Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Winter Color for the Gray, Wet Days Ahead

The weather forecasters have been teasing us for a couple of weeks lately, predicting the “chance of rain”. So far…not much. However, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a wet Thanksgiving. The publication, which bases its weather predictions partly on sunspot activity, says the November rainfall will be about three inches above our normal amount of two and a half inches. Overall, however, they are calling for a below-average amount of rainfall for the fall and winter months.

Predictions aside, the persistent Central Valley fog with daytime temperatures hovering in the 40’s is a regular winter visitor to our area. Now's the time to perk up your yard with colorful, easy-to-grow, cool season annuals for these cold, gray months ahead. All of these choices are available now at area nurseries:
Snaps, Iceland Poppies, white alyssum
Snapdragons. One of the best cold weather bloomers for sunny areas. Available with yellow, red, pink, or white flowers. A good choice for use as cut flowers. Come in sizes ranging from six inches to 36 inches tall.

Iceland poppy. These delicate looking flowers can withstand our harsh fall and winter winds. Iceland poppies get one to two feet high with flowers available in yellow, white, orange, salmon, pink, and cream colors. Needs lots of sun for best bloom.

Too Pretty to Whack

• Alyssum. This ground cover, which is in bloom nearly year-round, is an easy-to-grow perennial. Give it full sun or light shade, along with moderate water during dry spells. It can self-sow in adjacent areas without asking permission. It also thrives in poor, rocky areas (witness the alyssum that pops up on its own in the sand joints of our brick walkways).

Calendulas. Sometimes called the pot marigold, calendulas need lots of sun for their big, two to four inch blooms. Flower colors available include yellow or orange. Calendula plants get from one to two feet high, and make good cut flowers.

Stock. This fragrant winter annual comes in a wide array of colors including yellow, orange, red, pink, blue, purple, and white. A good flower for cutting. Varieties range from 12 to 30 inches high. Plant in full sun to part shade.

Violas. A large family that includes pansies and Johnny jump-ups. These do well in shady areas and grow six to eight inches high. Available in a multitude of colors, many violas will self-sow year after year.

Cyclamen. Technically a tuberous-rooted perennial, florists' cyclamen produces star-shaped, red, white, or pink flowers above deep green leaves during the winter. The plant dies back in warm weather, but resprouts each fall. Best in shady areas. Great in pots, in combination with summer bloomers such as impatiens or tuberous begonias.

Primroses. A perennial in milder climates, best treated as an annual here. The fairy or baby primrose and polyanthus primrose are proven performers for shady areas in the Valley. Primroses produce flowers on 12-inch stems in many hues, including white, pink, rose, red, and lavender.

Ornamental kale. As pretty as it is tasty, kale resembles a brightly colored head of cabbage. But it is the green leaves of kale that have the sweet, nut-like flavor. Give them full to part sun as well as regular water.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grow Your Own Oak Trees from Acorns

It's been a pretty good year here in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California for acorn-producing oak trees. Acorns falling from the oaks are more numerous than in recent years. This fall is a great opportunity for gardeners with room for big trees to grab a bucket and start gathering acorns, and start planting. Yes, You Can Grow That!

A word of warning: gather acorns only from oaks that are growing in your general vicinity; those are the ones most likely to succeed in your local climate and soil.

Acorns can be collected from the ground or harvested from oak trees, by shaking a branch with a pole. Generally, the healthiest acorns are those that are picked from trees.

Take the caps off the acorns and put the acorns in a bucket of water overnight. Keep only those that sink to the bottom. The floaters are probably damaged by insects or squirrels. 

At this point you can either plant the acorns directly into their permanent garden home, into one gallon or larger containers in a planting mix or store them for up to six months in a cool, dry place, wrapped in a bag with peat moss. A refrigerator is ideal.
Planting acorns directly into the yard now is best. Oaks quickly develop long tap roots; if allowed to remain too long in a container, the roots will quickly grow out the bottom of the pot. At transplanting time, these seedlings may die off if the roots are cut off. If you're starting oaks in containers, transplant them as soon as you see the first fully developed set of leaves.

All oaks like full sun; choose a planting area that also has good drainage. If planting acorns in the ground, loosen a wide area a few inches deep. Then plant the acorn either with the tip pointed down or sideways, about an inch deep. 

If planted now, normal fall and winter rains may be all the water that acorn seedling needs to get off to a good start. Water the new tree deeply but sparingly during the dry season, perhaps once every two weeks.

For more information about growing oaks from acorns, check out this University of California webpage, "How to Grow California Oaks"