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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Look for form, fragrance, and winter color

by Carolyn Singer
January 1, 2011

Corsican helleboreAs I crossed the Sacramento valley on a recent train trip, I drifted with the muted tones of the native winter landscape, soft shades of green, gray, brown and occasionally of gold and rust. But just east of Davis, the vibrant green of the young rice seedlings shifted my attention to the more intense colors of winter agriculture. When the train approached the Sacramento River, luscious oranges added to the vibrancy.

Back home, the evergreens that mingle with stronger colors in the spring, summer, and fall, are now the center of attention in my deer-resistant winter landscape. Variegated holly with its white and green foliage is beautiful even on rainy days, and I often bring sprays inside to enjoy. This large ornamental shrub is growing in partial shade and never irrigated during the dry season.

Euphorbia 'Silver Swan'Sweet vanilla plant (Sarcococca), a graceful small evergreen (three to four foot height and spread), has small dark-green glossy leaves on arching branches. A few years ago I moved a mature plant (with a fork, of course) to a shade garden where it provides a strong backdrop for several species of hellebore. Soon the Sarcococca will open its tiny fragrant white flowers and fill the entry to my home with a scent so delightful that I cannot imagine a garden without it. Opening well before winter Daphne, there is no competition between the two.

In an irrigated garden near the house, the native alder that shades the border takes most of the water offered. The alder is a tree that belongs near a creek, but somebody planted it many years ago in this spot. Shallow-rooted, the alder competes for water and nutrients, so only the toughest shrubs and perennials thrive within its shade canopy. Sarcococca, Daphne, and many species of Helleborus are thriving. Lamium fills in as a groundcover. All are beautiful in winter, and deer-resistant.

Euphorbia 'Helena's Blush'In early January, fragrant Narcissus (paper whites) are blooming by the front walk. Nearby, evergreen Euphorbias are attractive winter perennials. Two of my favorites are 'Helena's Blush'(photo left) which turns a beautiful rose in winter, and 'Silver Swan' (photo above right), a green and white cultivar that adds a bright spot all year. I have been surprised by how much sun these variegated spurges prefer. Both have a tidy, compact, rounded form, making them attractive container plants too.

forget-me-nots with tulipsWhere leaves have fallen around perennials and shrubs, organic compost may be added to enrich and protect the soil. Sow forget-me-not seeds in bare areas, especially where bulbs may be emerging.

January is the month bareroot fruits are offered by local nurseries. When the rain won't let up long enough for the soil to drain so that planting holes may be dug, just heel the stock into a pile of aged compost. I dug and improved the soil in the planting holes (actually, a friend with a backhoe did it for me) last fall. Soon I will throw small tarps over the planting spots to reduce the moisture received from storms. I may yet be able to plant before winter is over.

This is also the month to begin pruning while plants are dormant. That is, if we get some fair weather, since the wood must be dry. Fruit trees benefit from a heavy pruning when they are first planted. As trees mature, understanding how they fruit is critical for your pruning technique. When you commit to a fruit tree in your garden, plan to study its fruiting habit (take a class or read about each tree), so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for many years.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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