Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

Planning the Garden


It is the last days in January. Normally this is the quiet time in the gardening cycle. The time to sit and stare out at the garden through the rainy window and make plans for the spring.

But not here in Northern California. No, here we are in the throes of a false spring that has been going on since, well, before Christmas. True there was that brief winter storm that swept through last week sending us scurrying for our sweaters and rain boots but besides that…nothing. It’s been sunny and dry (too dry) and the weather has been downright balmy.

This has been confusing for the gardener and the garden. Buds are already setting on everything. The narcissus, harbinger of spring, is already in full-scented bloom and the poor birds ready to get down to some serious nest-building. This premature rush has sent me out into garden chores with the anxiety of Alice’s white rabbit. “I’m late, I’m late”….

Which of course I’m not. Let me state again, it’s January!

Several people have asked me lately, “what should I be doing in my garden this time of year”? And I’ve been wondering the same thing. Normally it’s too wet and cold to even want to work in the garden, and thus it is the planning season. And I know it feels as if we should be getting busy out there or we’ll miss the boat but…. I maintain that even in this first giddy rush of spring-like weather there is a need to slow down and take time to plan the work ahead.

sketched notes in my garden journal for the plan for winter garden and upcoming cutting garden…

bed by the back fence, dug and amended in late October. Peas, planted from seed, are growing well.

Winter veg struggling along despite drought conditions, lettuce from seed, cabbage from a starter plant. Fava, also from seed, already in delightful flower.

And here’s how that cutting garden is coming along: Irises transplanted into it. 50 bulbs planted. Beds amended and ready for seeds when the time comes. It’s gonna be a little piece of Heaven!

The first step is to take advantage of the lovely weather, and go out into your garden and reacquaint yourself with it. Be in it as much as possible. Walk the areas you have already established or the areas you think you might like to convert into new gardens, and do this at all different times of the day. Preferably alone, when feel you relaxed and creative.

Sit out in your yard and observe quietly: what do you see, smell, and hear? Allow your imagination to wander. What would like to grow in your garden? Food? Flowers? I keep a notebook with me and I sketch everything that comes to mind. These plans often change with time, but usually I’m pleasantly surprised when I read back through my notebook and how much progress has been made on my ‘original’ plan.

The two most important things I try to take note of whenever I’m planning to start a new garden area or bed are: 1) where is the sun? Make mental or actual notes of where the sun is at what time of day. I’ll admit I’m a little directionally challenged so it has taken me several years of living in this current house to really understand the patterns of which areas get the most sunshine and when. I think that’s okay though, the longer you have to observe your garden over the seasons, the more successful you will be in working with it.

And that’s the 2nd thing) what plants are already growing and thriving in your yard? What is there that you would like to keep? And what do you wish you could change?

I would say the biggest mistake I’ve fallen into over and over again is to plan my garden by shopping at a nursery. Now I see that buying plants should be one of the LAST steps in starting a garden. We all know the deal, the sun comes out, we’re feeling excited and we trot off to the garden store to be seduced by the exotic colors and specimens before we even really know what the plan is.

Calendula (marigold) grown from seed in another bed which we are now overhauling,, transplanted into gallon containers to grow larger over winter. These will be ready for instant spring color, companion planting, or to give away to a good home.

By walking in my garden I get to know the plants that are living in it. I’ve learned that many of them can be divided and propagated. Know what that means? Free plants!! And ones that I can be sure already thrive in the conditions of my yard. Also I have transplanted lots of plants over time, moving them from the place where I found them growing to the place where I would prefer them to be growing. Once you start with what is already in your yard, you’ll find that the list of what you ‘need’ to buy at the nursery becomes shorter and shorter.

Refugees from a garden bed overhaul: daffodil and bluebells bulbs which we turned up in our digging have been transplanted to pots and with a little TLC should reward us with a lovely spring container. The gernaium also needed to move. It has a hot pink flower and since these do well in the heat of our summers, this will make a great patio plant. Who needs a nursery??

The best way to find out what you’ve already got is to clean up your beds, a perfect activity for late winter/early spring. Weed, prune, pull, rake and generally tidy and define your space. You might be amazed and what specimens turn up as you are raking aside old debris and pruning established plants back.

