Winter Containers and Holiday Wreaths

Ahhh… the holidays.   You’ve put up your decorations and perhaps a  tree or what ever your family does  traditionally.   Friends and neighbors wave  ‘ Merry Christmas ‘  when you see them in town.  The  relatives from back east are arriving soon to celebrate with you. 

What?    Did you say… people will be coming from parts of the country where it’s bleak and cold and miserable?   Well,  show them how lucky we are that our ground doesn’t freeze.  Put together some  handsome winter containers using  these cool ideas for those big empty pots by the front door or on the patio. 

Cool season annuals like pansies and primroses are great for containers but there are many more plants that are hardy, easy to care for and offer texture and color, too.   White artemisia combines well with almost any other color.  Here’s a good place to show off those burgundy pansies.  Or combine it with the silvery and purple-patterned foliage of heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist‘ .    Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Use them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.  Rainbow chard would look equally stunning.   Dwarf conifers look elegant surrounded with white primroses.  How about a container with the bluish foliage of euphorbia ‘Silver Swan‘  combined with ajuga ‘ Black Scallop ‘  or  an ajuga like ‘Burgundy Glow‘  with variegated pink, purple and cream leaves?  Add lavender pansies and pinkish coral bells to set off your container.   For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and best of all, they will be blooming very soon.  Hellebores bloom in the winter, too and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and will be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  
   
Here are some tips for keeping your containers looking good through winter:

Any good potting soil will work but drainage is particularly important for plants that will be out in the rain.     To improve drainage in containers that once held summer annuals, dump out the soil and add one quarter perlite.   Don’t use a pot of soil that had polymers in it to retain summer water.  Winter plants don’t need the extra dampness. 

When filling the containers, don’t add gravel or bits of broken pots to the bottom.  Gravel and pot shards will hamper drainage.  Instead, fill the entire pot with the soil mixture.  A paper coffee filter or screen over the drainage hole will keep the soil from slipping out andl allow water to disperse.  And it will keep earwigs and sow bugs from finding a new home in the bottom of your pots.

Choose the biggest containers you have.  Not only can you tuck more plants into it, but the room will also help protect roots from the cold.   Unlike summer containers, winter plantings won’t be growing much so you can put the plants closer together.  Don’t use saucers under containers.  Plantings that are left standing in water-filled saucers can rot.  Instead, set containers on planter feet or bricks. 

Wreaths and swags

What else should you be doing to get ready for the relatives?   How about making a wreath or a swag to drape over the mantel or front door and in the process getting a little pruning done? While you’re in the decorating mood,  take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens to use in wreaths and swags.  Cuttings from Douglas fir, redwoods,  pine, holly, mahonia, make fine additions to your wreaths and swags.  But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately.  To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out.  Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk.  If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.  To force upward growth, cut the branch just beyond an upward facing shoot.  To foster spreading growth, cut the branch just beyond a downward facing shoot. 

After you’ve finished pruning, spray the greens with water to remove dust and insects.  Trim cuttings to desired size.  To keep them fresh, immerse the cut ends in a bucket of water and store outdoors in a shady spot until your ready to decorate.  Be sure to strip the foliage from the portions of the stems that will be under water if you are using the cuttings in a bouquet.       
   
Most of all, whatever you do (and even if you don’t get everything done you planned) , enjoy the season with friends and family. 

 

Grapevine “Christmas Tree”, late Bulbs & Rosemary

 It’s great to see so many magazines and TV shows showcasing quick, inexpensive Christmas gifts and decorations to make from simple objects.  As we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle , here’s  an idea that you can use to decorate your deck or front porch with items you already have.

What’s more "green" than recycling your own garden cuttings?  You probably have a large pot where the plants are just about through for the season.   Pull out the spent plants but keep the soil.  You’ll be making a Christmas "tree" from a tomato cage turned upside down and secured with large U-shaped staples poked into the pot’s soil. Tie the wire prongs that are normally sunk into the ground with twine to make a pointed top. 

