California Gardener's January Checklist

With cheer-bringing blossoms on bare stems from the dead of the winter, the flowering quince is an ancient Chinese symbol of an auspicious New Year. At least as cheering to me would be visiting a Big 10 soccer team lose the Rose Bowl into a California group (go Stanford), and I will think of other favourite California plants that make a statement that winter is no time to shut down.

It’s hard to miss the daring splotches of early camellias, pink clouds of purple-leaf plum, pristine white evergreen cherry, spiky red aloes on the Santa Barbara and Orange County coasts, and other January actors. The best sight of all to me is this winter’s already green hills, at least in Northern California, which imply that we should have a decent quantity of water this season. The green hills also say it’s time to begin pruning and planting again — welcome, January jobs.


Brighten your garden or home. Flowering quince is one of the first plants to bloom every year — particularly prized because the bare stalks loaded with buds open so openly when drawn inside.

There are many, many types, new and old, with single or double blossoms, white, pink, orange, red. An old-time red is a fixture in many rural communities, a testament to the ability to survive with very little care.

‘Pink Storm’, shown here, is a new variety with double, bright pink blossoms.

Botanical name: Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Pink Storm’
USDA zones: 5 to 8 (find your zone)
Water necessity: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature dimension: 4 ft tall and broad, and larger
Growing tips: To control the size and shape, prune after bloom or through the budding and blooming stage. To display blossoms inside, cut budding stalks and set them near a sunny window.

The instruments of the winter. Few gardening jobs are more satisfying than simply pruning leafless shrubs and trees on a brisk but sunny January afternoon in California. One essential instrument is a pruning saw. A good one will last more than some of the trees in your garden, and you will find uses for it annually.

Years ago I was told to not cut trees with a carpenter’s saw — it’s bad for the instrument and the shrub, and probably for the person doing the cutting. Pruning saws have coarser teeth developed to reduce moist, sappy wood. They are generally curved, which provides them a cool appearance, and the blades cut when you pull, not on the drive stroke.

Shown here are a couple of my venerable, much-used saws. Folding versions are lightweight and easy to carry — fine for smaller limbs. For branches an inch or two thick, better get a full-size version of decent quality, normally $50 and up. For larger branches telephone in a chain saw.


Hot stuff. As business writers select their stocks that are hot for the upcoming season (invest at your peril), people who write about gardening discuss hot new plants. The focus generally is on roses and annuals, whether new roses or annuals are actually wanted.

I love to discuss new plants that I have actually seen and I’d love to grow if I had the space.

I found a number of these plants at the 2012 conference of the American Society of Landscape Architects at Phoenix.

Here are some that caught my eye — fresh to me, if not new.

Spanish lavender, revealed here, blooms early, and also the deep purple blossoms last long. It’s nice in boundaries or massed on a incline.

Botanical name: Lavandula stoechas ‘Winter Bee’
USDA zones: 7 to 10
Water necessity: Moderate; needs more in hot climates
Light requirement: Total sun
Mature size: two feet tall and broad
Growing tips: Can be sheared for a more formal appearance. Produces seeds heavily, which may spread where they are not wanted.

More about lavender


‘Brakelights’ Red Yucca also seemed great to me personally Phoenix, not far from where itoriginated with Mountain States Nursery, a pioneer at introducing native desert plants into the West. It’s a compact, spiky plant, vibrantly coloured. Plant it in masses or in a container.

Botanical name: Hesperaloe parvifolia ‘Brakelights’ or’Perpa’
USDA zones: 5 to 10
Water necessity: Light; believed drought tolerant; water regularly during the first time
Light requirement: Entire sun
Mature dimension: two feet tall and broad
Growing tips: Requires fast drainage


‘Limelight’ hardy hydrangea is just another rookie, a big shrub, much larger than the normal hydrangea. It’s prized by those who like green blossoms. These are chartreuse and grow in big clusters.

Botanical name: Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’
USDA zones: 3 to 8
Water necessity: Moderate; water more often in hot climates
Light requirement: Partial shade
Mature size: 8 ft tall and broad
Growing tips: Prune it at the dormant season to control size.

Bark as artwork. With trees leafless and the sun low in the skies, some less flashy plant features come clearly into perspective — such as bark bark. Keep your eyes open for unexpected beauty in your garden or where you drift in winter.

For instance, crape myrtle, shown here, is known for vibrant summer blossoms, but its mottled, sometimes gleaming winter bark is pretty in its own right. Near my home I look for California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and Catalina ironwood (Lyonothamnus asplenfolius).

The notorious Eucalyptus globulus, scourge of the California countryside, has amazing bark — simply do not plant a tree to get a perspective of it.

Designing California Native Gardens

Designing or redesigning a garden? There are a lot of books on how best to design gardens, many of the best coming from England with very little significance to California — unless you’ve sheep grazing in your front meadow.

If you are thinking of a major garden design or redesign job this season, here are a couple with a helpfully specific California focus:

• Designing California Native Gardens, by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook. Takes a deep look at utilizing indigenous plants in both Spartan and practical ways. However, I have to say I am not fond of the drawings intended to help visualize the three-dimensional perspectives of a garden.
• Big Book of Garden Designs, by Marianne Lipanovich (a contributor) and Tom Wilhite. A Sunset Publishing book that includes 120 practical plans for a wide selection of landscape scenarios.
• Sunset Western Landscaping, edited by Kathleen Brenzel. Intended as a companion to the Western Garden Book, this heavy 416-pager includes hundreds of photographs as inspiration along with helpful nitty-gritty details on plant selection, design of beds, paths and other landscape principles.
• Growing California Native Plants (second edition, expanded and updated), by Marjorie G. Schmidt and Katherine L. Greenberg. Not really a design book but indispensable if you would like to grow natives successfully on your landscape.

What else to do in January on your California garden. There are lots of things to do in case the weather alllows, including traditional midwinter pruningcleaning, cleaning and even some planting.

Maintenance for camellias. Freely cut early-blooming camellia blooms (like ‘Guilio Nuccio’, revealed) to bring inside. Make cuts over new leaf buds to encourage bushy growth. Pick up fallen blossoms to block the spread of the illness called petal blight.

Move living Christmas trees outside. Make sure the root ball of a container-grown tree hasn’t dried out (evaluation by probing it with your palms); give it a soaking to make sure. Don’t plant the tree from the floor yet if the dirt is too soggy.

Keep gift plants blooming. Give them a spot at a sunny window.

Brighten your garden. Set out cool-season annuals now available blooming in tiny baskets: calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies, snapdragons, stock, violas and many others. Plant them in sunny garden beds or containers.

Start vegetable seeds inside. Seedlings should be prepared to enter the floor in six to eight weeks. Here are simple crops to try: Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower.

Plant summer bulbs. These work particularly well in warmer climates like Southern California’s: flashy begonias, reliable cannas and flamboyant tigridias.

Prune roses. That is the optimum time, even though some roses may still be blooming. As a general guideline, cut back plants by about a third and leave three to five canes sprouting from the base. Bear in mind that pruning changes by kind of rose.

Get bare-root plants at the floor. When the soil is dry enough, place in bare-root crops, like fruit trees, berries, shade trees, roses and several other plants. Get preplanting advice from a nursery or garden center on how much to cut back roots and other maintenance.

Prune deciduous fruit trees and shade trees. The ideal time is when trees are dormant and leafless. Ensure that your shears are sharp. Wait till spring-flowering trees and shrubs (like lilacs) have finished blooming before pruning them.

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