Also, before you run out and buy hard-scaping materials (costly wood to build raised beds for instance, take a look at what you already have onsite. We inherited a lot of bricks from the original owners’ brickwork-bonanza for instance so we tried to re-use these as much as possible. Of course we have an intended ‘shabby chic’ aesthetic for our garden so this up-cycling worked for us. But even if you are not going for that look, it’s still a good starting point to work with what you’ve got. (can I go ahead and engrave that on my headstone?)

Anyhow, the overall rule of my green thumb is to go slow. Take your time and work with the seasons. Assess everything you already have to work with and allow the seasons and Mother Nature to work with you. If you really want to add new plants to your garden (it is sooooo tempting I know) I recommend planting bulbs or perennials.

Bulbs are great because you do the work and leave them and the rewards are wonderful in spring, and if you choose a naturalizing variety the rewards will just keep on coming. I also prefer to plant perennials in the the fall. They will benefit from the cooler temperatures and rain (if there is any! hello..Winter?..are you out there?) to establish strong root systems. And you will benefit in spring when you are greeted with the exciting signs of new growth and plants that seem to double in size within the year.

Sedum (planted in March 2010) with broken pottery ‘mulch’ from Panama Pottery.

Same plants, in December 2010, now completely fill the bed (photo: Oami Powers)

Lastly, if you really feel impatient (as I often do) to bring a little pizzazz into your garden during the ‘in-between’ season as Winter dies away but Spring is not quite yet here, my advice is to invest in some lovely garden pots. I was thrilled recently to use a gift certificate I got at Christmas for the awesome local garden art gallery Panama Pottery. I’ve blogged about this cool spot before and certainly will again (future Sac Favorite Places post?).

Besides having gorgeous terracotta and glazed pots at very reasonable prices, they also have a wonderful selection of unique garden art and statuary… think beyond the garden gnome variety. It’s nice to have one or two pieces that will work anywhere in your yard, that you can move to suit your needs as the garden grows. Plant with annual color if you are disciplined about watering (for me Pansies are no-fail and seem to survive really well through winter and well into early summer) or with succulents if you are not.

Either way, sometimes it’s just enough to create a sweet little scene in your ever-evolving landscape and to sit and admire it some sunny afternoon, with your cup of tea and your gardening notebook…..

Now get planning!


10 Responses to “Planning the Garden”

  1. Jacquelyn Marie

    Rucha, such helpful hints from a true gardener. I have trouble looking at my deck with so many dying plants or bare dirt in lovely pots that I also want to immediately go to the garden shop for flowering plants.

    I do have major wind and sun on my deck so some things make it and some do not. Thanks again for great post.

  2. ruchapowers

    Hey Jacquelyn, Just a thought that maybe succulents and cactus would do better in your pots in the face of the sun and wind? Is The Dry Garden still open in Berkeley? That is a great place to shop for all things drought tolerant. I’ve had good luck lately with getting blooms from my succulents, true they are fewer and far in-between but always impressive. Also I just discovered this great spotted agave:
    Gorgeous variegation and would add lots of color and drama in the right pot. I’m gonna get me one!

  3. ursula

    oh YEAH! love this post. good tips i’ll take with me next time i visit the diff. areas i’m trying to develop around our house. i totally hear you about bulbs. after really “wasting” a lot of money on plants last spring to fill in i’ve resolved myself to planting loads of bulbs. would love to hear more as it warms up. especially about growing food. can you do a gardening post once a month maybe??

  4. Norman Ross Powers

    This dry winter is eerie. You are proposing cheerful good uses for the mild conditions we’re having, but personally I feel uneasy and not at all grateful for the interminable clear weather. My brow furrows and I want to stamp my little foot every time it’s necessary to water the garden again….here in the midst of the “rainy season.” On Sunday I did give two trees a careful pruning, which seemed, at least, a suitable task for a teeshirt day in winter. Thank you for a fine post, and particularly the cool pottery mulch idea!

  5. oami powers

    It’s good to hear that advice, to hold back & plan, to look & observe rather than to rush in and try to make change right away. I’ve definitely been prey to the impulse shopping trip to our local nursery only to find that voles love the roots of a rose bush (thankfully they are hardy and we saved them by transplanting them to pots) or that datura needs to be sheltered from the frost. Second best to having you here to hold my hand!

  6. Plant Nerd | East Twin West Twin

    […] and will brighten up empty areas in between perennial blooms. However I’ve said this before here and I’ll say it again – buying actual plants for your garden should be the very LAST […]


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