Winter Wonderland (California Style)

I love this season!

Wait – didn’t I say that about Autumn?

     As I’m writing this it is raining, the first “real” storm of the season. In California’s Mediterranean climate, the normal is for us to receive the majority of rain and snow in winter and early spring. It’s been a dry fall. December was alarmingly dry. In Tulare County, we received less than a tenth of an inch in most locations. The average is 1.73 inches. Our January historical average is 1.93 inches. This storm, making lovely pinging noises on the metal swamp cooler outside my office window,  may help to make up the difference.

Foliage color really starts to “pop” with winter rains, as in this native buckwheat.

     Precipitation now helps establish our fall-planted plants, helps germinate and support annual wildflowers, helps established trees, shrubs and perennials. When we are designing and creating California gardens, we learn to work with the climate, and that means planning for lots of water in the winter and early spring, tapering off as spring progresses, and drying up in summer and early fall. We make plant choices based on this, but we also plan hydrozones and irrigation infrastructure based on this. We add mulch and need the rains to moisten it and keep it from pulling water from the soil or preventing rain water from reaching plant roots several inches down. It has to rain a lot, like it is today, to saturate the mulch and start doing its insulation again freezes. Next year, after the water has moved deep into the soil and is stored there, the mulch will reduce evaporation and regulate soil temperatures against searing heat. So, it is a relief when we finally get a really good drenching. We can turn off our irrigation controllers –please do this, even if you don’t live in a district that requires it!

     When this storm moves out and we return to dry weather, we may need to turn the system back on, but check the soil moisture and don’t do it too early. Heavy soils with some clay or loam, or mulched garden beds, might hold onto moisture far longer than you think, so use a moisture meter or a garden trowel to check what’s going on in the crown and at the shallow root zone. If you do turn your system back on, use your water budget feature and reduce watering to 10-50% of July rates. 50% would only be if we go back to a month or more without rain. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary.

     Along with this, comes the potential for mudslides and erosion damage. How much

Catch basins and swales can help slow down water movement and reduce erosion.This one needs to be built up if we receive as much rain as we did last year!

do we think about erosion on our own properties, until there is a problem? The opportunity is best when planning landscapes and in planting in the fall or again in early spring. Planting now won’t help much for this season, except for shallow, fibrous rooted plants like grasses, sedge, and some wildflowers. But most of the work done now is mechanical: erosion straw wattles, rock drains, sandbags and hemp netting. At the very least, stop removing weeds by the roots; just chop them down or use herbicide. Those roots can help hold the soil in place.

Wind is another danger of winter. We try to prepare, but at some point we are just at the mercy of nature and must wait for a calm moment to clean up and rebuild if necessary. If we get thinking we are the boss of the world, a good windstorm can insert some humility pretty quickly. If nothing was seriously damaged, I love the way winds clean the leaves off the oak trees and bring treasures like bits of moss and galls.

     Winter is also the season we get to train and prune deciduous trees and shrubs. Choose a dry cold day, sharpen and clean your tools, mix up a spray bottle of disinfectant (bleach water or white vinegar) and be safe. The University of California offers great research-based advice at their IPM site: As a Master Gardener in our Tulare Kings Counties chapter, I receive training every year. If you need some personal help and advice, visit our website for how to reach us with your questions. 

Throughout the season, we’ll see spring-blooming shrubs and perennials reviving from dry summer and fall. Monkey flower (Mimulus), many native sage varieties like Cleveland, Hummingbird (Salvia spathacea), and the ground cover sages, penstemon, bush lupin and buckwheat are growing, greening, and starting to form flower buds. That means no pruning of these flowering treasures until after they bloom. If you didn’t get to it this past fall, no worries. California plants (like most plants, actually) can go a year or more without pruning.

Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemonii)

Non-native plants that are blooming now include Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemonii), which is a favorite in the lower elevation gardens because it requires abundant heat with shorter day lengths to bloom, and will bloom right through the first rain or even snow storms until it collapses in a brown mess in late January or February. Like all herbaceous (non-woody) plants done in by cold or frost, the trick is to delay cutting them back until after frost danger, so that means planning your garden so that

Paprika yarrow and CA Fuscia in a Porterville, CA garden

something else is showy when the marigold is done, so you and visitors can ignore the brown for a month or so. California fuscia is a native plant in this category. Of course, with the fall weather we’ve had, there are still plenty of plants blooming that are really spring-bloomers. In this category we can put Hummingbird sage, Yarrow (although yarrow will bloom late every year in an irrigated garden), and even a few sunflowers and succulents!

The only thing I don’t love about winter is Tule fog. Or specifically driving in fog. If I’m in my office up in Springville with a blue-sky day, I don’t mind looking at the valley below and see it wrapped in fog. So, in advance, I’m going to ask you to be patient and understanding if I delay or re-schedule a site visit this winter to a non-fog day. Of course, some days we are in the clouds. Then I might head down and help you prune.

Thanks for reading!