marigold is easy to propagate from a cutting or by dividing root clumps. You can prune it into a hedge or trim it into mounds. It can survive a freeze, but you should prune the frostbitten parts.
Tagetes lemmonii has a unique scent that people either love or hate. Deer don't like it at all, so that's is at least one plant they won't eat. I find the scent pleasant—a sort of cocktail of citrus, mint and a bit of anise. The blue-green leaves have more fragrance than the flower and are shaped like little feathers. They look attractive against the flat golden flowers, which resemble daisies and are about 1 1/2 inches wide. I planted my Mexican marigold with lavender and ‘Hot Lips' (red) and ‘Amistad' (purple blue) salvias.
Penny Pawl, a friend and fellow Master Gardener, saw these marigolds in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. They were heaped on wagons, altars and graves in the belief that their golden flowers and fragrance might lure the spirits of the dead back to their homes. Of course, the flowers look like little suns, a source of life. The Mexican marigold is a true heritage plant that will add life to your garden.
Food Growing Forum: Second Sunday of the month through November. Sunday, March 13, 3 pm to 4 pm: “Fertilizers and Soil Health.” Register to get Zoom link: https://bit.ly/3r5bgwi
Napa Library Talks: First Thursday of each month. Thursday, March 4: “Compost at Home.” Register to get Zoom link. https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32577
Got Garden Questions? Contact our Help Desk. The team is working remotely so please submit your questions through our diagnosis form, sending any photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a detailed message at 707- 253-4143. A Master Gardener will get back to you by phone or email.
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By Denise Levine, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
What comes to mind when you think of poppies? When I was a child, luminous California poppies in glowing golden yellow were plucked and held under our chins. If our chin reflected gold, it meant we loved butter. Everyone knew that.
To others, poppies are for remembrance and were sown on battlefields. History tells us that Ghengis Khan and his Mongols spread white poppy seeds on the battlegrounds as they left, to blossom the next spring, symbolizing death and rebirth.
After World War I, Flanders red field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) were sown to commemorate the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and veterans. Loved by French Impressionists, fields of red poppies rarely fail to inspire.
Poppies have been used to commemorate heroes, brighten landscapes, attract pollinators, provide medicine and to flavor foods. Whether you plant them to brighten your garden or to adorn your home-baked bread with your own poppy seeds, September is a fine month to prepare a spot for poppies.
Poppies can be sown from seed or grown from seedlings. Mature plants can be divided this time of year. Poppies have a long tap root and do not transplant easily, so growing from seed or picking up young plants at a favorite nursery or garden center is usually better than transplanting. Divided poppy plants may need a season or two to adjust before you will start to see flowers again.
The hardest part might just be choosing which poppies to plant. Choices range from small to tall and from simple to frilly. You also have myriad color choices.
Golden California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)are easy to sow and not fussy about soil. Considered a tender perennial in our mild climate, they need little if any tending. Poppies do not like waterlogged soil so good drainage is essential.
These poppies self-sow readily, thrive in poor to average soil and love our climate. California poppies are the state flower, so it is illegal to pick them on state property. Grow your own poppies and keep their beauty closer to home. You can find seeds and flowers in reds, yellows, purples and other sunny colors as well.
This fall I am planting breadseed poppies for the first time. Breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum) produce papery blossoms in gorgeous pink, deep plum purple, cherry red, almost black and even white.
The popular Hungarian Blue breadseed poppies grow two to three feet tall, with silvery foliage and open purple petals. Planted in graceful drifts, these self-sow readily so I am looking for a spot they can take over in a season or two. Also called florist's poppies, they leave behind lovely dried seed pods that can be used in fall flower arrangements.
Alternatively, you can open the dried pods and use the light blue, nutty seeds to decorate and flavor bread and other recipes. Note that only the seeds are edible. All other parts of this plant are toxic.
Sow seeds for breadseed poppies just as you do for most other poppies. You can start them indoors in cell packs. They need light to germinate so do not cover the seeds. Keep them moist and at about 65°F for the two to three weeks needed to sprout.
Another way to sow poppy seeds is to locate a spot in your garden where you want to see them blooming in the spring. Weed the area and loosen the top 1 inch of soil. Rake the seeds in and gently walk over the bed to press the seeds into the soil. You do not have to cover the seeds.
