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January: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

Mexican orange (Choisya ternata) is drought-resistant, hardy to 15 degrees and shunned by deer.
Mexican orange (Choisya ternata) is drought-resistant, hardy to 15 degrees and shunned by deer. The Sacramento Bee

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.


Lavender cotton: The gray-leaved lavender cotton (sold as Santolina incanus and Santolina chamaecyparissis) stands unscathed by anything Mother Nature can muster during a California summer. No amount of blazing heat, sunshine or dry weather bothers this tough yet beautiful shrub. Plus, it is dependably deer-resistant.

Rub your hand across the foliage to release its fresh, clean scent. Look closely at the foliage: Each silvery-white “leaf” resembles a tiny, serrated comb. This Mediterranean native, which is part of the aster family, grows about 2 feet tall and spreads to 3 feet wide. And when you think the weather can’t get any hotter, the plant sends up short stems topped with bright yellow, 3/4-inch wide, button-type flowers. It makes a very cheerful picture.

Santolina grows in poor soils, in full sun, and with very little water, even when newly planted. It makes a tight mound, is easily started from cuttings, and can be clipped back if the growth gets too lanky. In fact, gray Santolina and its green-leaved cousin are often used in English knot gardens, which are cut into tight hedges.

It’s commonly called lavender cotton, petite cypress, ground cypress and holy herb, although it has nothing to do with lavender, cotton or cypress. Nor is it a culinary herb. In ancient times it was used to repel moths.

Santolina cultivars blend well with rosemary, rockroses, catmint and salvias, as well as low-growing types of ceanothus and manzanita. An annual trim after the plant has bloomed will keep it neat and tidy for many years.

Mexican orange: The Mexican orange ( Choisya ternata) caught my eye at the nursery because of its brilliant yellow and bright green winter foliage. Drought-resistant, hardy to 15 degrees, tough, shunned by deer, it seemed the perfect plant for my sunny, foothill garden.

It makes a mounding shrub that eventually will get 4 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide. Unfortunately, the plant loses much of its yellow highlights during the summer. It produces clusters of tiny, white, scented flowers, which are reminiscent of orange blossoms, in late winter and early spring. The leaves, when crushed, have an odd scent. It’s no wonder the deer leave it alone.

Plant it at the back of the border. Cut away older branches occasionally to encourage new growth and keep the plant bushy. Otherwise, it is a carefree plant that adds color and form to the garden and asks little in return.

What's in season in January: Lemons

Even if they didn't produce bumper crops of fruit, lemon trees can't be beat for handsome landscape plants. The dark, glossy green leaves are attractive all seasons of the year. They grow well in the ground and in pots. The flowers are showy and wonderfully fragrant.

And since most citrus varieties need heat to produce sweet fruit, they feel right at home in the Sacramento Valley. Their biggest enemy: freezing weather.

Lemon trees aren't fussy about soil, but demand consistent watering, and while they do not like to be bone dry, they abhor overwatering and soggy feet.

Keep citrus on a fertilizer regimen since they need plenty of nitrogen. This is especially important for lemon trees grown in pots, since every time you water you're leaching nutrients out of the soil. Finally, keep the soil around the trees mulched to conserve moisture and protect the soil.

Lemon trees can be pruned into a hedge, but most gardeners only prune to keep their plants shaped and balanced. Always prune away dead branches or weak growth. Be warned: Citrus plants sport long, sharp, stiff thorns hidden in the foliage, so be careful when pruning or picking fruit.

The most common lemon varieties are Lisbon and Eureka. Also high on the list of desirable cultivars is the Meyer, thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange. It's rounder, less acidic, more orange than yellow in color. It bears fruit year-round.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, lemons have been used for centuries as "an epilepsy remedy, a toothpaste, as invisible ink, as a bleaching agent and in witchcraft." They originated in Southeast Asia, but California is now the leading producer of lemons in the United States.

The million-dollar question is "When are they ripe?" According to the Sunset Western Garden Book, citrus - lemons included - ripens only on the tree. It suggests picking one and giving it the taste test to determine just what the fruit should look and feel like when it's ready to pick.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Store whole lemons up to two weeks in the refrigerator. They pair well with fish, shellfish, artichokes, broccoli, poultry and sweet pastries.

