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December 23, 2021, 6: 37PM
Updated 7 hours ago
Winter is here — or is it?
Despite our relatively mild California weather, in an area where our USDA climate zones range from zones 8 to 10 (zone 13 being the hottest), we still think of winter as a time when plant growth ceases and the garden goes to sleep.
The structural forms of trees and shrubs are revealed as leaves fall and limbs become bare. Frost claims the tomatoes, peppers and zinnias, exemplifying the change in seasons. Morning mists take over the horizon, and the sun gets lower in the sky. We dramatically slow our work in the garden, to avoid cold fingers and toes outside. Many of us are glad to take a break from the incessant activities of the very long, warm summer and contemplate the upcoming season from inside the house.
Yet, when we walk down local streets or through local parks, we can see a world just awakening. Does winter really exist? Cooling temperatures and soil moisture create favorable growing conditions for cool-season weeds. Lamb’s quarters, hemlock, mallow, bur medic, chickweed, pepper weed and annual grasses relish these conditions. Seedlings may appear in the hundreds, if not thousands, throughout the garden and in neglected areas.
Happily, seedlings of the hardy flowering annuals we love also germinate in these conditions. Shirley poppy seedlings, bachelor buttons, breadseed or hybrid poppies, pansies and violas also greet us.
Native wildflowers like California poppies, phacelias, baby-blue-eyes, clarkia, larkspur, lupin and gilia prefer to germinate in the fall but remain small over the winter, building roots that will allow them to grow quickly and flower in the spring when the soil is moist and before the warm, dry season takes hold. Post-flowering seeds remain dormant over the long months of summer, waiting for favorable climate and soil conditions in fall.
The hardy annuals, both native and nonnative, are much more robust and have larger plants and flowers if they’re planted in the fall rather than in the spring. The breadseed or hybrid poppies form robust plants up to 3 feet tall from fall planting, with spectacular crinkled gray-green leaves.
All is not lost, however, if you missed the fall planting window. Hardy annuals planted in the spring will grow decently. If you let them go to seed, you likely will be rewarded with a multitude of free seedlings in the fall.
If spent plants, both summer and winter annuals, are disease-free, cutting them off at ground level rather than pulling them out is very beneficial to the soil. It also makes the task of tidying the garden in the winter and spring much easier. Decaying roots add to soil organic matter, feed beneficial soil organisms and help build soil structure and drainage.
The easiest way to grow hardy annuals is to let some of the plants you want go to seed in the spring. Seedlings will then likely germinate between or under summer annuals in the fall. The trick is to identify and differentiate them from weed seedlings.
Pulling weed seedlings when they are still small, from among the plants you want to keep, is an important fall chore. Grasses in particular have extensive root systems, and if they’re allowed to get to any size at all, they’ll take a lot of soil with them when they are pulled. Plant growth never ceases in California, nor does occupation in the garden.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: [email protected], Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool.
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