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 Iris Craig, U. C. Master Gardener of Napa County
January is a month for setting intentions, and many of us set intentions for our gardens. For some of us, the big goal is to be more organized.
How can you improve the organization of your winter garden? One way is to keep a journal. Describe the weather, your maintenance, what you planted and when you harvested. Your journal can include a photo or drawing of the garden for each month. By keeping track of what is going on in your garden, you start to see patterns.
You can also schedule tasks so you complete them at the best time. In most areas of the country, winter is a time when gardens rest. In Napa County, a winter garden can be just as much fun to care for and as productive as in June. Plus, you can turn off the irrigation and allow rain to water the garden for you. Tasks that are best accomplished in winter include replacing your lawn, planting annual flowers for color, planting bare-root trees or shrubs, improving your soil and caring for fruit trees.
Good soil enables plant growth. To preserve your soil structure, refrain from walking on it or tilling it while it is wet.
We can affect climate change through our soil maintenance practices. Soil is an ecosystem itself. It can sequester carbon, making it a carbon reservoir. Over-tilling soil tends to deplete it of organic matter and reduce the ability of plants to absorb water.
To protect and improve your soil, and to sequester carbon, plant a cover crop. Cover crops reduce soil compaction and protect the soil from erosion. They improve soil structure, increase organic matter and fix nitrogen.
Common cover crops include fava beans and other legumes. Legumes add nitrogen, and nitrogen is the main plant nutrient commonly lacking in our soils.
Another good cover crop is lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). It is in the borage family, native to California and grows well. It attracts bees and blooms all winter. Cover crops compete with weeds, often choking them out. However, while the soil is damp, you can easily control weeds by hand.
Should you decide to remove a lawn, now is the ideal time. You can use the lasagna method. Instead of digging out sod, cover it with sheets of cardboard topped with soil and mulch. The rain and soil organisms will do the rest. Within three to four months, you will find rich soil in place of the lawn.
With planning, you can have blooming plants in your garden all year. Choose shrubs that blossom in winter and plant them as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. (It should be crumbly.) Flowers for winter bloom include primroses (Primula vulgarius), violas, Iceland poppies, pot marigolds (Calendula) and sweet William (Dianthus). All will bloom early and tend to last through the rainy season. You can plant them in a container or planter box if the soil is too wet.
If you plan for it in late summer, you can have a winter vegetable garden in Napa County. Suitable vegetables include bok choy, kale, mustard greens and Swiss chard, as well as broccoli and cauliflower. You can also plant root vegetables in early fall for winter harvest; consider beets, carrots, turnips, kohlrabi and radishes.
If you missed this window, begin planning your spring garden. You can start many leafy spring vegetables from seed now and transplant the seedlings into the garden in early to mid-March. Most root vegetables should be sown directly in planting beds.
If you have frost-sensitive plants, such as citrus trees, or want to get a head start on your spring vegetable garden, protect your garden from frost with burlap or floating row cover. Create a frame with plastic tubing to drape the fabric and prevent it from touching plants. Anchor the fabric to the ground to keep out snails and birds. Remove burlap every morning so the plants can receive sun during the day. You can leave floating row cover in place; it warms the soil on sunny days.
To get more organized in your garden, consult the Master Gardeners publication, “A Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Napa County.” It makes gardening recommendations for each month and includes a section where you can record important information. The publication is available for purchase in the Master Gardener office (address below).
Next workshop: “Flowers and Foliage for the House, growing Flowers for Bouquets” on Saturday, April 27, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For more details & online Registration go to http://napamg.ucanr.edu or call 707-253-4221
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.