How to prepare our favourite plant treasures
Can anyone tell me why we refer to Winter as an “Old Man” yet class Summer as a “Lady”? It seems to put a shadow on dear Winter and starts us grumbling. Perhaps it is our in-between style of winter we suffer with in the Pacific North “Wet”. It is certainly wet enough most years, damp and cold enough, commonly dreary grey enough to know summer and even autumn have left the scene, yet not enough of those crisp snappy days with clear blue skies to lift our wintery spirits!
Our plant choices will reflect our moodiness. Any respectable Californian/Mexican fancy Sages that bloom late now: will sulk at our climate too. Ditto for those dry loving Spanish Lavenders dancing with their top knots in the summer breezes, which we love planting in our patio pots.
You need to be born here; plant and gardener alike to cruise unruffled through our subdued winters. Yet look at all those “transplants”; especially the gardener person varieties which willingly escape harsher winters elsewhere, and choose our milder climes! How can we maintain a happy balance and outlook for our West Coast gardens and ourselves? Here are a few tricks that work for me …
First of all; remind yourself of all of your successes this growing season with a not-so-secret list of plant and vegetable favourites … Then do the list of disappointments, with a side bar area for possible solutions or improvements that you can control. Do not be discouraged about “Death in the Garden” … I have killed so many plants. Some were accidental … oops! Wrong plant: wrong place. Some with heartlessness intent: that plant has to go! “MURDERER!” … Regardless, my garden loves me no less and I learn more and more from it every year.
Our winter season, as a growing unit of time, has its own particular quirks for success. If you love that Spanish Lavender, any Lavandula stoechas; choose a very well drained, full sun spot when you plant them out so hopefully in spring … If you are very close to the sea as a winter moderator, you can try getting away with leaving semi-tropical plants, like these Lavenders, in the ground with generous fluffy leaf mulch on site. Lucky you! Accept they could die if we have a harsh winter season. For their cost of $5 or so, simply replace them next spring. If they winter over: give yourself a green fingered star! If they die, alternatively choose those less frilly English Lavenders, Lavandula angustifolia, which will undauntedly simply tough it out and flourish effortlessly! Choices and consequences …
As a back up, take cuttings of those favourite Spanish Lavenders plus any of your tender semi-tropical Sages. These include Pineapple Sage, Honeydew Melon Sage, Fruit Sage; all of which bloom now if not frosted in bud … These tender Sages will root from any small lengths with nodes along their stem; the Spanish Lavenders only succeed from a non-blooming tip. Use a light sandy or perlite soil-less mix, keep moist but not wet. A heating cable guarantees a 90% success rate!
I will generally dig up any favourite semi-tropical Sage mother plant with my deeper winters in the valley. I re-plant them in a fresh pot, one size larger to have more soil insulation, water very lightly and tuck it under the bench in my greenhouse. Ditto for my Spanish Lavenders.
Be careful to not have a false sense of security leaving any potted varieties out on your “sheltered” deck. Any pot scenario now leaves these plantings vulnerable to the elements top/bottom and sides, especially if their root systems are pot bound after a vigorous summer’s growth. Tough common culinary Sages and other normally hardy herbs have been known to winter kill in pots … too wet and too cold can equal death and oops ... also a cracked pot! Alternatively, place your pots in a cold frame and stuff leaves between the pots for insulation and let them hibernate cozy for the winter.
I recommend handling your culinary Herb planter boxes as “seasonably disposable”. Start fresh in the spring with new 4” herb babies in late April/early May. The annual herb choices; like Sweet Basil, Summer Savory or Sweet Marjoram, will die in the frosts regardless … You could transplant the perennial herbs; any Thyme, Rosemary, Sage or Oregano, into the ground to over winter and let them carry on there and mature in your garden beds. Though, growing in planter boxes generally, will distort your herb’s pleasing shapes as they out-grow their cuteness all crammed together. Plus, over harvesting these babies to a point of ugliness can make you want to throw them away anyway: Murderer! … Do remember to freshen up the soil before replanting. Tuck the whole box in the garage and forget about it.
In my open Herb gardens; I go around pulling out any last annuals including still blooming Calendulas, Nasturtiums and Borage … Another frost and they will be black and mushy. I trim any dead stems or broken branches on the evergreen Thymes, Rosemary and Sages. I cut to the ground any Oregano, Lovage, Tarragon and Chives…most are yellowed, limp and succumbed to mildew now. All of these regenerate from the “ground up” in early spring. Oreganos are so smart! They commonly have little fresh rosettes waiting “in the wings” at their heart at ground level, trying their best to give you an indicator or dotted line … ”Cut here!” A quick tidy of any other debris and then I mulch the open spaces with leaves to bed them down relatively weed-free and walk away!
In my greenhouse; I tuck away any Herbs that would prefer no winter and try to allure them into believing they really are somewhere warmer~ at the very least northern California or Spain! And yes in there I have a dozen Spanish Lavandula stoechas “Marshwood” mother plants, plus their clone cuttings. Next to them are some of my fancy Sages … Please remember you don’t have to save everything! If you do not have the time, suitable space or energy ~ leave the fuss to growers like me … I don’t want to see you bald with worry in Spring!
Here is an interesting discovery: have you ever heard of “Chaytorae” Lavenders? You may already have one if I tried to tempt you this summer with, what I was calling a “Lanata-cross” Lavender, named “Ana Luisa”! She is bold and beautiful and surprisingly hardy even for me. “Ana Luisa” has a sister “Lisa Marie” that is smaller and performs similarly. “Sawyers” and “England” are smaller again with heavier felted leaves and therefore succumb to frosts easier … I recently was sent a catalogue from the world famous Norfolk Lavender in the UK from my beloved mother-in-law Dorothy. There is a whole series of these “Chaytorae” Lavenders as they are titled, a cross between velvety tender Lanata Lavender from Spain and Sweet angustifolia Lavenders of English fame. This cross results in gorgeous silvery foliage, long deep purple spire blooms and decent hardiness. They are first class landscaping Lavenders for looks alone and do have some fragrance though never as sweet as any pure Lavandula angustifolia. “Ana Luisa” simply has a registered family name now and you and I have the latest hot Lavenders! Change your plant records from “Lanata x” to “Chaytorae Lavender” … My favourite Lavender still remains Lavandula angustifolia “Hidcote”, the main one in my fields … best colour and fragrance, which equals taste for cooking!
So I walk away from pots, planter boxes, my open display gardens and fields of sleepy Lavender as I bed them down one by one. You will find me hanging out in “the northern Spain” section of my greenhouse next to my daughter’s Myers Lemon tree, Bearrs Lime tree and all those Spanish Lavenders or fancy California/Mexican Sages! On really wintery days, I will be back in the house by my woodstove drooling over Seed catalogues and my favourite gardening picture books.
I will not be weeding!
… It is snowing: again. And all my fantasies of my snow shovel rusting in my garden shed this winter vanish into the night’s ocean of darkness with these innocent glitters of white dancing for a moment in my porch light’s illumination … All thoughts of the reality of tomorrows snowfall pause, as I breathe in this hushed moment of tranquility and yes, magic. 2011 rises out of the night’s cauldron of possibilities; unwritten, unshaped, un-predetermined ~
Laughing, I wish on all these snow stars for as many flowers to bless all our gardens with the next years turn.
*** … Had to change ending Nov24th … Too much snow ~
Ahh … Winter is here at last. May we all enjoy its brief respite and refuel our spirits as our famous liquid sunshine takes care of watering too … And with any luck our snow shovels will rust in the gardening shed!
Blessings for 2011!
Originally published in the December 2010 edition of the Metchosin Muse