The fall and winter rains should induce the seeds to germinate. Remember to mark your bed so you recognize baby seedlings when they start to appear. When the young plants start to get crowded, thin them to 12 inches apart. You can try using these thinnings to fill in other areas of your garden. Although poppies do not transplant readily, you may have luck if you do it before their tap roots have developed too much.
Another breadseed poppy called Hens and Chicks caught my attention with its unique seed heads. This variety has giant 8-inch blossoms in red or pink, followed by a bizarre-looking large seed pod (the hen) surrounded by many clustered smaller seed pods (the chicks). Useful and decorative, these were too strange to pass up.
Delicate Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) can also be sown directly in beds now in anticipation of winter rains. Iceland poppies bloom from May through July, and they encourage pollinators of all kinds to visit your garden. Iceland poppy seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover the seeds with soil when you plant them. Pretty easy, right?
All poppies will bloom longer if you deadhead regularly, so you will have to decide if you are going for fresh blossoms or seed heads. Yes, the hardest part is choosing.
Food Growing Forum: Join Napa County Master Gardeners on Sunday, September 27, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., for a free Zoom forum on “Harvesting and Storing Produce.” This forum on food growing will continue monthly on the last Sunday of every month. To receive the Zoom link for the September 27 forum, register at http://ucanr.edu/FoodGrowingForum2020.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide University of California research-based information on home gardening. To find out more about home gardening or upcoming programs, visit the Master Gardener website (napamg.ucanr.edu). Our office is temporarily closed but we are answering questions remotely and by email. Send your gardening questions to email@example.com or leave a phone message at 707-253-4143 and a Master Gardener will respond shortly.
If you are looking for attractive and low-maintenance additions to your garden, look no further than California native plants.
Most of California falls within a zone known as the California Floristic Province. Defined by the Sierra Nevada range on the west, this area is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot. Its many types of terrain and climate have given rise to around 8,000 endemic plant species. Consequently, you have many choices for native plants in your garden, whether you are looking for a delicate flower such as the California poppy or a tough survivor like manzanita.
Native plants offer numerous benefits. Many are drought tolerant, a popular attribute in recent years. However, even drought-tolerant plants need some water until they're established. Deep watering the first year will encourage deep root growth so the plant can access the water it needs in the future. This early attention will pay off by saving you time and money for years to come.
While native plants enhance your landscape, they also provide food and shelter for local wildlife. Many birds relish their berries and seeds and use them for perching while hunting insects, hiding from predators and nesting. Development has removed large amounts of native habitat, but as gardeners, we can help by recreating those living spaces in our own yards.
Native bees will also feel at home in a garden filled with California natives. They pollinate plants (especially important if you are growing edibles) and are a food source for birds and lizards. Most native bees do not sting unless provoked, and they do not form large colonies, so there are no nests or swarms to manage.
One iconic Napa Valley native is the majestic oak. We have nine native species here, but the most common are the coast live oak, the scrub oak and the valley oak. "Live" means the tree is evergreen. It is impossible to travel around the valley without noticing their beauty.
Often I have accidentally come upon an oak, approaching it at such an angle that its full shape is suddenly visible. I am awed by its beauty. The thick, continually branching arms stretch to the sky, as if holding it aloft. From a distance, the blanket of waxy leaves appears soft and fluffy. These are unique trees that, as natives, require particular care.
Like many native plants, oaks are drought tolerant, which means that they are sensitive to over watering. They do not want any summer water, so irrigation lines or plants with high water needs should not be placed under them.
While the effects of too much water are not immediately visible, long-term over-watering can kill an oak tree. Mulching around the base is also discouraged. The leaves and other litter that drop from the tree, if left alone, will naturally prevent weeds from sprouting and also return nutrients to the soil.
You can learn more about native plants on the California Native Plant Society web page. There you will find lists of plants native to Napa Valley and nurseries that stock them. The society holds twice-yearly plant sales where you can learn more about California native plants.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Oaks and Natives” on Saturday, May 13, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., at Skyline Park, 2201 Imola Avenue, Napa. Enjoy a guided tour around the park to appreciate and learn about oak woodlands and the stresses they face. Then continue with a stroll in the Martha Walker Garden to see oaks and native plants in a garden habitat. Learn about plant care and using native plants under oaks and elsewhere in your own garden. Take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy two of Napa County's woodland gems. Online registration (credit card only)
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) 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, 707-253-4143, 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? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County