Gardening : Winter’s Near, So It’s Time to Plant for Spring


There are signs in the garden that fall is slipping into the too-short days of winter, hinting that I’d better hurry up with my fall planting of annuals, bulbs and vegetables.

Summer’s bedding begonias and gloriosa daisies that looked so good just weeks ago now look shabby, and the leaves are turning on the sycamore. It gets dark so early that I needed a flashlight the other evening to gather the few remaining tomatoes, and it rained just enough to sprout winter’s weeds.

Wildflowers forever

Sprouting weeds tell me it’s time to plant wildflowers, because wildflowers are on the same schedule: They sprout in late fall, grow through winter, flower in spring, set seed and die in early summer.


An early rain helps because it brings up the weeds (so will a good watering and a few overcast days), so you can hoe them out and leave the ground clear for wildflowers. Most wildflowers can’t compete with weeds, which is why they’ve disappeared from many hills, where they have been replaced by European mustard, wild radish and non-native grasses.

Last year, between newly planted shrubs, I sowed the native farewell-to-spring, Clarkia amoena , with the European red field poppy, Papaver rhoeas . The three-foot scarlet-red poppies bloomed most of spring and were a real crowd-pleaser, followed by the shorter clarkias, which were a spectacular mass of pink for months. They’re among the last wildflowers to bloom, often flowering among already golden grasses in the wild, which is how they got the name farewell-to-spring.

In another part of the garden, I planted native baby blue eyes and five-spot nemophila between pastel pansies. They were just the right size to go with the pansies, growing less than a foot tall, and the small blue and white flowers made a dainty foil.

Growing wildflowers here and there in the garden is much easier than attempting to plant a large patch, as long as seedling-eating slugs and snails are kept under control and you’ve sprouted and rid the area of weeds. Simply rough up the soil with a garden rake, scatter the seed and keep moist.

Seeds for these and other wildflowers are available from Larner Seeds, P.O. Box 407, Bolinas, CA 94924, (415) 868-9407, and from the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802.

Jump-starting ranunculus

I’m replacing summer’s gloriosa daisies with ranunculus, the most sure-fire and colorful spring bulb for Southern California. They are, that is, once you get them sprouted, which some gardeners complain is difficult.

Years ago, someone told me the secret of starting ranunculus tubers. Each looks like a tiny bunch of bananas and should be planted in good soil with the points facing down. Space six inches apart and cover with only an inch of soil. Water thoroughly using a sprinkler and leave it on long enough to thoroughly wet the ground, to at least a foot deep.

Then don’t water again until the sprouts break through the soil. It may take a few weeks, but resist the urge to water and the tubers won’t rot. Resume regular watering once they’re all up.

Cauliflower and cabbage worms

I’m already harvesting winter crops from the garden because I began planting them back in August, but I’ll keep planting short rows right through winter to ensure a continuous harvest.

Right now I’m picking beets, carrots, spinach, cilantro and several kinds of lettuce to go with the last few tomatoes. I’ve harvested lots of broccoli and some of the biggest cauliflower heads imaginable, from a new variety called Stardust.

It has huge creamy heads more than a foot across that heft like a sack of cement, large enough to leave us wondering what to do with so much. Although it was developed here in Southern California, seeds for this hybrid are available only from two small companies back East: E&R; Seeds, 1356 E. 200 South, Monroe, IN 46772, and Orol Ledder & Son, P.O. Box 7, Sewell, NJ 08080.

Make sure you protect cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and other cole crops from the green cabbage worms active at this time of year. Take preemptive measures with B.t., a natural non-toxic control (a bacterium named Baccillus thuringiensis) that kills cabbage worms and some other larvae.

I don’t wait for holes to appear because I’ve seen the adult white butterflies and know they’re laying eggs on my cabbage patch. B.t. works best on hatchlings and young larvae, so never leave plants unprotected. After watering or rain, reapply.

I use a dust sold as “Safer Vegetable Insect Attack” in a green plastic squeeze bottle. The bottles work extremely well if you hold them upside down and blow the dust up under the leaves where the worms are feeding. Go lightly; the dust shouldn’t look like a heavy snowfall, just a gentle frost.