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.
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.
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.
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.
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!