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Enjoying the native garden in winter

Photo By: Tanya Kucak/ Special to the Town Crier
Photo Tanya Kucak/ Special To The Town Crier

Manzanita flowers, above, burst forth in the rainy season, in shades ranging from pure white to deep pink. Each variety blooms on a different schedule and with a different color. Plant a variety of manzanitas to enjoy extended bloom times and the spectrum of delicate pinks.

Unless it’s cold and windy or raining heavily, winter is a wonderful time to linger in the garden. In mid- to late winter, some manzanitas have started blooming, and the fresh blue-green foliage of California poppies is forming a fluffy mound.

If you’re like me, you might intend to sit on a bench and observe your garden, but pretty soon you find yourself kneeling on the ground, pulling a tiny weed that has barely poked through the surface or gently brushing aside some mulch where a native wildflower is coming through. Or looking closely to see the tiny flowers on an evergreen currant.

With the soil moistened by winter rains, it’s easy to pull weeds. Once you’ve learned to distinguish weed seedlings from resprouting native annuals, you can remove the weeds while they’re small and give the annuals more room in the garden.

It’s also a good time to prune perennials and some shrubs. A good rule of thumb is to avoid cutting shrubs from the chaparral plant community during the rainy season, and to cut back other plants before the new buds have started forming. Manzanita and Ceanothus, for instance, are chaparral shrubs that bloom in winter and spring, so wait to cut them back – sparingly, if at all – until after they have bloomed.

Spreading perennials such as hummingbird fuchsia, Matilija Poppy and mugwort must be pruned in winter. Assuming they’ve been in the ground a year or two and have developed a strong root system, they benefit from being cut to a couple inches high. Left unmanicured, hummingbird fuchsia develops long branches with tufts of flowers at the tip, losing its lush, mounded form. (But varieties with thicker, woodier stems and taller habits need a lighter hand.) If the soil is not too wet, it’s also a good time to dig out sections that are crowding other plants and relocate them.

Perennials with flowering stems that tower above the mound of vegetation, as a general rule, only need to have their flowering stems cut back. Wait until the birds have eaten their fill of the seeds but before new growth starts in the spring.

Yarrow will look better if spent flowering stalks are cut to the ground now. Cut back only the spent flowering stems of native buckwheats, not the branches.

Sages that have not yet started showing new buds can still be shaped, but do not cut into the woody branches.

Woody vines, as well as deciduous trees and shrubs that lose their leaves in the winter, are also best pruned before new leaves emerge. Winter is a good time to bring wild grapevines under control. Without the leaves, it’s easier to see the form of the plant and, when it’s young, shape it. For specimen shrubs and large trees, either hire a professional arborist or leave them alone. Beginners can practice on wild rose and mock orange.

Coyote brush, though evergreen, is another good winter project for beginners. It grows fast, tolerates a great deal of pruning and shaping, and has even been used for topiaries.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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