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Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith

Monday, November 28, 2011

No lack of winter color in Brenda's Garden!

"I like these cold, gray winter days.  Days like these let you savor a bad mood."  ~Bill Watterson

Poor Bill Watterson.  He obviously didn't live in our delightful little subtropical Upper Texas Gulf Coast pocket.

(Actually, the "Calvin & Hobbes" creator was born in DC and grew up in Ohio.)

If he had, he'd know that lots of flowers bloom in our climate either all through winter, or off and on as the temperatures rise and fall.  And, let's face it, our winter's only — what? — 10 minutes long?

Now's the time to get these cold-lovers in the ground.  You might have to throw a sheet over them if temperatures drop too low.  And some might even go slightly dormant.  But they should still provide lots of color well into January and then start flowering again sometime in February

PANSIES — The pansy (pictured above) is our most commonly-planted winter flower but certainly not the only one.  This year, branch out and try some of these:

PAPERWHITE NARCISSUS —  These might not bloom the first year in the ground.  Smart move: buy bulbs now.  Using a shallow (2" deep) wide dish/pot (a pot saucer works great), put in a layer of gravel or rocks.  Set the bulbs on top. Fill with water almost up to, but not touching the bulbs.  Set in a dark, cool spot until green stalks appear.  Then pull out into more light.

You'll have to keep rotating the pot in relation to the greatest light source so they'll grow tall and straight.  Adding a tablespoon of gin (the cheaper the better) is said to help the stalk stand up straighter.

After they bloom, plant them outside.  Mine have been known to bloom in the snow!

CALENDULA (Right) — These daisy-like flowers are available in all nurseries now.  They might be annuals, but well worth the effort!

CYCLAMEN (Left) — These tend to be a little expensive and they are definitely annuals, but for the money, they'll be your best buy of all.  They can take tremendous cold and keep on blooming. And they will continue to bloom for months, until temperatures heat up.  Particularly effective in pots by the front door, or in the garden overlooked by your favorite winter chair.

PRIMROSE (Right) — Like cyclamens, these are annuals and these love cold.  Nurseries carry a number of varieties.  Nemesia and monkey flowers (Mimulus) fall into this category too.

ROSEMARY — Rosemary trees are very popular Christmas gifts and no wonder.  The fragrance is delightful.  Then most die.  Why?  Because we treat it like an indoor plant, we overwater and rosemary prefers to be outside and on the dry side. 

Keep it in the pot, but set it outside in the garden.  Protect it during extreme cold.  It has been manipulated into that beautiful tree form and that weakens a plant.

In spring, plant it in the garden and then leave it alone.  Don't overwater it.  It HATES being overwatered.

HYACINTHS — I've heard these will bloom again in gardens, but I've never seen any myself.  I think maybe they say "South" when they mean "Dallas," not our subtropical area.  On top of that, hyacinth bulbs MUST be refrigerated four to six weeks before planting in the ground.

Hyacinths forced in water are a great investment and make wonderful gifts for teacher, office workers, shut-ins, hospital patients, just about everyone. 

Nurseries carry hyacinth-forcing vases or you can use a jar with a small opening and enough "body" to hold a lot of roots.  Fill the jar about 3/4th full of water.  Balance the bulb on top the opening rim.  Set in the refrigerator.  Gradually the bulb will produce roots.  Leave the jar in the refrigerator until roots are 4" - 5" long. 

Set the jar in a low light place until the green shoot appears and starts to grow upward.  When it reaches 2" - 3" high, bring it out into the light.  The bloom mechanism is set.

Only caution: Hyacinths have a strong scent.  I find it delightful, but some folks may find it overpowering, especially in an enclosed area like a sick room or hospital room.  Narcissus might be a better gift for these folks.

Typical English border flowers should be seeded or planted now in our area to bloom in very early spring, including sweet peas (pictured Right), dianthus, delphiniums, hollyhocks, larkspur, snapdragons, etc. 

You can plant these in spring (not from seed, use plants), but they'll bloom longer and better if planted now.

And, no December column would be complete without mentioning POINSETTIAS.

Enjoy potted poinsettias indoors until they completely die back.  Then set outside in a shady, protected spot.  As you can see from the photo above, these do extremely well in our yards. This one has been pruned back to encourage enough branching so it can be used as a hedge along a driveway.


Brenda has been the Houston Chronicle's (slightly-quirky) Lazy Gardener for almost four decades!  Check out her now Chronicle blog:

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THINK CHRISTMAS GIFTS!  THINK : "LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" for anyone on your list who is new to gardening, who loves to garden or who has to at least maintain a front yard so the neighbors won't hate him/her!  Month-by-month, when-to-do-what-in Greater Houston Area Gardens with 12 garden designs for butterflies, hummingbirds, sun, shade, herbs, antique roses, tropicals . . . you name it.

Now available on CD — Brenda's sold-out, out-of-print book, "Lazy Gardener's Guide"  based on her 40+-year Chronicle column.  Mail checks ($20) payable to Brenda Beust Smith to Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD, 14011 Greenranch Dr., Houston, TX 77039.
Houston, TX 77039-2103.

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