 Once the cage is anchored in place you can weave prunings from grapevines or honeysuckle in and around it.  Any vine will work as well as  long flexible branches from shrubs like cotoneaster, willow or abutilon.
If you have an electrical outlet nearby you can weave small lights throughout the tree.  If you want to get fancy, poke dried hydrangea flowers or berry sprigs or rosemary cuttings into the "tree".    After the holidays, you can plant primroses in the container and store the tomato cages for next summer. 

 It’s not too late to plant bulbs.  We get enough cold around here for many more months so the bulbs will get enough chilling even though you’re getting a late start.  The worst that can happen is the blooms may be slightly smaller and bloom on shorter stems.   I always start my bulbs about now as the squirrels have buried most of their acorns for the season and tend to leave my pots alone.  If they do discover them, I put gravel over the the surface and that seems to stop the party.   I plant lots of pots because the color will be so welcome in early spring. 

A simple ( read lazy ) way to plant that I’ve always had success with is to reuse the soil in a pot that just finished up like impatiens or other annuals.  Some I plant with cool season color but many, especially the glazed ones, I take out half of the soil, layer some bulbs, and pack the top with the rest of the soil.  Voila !  Instant spring bouquet in less than two minutes.  If you haven’t planted any bulbs yet,  do go out and get some now.  You’ll be very glad you did.

A word to the wise:  protect against killing frosts that often hit this month.   Watch out for still, starry nights and be prepared to protect tender plants with frost blankets.   Even a sheet, tarp, cardboard box, or regular blanket will help. If you do use plastic, make sure it is supported by poles and not draped right on top of the plant.  Better yet,  sink four 1×1 stakes to make a frame around tender plants,  then you’ll be ready  to throw something over quickly on a cold night.  Plants must be watered adequately to survive a freeze.  Drought stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. 

A plant that’s hardy, drought tolerant, blooms in the winter and makes a nice wreath, too, is the rugged rosemary.  One of the most versatile of all herbs, rosemary can be used in a variety of ways in both the garden and kitchen.  You can use an upright version like for a deer resistant screen.  Low. prostrate types make great ground covers.  And they do well in pots on the deck or outside the kitchen door.  Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions from hot sun to partial shade  and survives down to around 15 degrees.   It will accept regular watering as long as there is good drainage.  You can add it to a mixed perennial bed or delegate it to the back forty.  Rosemary will flourish for decades in your garden but too much fertilizer will result in a shorter-lived plant.

 Harvest leaves for cooking anytime.  Plant some by the barbeque so you can toss plant sprigs over the coals to flavor food as it cooks.  Or use rosemary branches dipped in sauce to baste grilled food.   Mmm… yummy.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy.  When nights get long enough, leaves  develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree.  This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates.  The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through.  Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color, depending on the acidity of the sap. 

 For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, While many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic.  Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall.  Others don’t have much yellow pigment, and turn mostly orange or read.  Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish.  The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time.  Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy.  When nights get long enough, leaves  develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree.  This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates.  The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through.  Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color, depending on the acidity of the sap. 

 For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, While many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic.  Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall.  Others don’t have much yellow pigment, and turn mostly orange or read.  Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish.  The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time.  Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

Happy Thanksgiving

 Soft magenta clouds streak the sky as the sun sets over the valley and a full moon rises over the eastern  ridge.    The clouds are as dramatic as the geological formations found here.  Desert holly, mesquite and creosote are as common as redwood trees are to our area.  Botanically speaking, I couldn’t be farther from the Santa Cruz mountains.   I’m in Death Valley exploring an area whose growing season is from September to May due to the extreme summer heat.   There are 1200 springs throughout the valley and surrounding mountains  supporting wildlife and plants.    There’s water here but in isolated areas.

