Color in the Winter Garden

A good practice is to walk through your garden occasionally to see what is succeeding, and what might need changing. It’s rewarding to visit your plants in the spring, but the winter months (now) are when we look for dormant season instances of attractive color, form or fragrance.

In the Monterey Bay area, the dormant season brings nothing like the severe conditions experienced in some other parts of the United States, but our gardens still rest at this time, and might present only limited interest.

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are many plants that can enhance our gardens while other sleep, when we plan for all season interest.

A first step is to take note of plants that are already in your garden, and looking good right now. They might be providing attractive blooms or interesting foliage, taking the center of attention while others have dropped their leaves or died to the ground.

You could supplement the tour of your own garden with a walk through your neighborhood to see what looks good in nearby gardens. That approach automatically identifies plants that would thrive in the climate and soil conditions of your garden. It can also be a good excuse to meet new people, to ask them about their gardens.

My garden, while not a true all-season display, still has several plants that are attractive during the winter months. For example, succulent plants, which have done well during our drought period, can maintain their appearance during dormancy.

I recently renovated a small bed of Mexican succulents, and the plants are looking good. They will produce blossoms later in the year, but the forms and colors or their foliage works well year-round. The recent addition of a large Talavera bowl, recently added, serves to mark the bed’s Mexican theme.

Talavera pottery, offered by many garden stores, is a style of glazed ceramic pottery that dates to the Italian Renaissance. Authentic Talavera items are from the Mexican city of Puebla and nearby communities, but imitations (which includes my own piece) are widely available. Imitations from other parts of Mexico are properly identified as Maiolica, which refers to the decorative style.

Other plants that are starring during the winter include a Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violacea), an Australian native, now covered with small violet flowers; an enormous Candelabra Plant (Aloe Arborescens) from South Africa, blooming later than others in the area, and a favorite, a Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), which offers both colorful evergreen foliage and a sweet fragrance that highlights the season.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

When provided good drainage and afternoon shade, daphnes are reliable performers for years until they suddenly and without apparent cause, give up. An older specimen recently showed arrested development: flower and leaf buds simply didn’t mature for months. After quizzing three knowledgeable friends, without success, I removed the plant (making space for another fuchsia). By this time, I already had three replacement daphnes growing nearby, so I still could enjoy the wafts of fragrance this year.

Prepare now to bring new interest to your garden for next winter with more seasonal bloomers and evergreen foliage, either adding specimens of existing plants that you like or bringing in good performers that you have seen in nearby gardens. Winter gardens can be very pleasing environments.


A quick Internet search or a visit to your local library or bookstore could lead to useful lists of winter-blooming plants. For example, one good source of information is Dan Hinkley’s book,  Winter Ornamentals.

Renovating a Fuchsia Bed

My garden includes a small collection of fuchsias in a northeast-facing bed, where the plants thrive in open shade most of the day, after a little morning sun. Large, very beautiful Bolivian fuchsias (Fuchsia boliviana), both red and white forms, provide the background and uncertain varieties of smaller upright (not trailing) fuchsias are in the foreground.

The bed also has a wonderfully fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’), which thrives in the same exposure.

The bed also had—until quite recently—a licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), which has very attractive woolly grey-green leaves.

All the plants had become quite large and the bed was overly full of plant life, so I began a renovation project.

The winter daphne doesn’t like pruning and it had retained a nicely mounded form, so I left it alone for the present.

I soon decided, however, that the licorice plant had to go. It’s an asset, there’s another specimen elsewhere in the garden, and this bed should focus on different varieties of fuchsia. The licorice plant, which grows rapidly, has fleshy branches and shallow roots and was easily removed without digging.

Fuchsias flower on new wood, so to control their size they can be pruned heavily, down to six–to-ten inches. The right time for this pruning, and for installing new plants and relocating existing plants is the early spring, after which the plants begin what the American Fuchsia Society refers to as their “aggressive growth cycle.”

I appreciate the height of the Brazilian fuchsias, so I didn’t cut them down, but I did renew the smaller plants. A couple sessions of tearing out and heavy pruning transformed the bed from a botanical tangle to a sparse mini-landscape.

It became evident that the licorice plant had dominated the middle of the bed, the winter daphne had occupied one end of the bed, and the smaller fuchsias were clustered at the other end. Given the project’s good seasonal timing, I relocated three fuchsias and installed a new fourth plant to create a more even distribution within the bed.

My local garden center had just received a shipment of fuchsias in gallon cans, so I could take my pick from the new inventory. Several different plants were all labeled only as upright, medium size plants: the wholesale nursery accepts only orders for “assorted fuchsias,” with the effect of downplaying the unique identities of the several varieties. I like to record the genus, species and cultivar of each plant in my garden, but this practice makes that difficult.

In any event, my renovated fuchsia bed should look great in a few weeks.

Enjoy your garden!

Fuchsia boliviana (red form)