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Zap the Garden with Winter Color, Texture, Structure

November 5th, 2009 by Sandy Gillis

Dear Garden Gal,

I want to spruce up a couple of areas around the garden but I’m avoiding too much planting in flower beds to conserve water. Can you recommend a few plants or techniques for injecting some winter color without wasting water, money and time?

– Beth S.

Sierra Madre, CA


Dear Beth,

Loropetulum-chinense-Purple Gardens are getting smaller, for exactly the reasons you mention: limited resources. So, the answer is pots. To conserve water, money and time, pick one area for sprucing. Select the house or garden area you’ll be looking at a couple of times a day, so you’ll be cheered by your handiwork. The front door is the logical focal point if this is your main access to the house, if you have lots of visitors or if the front door is visible from the street. Maybe you have a favorite place in your back yard, or maybe your teens use a place in the backyard often. In that case, you might have to convert that area to a cactus bed, but that’s a column for our marriage and family counselor.

Be realistic about the space you want to accent. Don’t buy a tiny pot and expect it to zing if you live at the Wrigley Mansion. (If you “live” at the Wrigley Mansion, there’s an officer here who’d like to speak with you.) Check out Asian Ceramics in Duarte for a vast selection of vessels, from glazed ceramic to terra cotta to zinc planter boxes. Their “seconds” can be great bargains. I also recommend Pot-ted on Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village for unusual, sometimes zany, always colorful pots and containers. We’ve just missed their fab annual sale (September and again in January) but at their website (www.pot-ted.com ) you can sign up for a holiday discount coupon, well worth the mouse click. If you’re really broke or you just want to save the planet, go to Freecycle.org for a mostly very awesome network for finding stuff that’s too good to throw out.

iceland-poppy-picture-salmon-b6052-10-400 Okay, pots selected. Buy planting mix (2 cubic feet, $10.99 at Persson’s Nursery), and 10% to 20% pumice stone (not lava rock, not perlite) to mix in for drainage, and fertilizer of your choice for dilute feedings every month or so.

ampy_1162957314_289 Plants.

The traditional winter offerings for Southern California are annuals, code for replace after a season. Come on, this is garden, not a television network! Antirrhinum majus, Snapdragon, Matthiola incana, Stock, Papaver nudicaule, Icelandic Poppy, are lovely and colorful, but branch out a bit, if only for economy’s sake. Look for perennials that have interesting foliage, berries, texture or structure. Loropetalum chinense, Razzleberri or Chinese Fringe Flower has really cool 1” long clusters of twisting pink flowers in spring and striking purple foliage year round. The Sunset Western Book calls this plant, “subtly beautiful,” and they’re the experts so listen up. This plant wants to grow to six to 10 feet tall and wide, but will take heavy pruning. Winter hardy succulents are a good choice for splashy color and easy care. California Cactus Center on Rosemead in Pasadena is really worth a field trip if you’ve never been. They carry other-worldly plants that make you want to say, “Ouch, you’re not even wearing long sleeves! Put that plant down!” Their website is really pretty, too: www.cactuscenter.com. Here you’ll find lots of beautiful and unusual succulents and good advice on keeping them alive.

Here are a few to look for:

DSCF0104 Sedum brevifolium or Sedum album, ground cover sized plants, will spread and make a lovely drape over the side of a pot. Some varieties have red tinted leaves or turn a reddish bronze in winter. Sedum dendoideum is a branching plant to 3 feet tall and wide with 2” long leaves, yellow green with bronze tinting. My all-time favorite, Sedum nussbaumerianum, Coppertone Stonecrop, is a rich, bronze. A finger-leaved Senecio barbertonicus, Succulent Bush Senecio, grows over 3 feet tall, with bright green leaves, and is hardy to 25 degrees. Mass plantings of ornamental grasses or grass-like sedges are striking and easy care. Try Aristida purpurea ‘Chino Hills’, which has purple leaves and grows to 30” tall or Carex glauca, Blue Sedge, only six inches high and drought and cold tolerant.

At the nursery make sure to ask about the cold-hardiness of any species you buy, and if your selection has any special needs: watering only when the soil is dry? Place near to a wall for wind protection or reflected heat? Sun tolerant or shade loving? Having a conversation with your nursery professional is always a good idea because you rely on their expertise for success.

New and Noteworthy:

Another great idea from our friends at the L.A. County Arboretum: "Around the World in 127 Acres." This series, which still has a couple of weeks to go, is worth your undivided attention. Botanical information consultant Frank McDonough is leading these “woods walks” to share some of the 18,000 catalogued plants at the Arboretum.

Sorry you missed World Wide Wood and Pirate Plants? You betcha you are! Here are the two upcoming installments that are not to be missed. Grab sensible walking shoe, a recyclable bottle of water, and a hat’s always a good idea in SoCal. Please call 626.821.4623 to register; limited to 20 people. $5 for members, $7 to general public.

Nov. 11, 15 – Singing Thorns & Drunken Elephants: Animal-Plant Relationships

A tour of the African and Australian section plants that looks at the sometimes necessary, sometimes nefarious, and sometimes hilarious relationships that animals form with them.

Dec. 2, 6 – From the Stairway to Heaven to the Gates of Hell: Sacred, Spiritual, and Ritual Plants

A look at plants in our collection that that have spiritual and ritual significance to the world’s religions, and some that may have created religion itself.

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