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
Bringing some cheery summer color to your garden is fun and easy. Your favorite nursery, garden center or farmers' market can give you a head start with six-packs and four-inch pots of summer annuals and flowering perennials. Healthy, blooming (or almost-blooming) flowers can change the tone of a porch or deck in a moment.
Pair cool pink and warm coral impatiens with deep blue lobelia to brighten up hanging baskets or pots on shady porches. My summer favorite is a solid bed of cobalt-blue lobelia, providing a cool visual oasis on hot days.
For a different look, azure-blue fountain lobelia produces cascades of flowers on bright green foliage for window boxes and pots. The softer ‘Cambridge Blue' lobelia adds to the palette of summer blues. Bright white and deep cherry-colored lobelia offer even more shade choices for our hot Napa Valley summers.
Choose healthy young plants that are not root-bound and still have some unopened blossoms. With good potting soil, an occasional feeding with diluted fish and kelp emulsion, daily watering and regular deadheading or pinching, lobelia and impatiens will provide color until autumn frost.
Consider colorful but flowerless foliage for shady spots. Light-colored coleus, in all its riotous combinations, grows larger leaves in lightly shaded areas. Leaf color ranges from pink and cerise to salmon and chartreuse. Plant a single coleus in a pot for living art, a whole bed in one dramatic leaf color combination, or a chaotic yet harmonious mix of many varieties.
This year I am experimenting with climbing vines. Climbing Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) has blossoms like regular bushy Black-eyed Susan but grows five to six feet, quickly covering fence posts and pillars. With fuzzy green leaves and bright yellow-orange daisy-like blooms and big black centers, these vines will, I hope, climb up and cover my front-porch pillars. We are dragging the rocking chairs onto the porch and waiting for the show. Another plus: the blossoms are attractive to butterflies and other pollinators.
Another old-fashioned vine I am planting for the first time is cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida). This prolific vine can grow up to 20 feet in one season, completely covering a fence or trellis with five-fingered green leaves and deep-throated cardinal-red flowers. My expectation is that cardinal climber will cover a plain fence and tempt our pollinator friends.
In large or small plantings, white, lavender or pink alyssum will soften and blend areas of color while its sweet honey scent attracts bees and other pollinators. Pair velvety deep-purple petunias with knee-high yellow, orange and red butterfly cosmos for a cheerful porch view or walk.
Carnations, Sweet William and the old-fashioned plants known as pinks, all members of the Dianthus family, can be transplanted now for fragrant cut flowers later. You can also sow or transplant sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) this month. They range from knee high to as tall as an elephant's eye, so you have plenty of choice.
If you have a little space and more time, sow seeds of some flowers now, then again in a month or so. This staggered sowing will produce blooms from early summer until the first frost. In a sunny patch, weeded and watered, try some cheery cosmos or warm-toned marigolds (Tagetes). The ethereal blue love-in-a-mist (Nigella) is also a speedy grower; sow it successively to extend the bloom time. Enjoy the whimsical flowers, then the papery pods and flavorful seeds.
For hot, dry areas, four o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are amazing. Also called marvel of Peru, four o'clocks have large, black bead seeds and bright blossoms in deep pink, sunny yellow, snowy white and carnival stripes. These two- to three-foot plants can survive in the cracks between concrete if they get off to a strong start with spring rains or an attentive hose. Four o'clocks hit their stride in the late afternoon and evening, when their distinctive fragrance wafts through the garden.
Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) win for splashy summer color and endless color choices. Tiny ‘Thumbelina' zinnias in soft pink, yellow and orange are perfect for small pots and pathway borders. Consider ‘Moulin Rouge', a selection of three different tall reds; the popular chartreuse-green ‘Envy';' or the mixed circus colors of ‘Cut and Come Again'. And here's the wonderful thing about zinnias and so many summer flowers: the more blossoms you cut, the more they will grow.
Workshops: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct a workshop on “Home Composting” at American Canyon Senior Center, 2185 Elliott Drive, on Wednesday, May 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Learn the basics of backyard composting and how to turn your yard waste and kitchen scraps into a rich soil amendment or mulch. Learn about tools, techniques and bin types. Register online at www.cityofnapa.org/compost. Or pick up a registration form at the Master Gardeners' office (address below). No phone registration. Directions will be sent when your registration is complete.
U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct a workshop on “Growing Ornamentals and Flowers” on Saturday, May 21, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Mid-City Nursery, 3635 Broadway, American Canyon. Learn about the maintenance and care of ornamentals. Master Gardeners will discuss hydrozoning, how to plant for seasonal color year round, and how to encourage pollinators in your garden. On-line registration (credit card only);
Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check 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.