 
 After returning,  I’m struck with the lushness of our subtropical home.  You probably get this same feeling when you get back from a vacation.  We live in paradise.  Whether you live in oak woodlands, chaparral, or a redwood / mixed evergreen forest we are blessed  to live here.  We are thankful for our neighbors and community, our flora and fauna, our wonderful climate and our gardens.     I came across this poem of Thanksgiving and thought you might like it, too. 

BE THANKFUL

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something,
for it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations,
because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge,
because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes.
They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary,
because it means you’ve made a difference.

It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who
are also thankful for the setbacks.

Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles,
and they can become your blessings.

~~Author Unknown.~~

 

Gift Ideas for the Holidays

 It’s not too early to start planning for gifts to give for the holidays.  You might be putting together something quick to give to the hostess on Thanksgiving or planning ahead for Christmas presents.  Here are a  couple of ideas to consider:

 Colorful chard, kale, lettuce and spinach are not only nutritious and delicious, they’re also beautiful.  With food prices going higher and higher ,  plant up of pot of living greens in a container  to give as a gift.  Choose a container at least 12" wide and fill with potting soil.  If you plant from cell packs now they’ll be full next month to give  but even if you put a couple of herbs or veggies in a pretty pot  now they’ll be appreciated.  Bright Lights chard would look great by itself in a glazed pot.

These leafy greens can be harvested over a long period of time by gently tearing off the outer leaves and allowing the center to continue growing.  With food prices going higher and higher,  even someone who has never grown veggies before will appreciate a gift like this.  Plant up a couple for yourself, too, to have by the kitchen door.

For those of you that have a cool season veggie garden already in progress, it’s time to fertilize them to increase production.   

Give a bouquet from your garden to dress up a Thanksgiving table.  Right outside your door you can find plenty of fall leaves and berries and even a couple of flowers if you’re lucky.  Mexican bush sage are still blooming as are lion’s tail,  maybe a few cosmos, Japanese anemones and asters. Ornamental oregano holds up well , too, especially the variety Santa Cruz.    Foliage can be a key player and might be found from smoke bush, ornamental grass, purple hopseed, crape myrtle, Chinese pistache, oaks, maples and liquidambar.   Dogwood leaves would be beautiful as would ornamental pear.  Berry accents are a staple for a fall bouquet and you might have nandina, cotoneaster,  hawthorn,  dogwood or  crabapple in your garden.  Go out and fill a brown shopping bag with whatever strikes your fancy to create a beautiful fall bouquet to give or dress up your own table or entry.  Your arrangement should last about 4-7 days in a moderately cool room. 

I like to start hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator in pretty colored hyacinth jars to give as gifts.  Make sure the water barely touches the bottom of the bulb or it may rot.  It usually takes 6 weeks or so for the jar to fill with roots before you bring it out and place in a bright spot gradually so it can acclimate to the light.  Their fragrance is incredible.

Forcing narcissus bulbs is simple and make a classic gift that  can perfume an entire room.  Flowers take 4-6 weeks from the time you plant them to set buds so start them now.  You can plant them in a shallow pot filled with potting soil or nestled slightly in pebbles or sand in a water tight jar.   An interesting container from the thrift shop would make your gift unique.

Allow the plants to grow under cool, bright conditions to keep their stems compact and strong.  Stake flower stems if they start to flop over or you can give them a diluted solution of alcohol to keep stems and leaves 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than those growing in plain water.  The key thing is to let the bulbs develop roots in water and stones to anchor the roots as usual until the shoots rise 1 to 2 inches above the top of the bulb.  Then pour off the water and replace it with a solution of water containing 4 to 6% alcohol such as gin, vodka or rum. To get this percentage from an 80 proof distilled spirit, you would need 1 part liquor to 7 parts water.  This  yields a 5 percent solution. 

Use this alcohol-water combination when you need to add water to the bowl.  Cornell scientists say rubbing alcohol also works but because it is typically 70 percent alcohol, less is needed,  just 1 part to 10 parts water.   I wrote about this interesting method last year but thought you might want to be reminded abut this handy tidbit of information if you’re going to start for yourself or to give as gifts.

 

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