Preserving: To freeze juice, squeeze it into the cups of muffin tins and freeze until solid. Pop it out of the tins and transfer it to freezer bags. Freeze grated rind in freezer bags to use later in recipes. They are not generally canned unless they are part of a recipe or turned into curd or chutney.

- Gwen Schoen

Classic lemon bars

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Makes 16 bars

If you like a lemon bar that's not too sweet and not too heavy, you'll enjoy these bars. Use very fresh lemons for the best flavor. Also, when you grate the lemon peel, try to use only the yellow portion of the peel, not the white pith between the peel and the flesh of the lemon. The recipe is from "Luscious Lemon Desserts" by Lori Longbotham (Chronicle Books). Note: Prep time does not include the cooling time.


1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour, divided use

1 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar, divided use, plus extra for dusting

2 tablespoons finely grated, fresh lemon peel

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3 large eggs

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan.

Whisk together 1 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of confectioners' sugar, the grated lemon peel and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Knead the dough in the bowl until it begins to stick together. Transfer the dough to the baking pan and press it evenly into the bottom. Bake on a rack in the center of the oven for 25 minutes or until light golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack while making the filling.

Whisk together the remaining 1 1/2 cups of confectioners' sugar, the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour and the baking powder in a small bowl. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer on high speed for about 2 minutes, or until tripled in volume. Reduce the speed to low, add the sugar mixture and beat just until blended, scraping down the side of the bowl. Add the lemon juice and beat just until blended.

Pour the lemon mixture over the warm crust and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the filling is just set in the center. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack.

Just before serving, lightly sift confectioners' sugar over the cookies and cut into 2-inch squares. Store in an airtight container.

Per bar: 149 cal.; 2 g pro.; 21 g carb.; 6 g fat (4 sat., 2 monounsat., 0 polyunsat.); 55 mg chol.; 46 mg sod.; 0 g fiber; 13 g sugar; 40 percent calories from fat.

Success in the January garden

Wait to prune spring blooming shrubs, such as forsythia, weigela, lilac, Spanish broom and bridal wreath, or you’ll be cutting off the flowers. Once they’ve finished blooming, then prune them back.

Do not prune wisteria vines now. Wait until two weeks after they have bloomed.

Cut ornamental grasses to the ground before new growth appears.

Nursery shelves are overflowing with summer blooming bulbs: calla, canna, dahlia, lilies, amaryllis, gladiolus, crocosmia and more.

January is bare-root season for fruit trees, berry vines, grapevines, shrubs, roses, artichoke crowns and more. Buying bare-root is less expensive than buying a plant already potted. If the soil is too wet to work, dig a trench and lay the plants in it, then lightly cover the roots with soil or compost until you can plant.

Spray fruit trees with dormant oil to kill overwintering insects (such as scale) and to control powdery mildew.

Prune fruit trees. If you don’t know how, buy a book on fruit and nut trees and take it into the garden with you and read about each type of fruit tree before you make any cuts.

Cut grapevines back, leaving two to three buds per side shoot.

Prune hybrid tea roses: Cut out spindly wood. Cut away crossing branches. Take out old canes. Don’t worry if there are flower buds. Leave the newest, strongest canes. The idea is to get plants ready for spring. Always use sharp shears, and make all cuts on a slant. Wait until spring to prune climbing roses.

Cut sedum stalks to the ground.

Cut berry vines that bore fruit last year to the ground. Clear away all debris in the berry patch and apply a new layer of mulch.

For a succession of bloom, plant gladiolus every two weeks. Plant them in clumps.

Order seeds for this year’s vegetable garden.

If you have crabgrass in your lawn, now is the best time to apply a pre-emergent.

Plant calendula, candytuft, English daisy, Iceland poppy, pansy, primrose, snapdragons sweet pea and viola.

Vegetables to plant this month: broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, parsley, peas, carrots, radishes and turnips.

Prune clematis that bloomed last summer and fall.

Sharpen blades of lawnmowers, shovels and hoes. Check pruning shears for dull blades, too.

Wait until spring to prune away frost damaged foliage or limbs. Let it look ugly. It will protect the plant and when spring comes you can see just how far back the damage is.