For some, “winter garden success” may seem like a rather vague phrase. If you’re a recent transplant to Southern California that’s understandable. If not, you owe it to yourself to know exactly what it means, and that’s easy to do.
First, remember that our gloriously warm, Mediterranean-climate winter weather is why we live here and we can be gardening all 12 months of the year. Furthermore, winter days are a joy outdoors. What’s more pleasant than having your hands in the soil and the gently warm sun on your back? Plus, there’s a peace that pervades the air during winter, almost forcing you to slow down and closely observe and enjoy plants and flowers.
There are two types of winter gardening: decorative and edible. There’s been a lot written about cool-season kitchen gardens. As easy and rewarding as they are, they don’t get the action that summer gardens get. Winter edibles (it’s a whole new palette!) are quick, simple and free of warm-season veggie problems.
If you’re a salad lover, then winter gardening is for you. Leaf crops of all kinds flourish December through March. So do root veggies like beets, carrots and radishes and cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale. And don’t forget English and snap peas and fava beans.
All cool-season crops are easily—and best—grown from seeds. If you keep seeds evenly moist after planting until they form their second set of leaves, you can’t fail. However, if you need instant gratification, then plant seedlings from packs. But you won’t find the wonderful array of heirloom (yellow or purple carrots, golden and striped beets!) vegetables you’ll find in the seed department.
Your only kitchen garden nemeses during winter are snails (and slugs) and caterpillars. Since we’ve had so little water the last few years, snails should be scarce this winter. Spray BT (completely organic) to get rid of caterpillars. Cool-season crops are so fast, that you can have multiple waves of planting and harvesting. Amend your soil well and add an organic starter food with each planting.
Like kitchen gardens, ornamental winter gardens get short thrift, too: a few token pansies, poppies, primroses and stock get tucked in here and there. But there’s so much more.
Turn those tomato cages upside down and plant seedlings of climbing sweet peas in the center. You’ll have tuteurs of very fragrant cutting flowers. Bright blue borage is an especially beautiful winter herb with edible flowers.
Nurseries, such as Armstrong Garden Centers, carry packs of the beautiful winter flower, Schizanthus, with feathery foliage and exotic and colorful flowers. Another bright gem is annual mimulus, in red, orange, white and yellow. ‘Senetti’ is a wonderful, patented version of Pericallis or cineraria. Plants form two-foot mounds that are covered with strong purple, pink and lavender daisy flowers with dark eyes. Place it where it won’t be nipped by winter frost.
Underappreciated during cooler months (it’s usually planted in spring), but a great winter flower nevertheless, is nemesia, especially the larger flowered forms such as the ‘Sunsatia’ series from Proven Winners. They’ll provide soft, fluffy mounds of perennial-like flowers all winter.
Old-fashioned bachelor’s buttons are easy to grow and fun for harvesting bouquets. They’ll keep providing country-like blooms all winter long.
Feed ornamentals and edibles with an organic liquid fertilizer. Some granular foods need warmer soil to release their nutrients. Remember, if El Niño rains take a rest, you’ll need to water.