Plenty of garden work to do this winter

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By Jane Gates
Signal Contributing Writer

Unlike much of the country where folks are shuttered indoors with frosty weather, we Santa Claritans can enjoy some of the best working weather for gardening.

We may not be building snowmen, but we can bask in sunny, crisp days outdoors and finally take those first steps to make our landscapes better than ever for the new year.

After last year’s lack of rain, this season is starting out more promising. Stormy weather is much needed and we gardeners can make those indoor days productive by flipping through paper or online catalogs for gifts for others, and some well-deserved ones for ourselves. Now’s the time to order, tools, flower, vegetable and hard-to-find seeds, started plants and trees. Also look for items – or just ideas — for décor, outdoor furniture and practical structures like storage or potting sheds, trellises or shade covers.

Pruning time and shopping time

It’s time to cut back woody plants and trees. Sap is slowing, and plants will bleed less from any major pruning that is necessary. It’s also the time to start planting large shrubs and trees.

Once all the Christmas trees vanish from garden centers, look for the best selections (and the best prices) for fruit trees and decorative shrubs. They’ll likely be displayed for sale in January.

This will be the beginning bare-root season: a short period in winter when stores carry these woody plants un-potted. You won’t get better deals or wider choices any other time of year. What’s more, buying plants when they are dormant and their roots encased in bags, makes carting them from store to planting area delightfully easy on the back.

While you are picking through the bare-root plants, don’t forget to look for onion and garlic sets, strawberry, rhubarb and asparagus roots all becoming available. There should also be a nice selection of spring-blooming flower bulbs available. Bulbs only bloom for a short time, but they make up for it with dazzling flower displays. And they will keep the garden colorful while the sleepier garden members are still waking up.

Big and little jobs to do

Keep blown leaves scooped out of ponds and water features. We are not done with windy weather. If you haven’t done it yet, consider turning off your pump for the winter and save on electricity. Do not feed fish. They don’t digest food well in winter. Instead, they’ll be hanging out at the bottom in a semi-dormant state waiting for their liquid homes to warm up in the spring.

Weather is now cool and comfortable for doing big jobs in the garden. The winter months are handy for building and remodeling your garden – whether it is just one area or the whole landscape. One caution: Avoid working soil right after rain as it will compress valuable air out of the wet soil. And who needs all that mud stuck to your shoes and tracked everywhere, anyway?

Gardens will appreciate a little extra help when frosty nights are in store. Add compost and other top-dressings as mulch to retain soil moisture and keep roots warm. Drape material like burlap or shade cloth over any tender plants if a freeze is predicted.

Set up rain barrels or other water collection tubs to reuse rainwater in the garden during dry periods. I just added two rain barrels to my landscape. The water will be used to top up my pond in dry periods. It will not only save me on water consumption, but it will circumvent the potentially deadly chloramine in our city water that can injure or kill fish. To make my barrels blend with the landscape, I’ve planted pots of dangling strawberry plants on the top. The barrels now create their own ornamental (and tasty, nutritious) container garden.

Continue to cut back on lawn watering. You can even let your lawn go dormant for the winter to save on maintenance and water use. Or, as I always recommend, replace some of your lawn with something more useful, like decorative, drought-resistant gardens, tasty fresh edibles, or a colorfully graveled, low-maintenance seating or play area.

Planning saves time and money

Now is the perfect time to sketch out plans for re-designing your garden so you can get the most beautiful landscape possible to fit with your lifestyle and budget. Call in professional help if you want it done for you or just want some feedback on your own designs. I can’t emphasize enough how important planning is. It gives you an overall layout so you can work on your garden over time and it can save you from making very costly mistakes.

December is a great month to clean up and make your garden efficient. It is also perfect to start creating a gorgeous and efficient landscape. And if that’s not sufficient to convince you to get moving outdoors, there’s this: digging, cleaning and planting stretches and tones muscles, sunshine gives you vitamin D, exercise will help burn off those extra holiday calories, and it is also an excellent way to work off holiday stress. All for free!

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