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.
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Spurge ( Euphorbia sp.): Neither deer nor drought will touch euphorbia, guaranteed.
However, this Mediterranean native comes with a warning: If you break a leaf or cut the stems, you’ll see a white sap ooze from the cut. Avoid getting it on your skin, and if you do, rinse the area with cool water. Get too much of that sap on your skin and hours later you’ll feel like you have poison oak. Don’t touch your eyes with sap on your fingers, either.
You can cut stems to use in flower arrangements, but dip the cut edge in boiling water to keep sap from bleeding out.
Warning aside, it’s a wonderful, stately – and wildly popular – plant for the low-water, low-maintenance landscape. Spurge is part of the genus Euphorbia. It is a large genus with about 2,000 species, including succulent, cactus-like types as well as upright and prostrate perennials and shrubs. Poinsettias are part of the group, too.
You’ll find the bright, electric yellow flowers at the tips of the stems along with cupped lime green bracts that surround dark purple or black nectar glands. When ripe, the plant shoots the seeds out of the pod, and many of the seeds land several feet away. The leaves are arranged opposite each other along fleshy stems, and are usually blue green or gray green in color, although some cultivars come in shades from dark green to reddish green. Depending on the cultivar, the plant can be ground hugging or grow to 3 or more feet tall. Plants need to be cut back each fall, but come back from the roots the following spring.
They can get to be quite large clumps and difficult to prune when you have to crawl among the stems, so cut the old flowering stems back each year. If left to mature, they will seed themselves around the garden, but are easily pulled up – wear gloves. Also, if you cut away the flowering stems before they produce seedpods, you’ll keep the plant from appearing in all parts of the garden.
Most nurseries carry several varieties of spurge. E. amygdaloides “Purpurea” sports showy purple foliage and purple flowers, and is attractive many months of the year. The best blue-leaved sorts include donkey tail spurge, E. myrsinites, which creeps along the ground, and E. ‘Blue Haze,’ with reddish stems and dusty blue foliage. Euphorbias also come with variegated leaves. The most common is an annual variety called E. “Snow on the Mountain.” It has green leaves edged in white.
Butterfly Bush ( Buddleia sp.): The butterfly bush ( Buddleia sp.) is just beginning to break dormancy in February after being cut almost to the ground just a few months previously. It will send up long arching branches to 6 feet or more before producing long spikes of sweetly scented flowers in purple, pink, white, lavender and even orange. True to its name, the flowers attract masses of butterflies. The foliage is rather plain, dull gray green on most cultivars, and the plant is more gangly and lanky than graceful. But those flowers!
All this, and the plants demand little in return. It can exist on very little water and only needs a yearly haircut, all the while producing masses of flowers to enjoy in the garden or to cut and bring inside.
The key to keeping this Chinese native happy is giving it a severe pruning sometime between November and January. Cut the woody stems back to about 12 inches. If you don’t, the plant will still grow and bloom, but flowers will be tiny and sparse. The plants are fast growers and come back to life as soon as the weather starts to warm. By summer they are they are 6 or more feet tall. The plant is named for the English botanist Adam Buddle.
What's in season in February: Broccoli
Everyone recognizes the plump, tight flower clusters of a head of broccoli. It's so easy to grow, it's no wonder the Sunset Western Garden Book calls broccoli "the best all-around choice for the home gardener." Plus it's fun for kids and adults alike to pretend they're eating little trees.
Broccoli is related to cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
The stout central stem produces a tightly massed head of tiny flower buds that can measure 5 to 6 inches across. Harvest when buds are still very tight.
Broccoli can be planted several times during the year. It needs two to three months to mature from seed, so many gardeners buy starts from the nursery. Seeds can be sown where you want plants to grow. Space starter plants about a foot apart. Water regularly and deeply.
It's most commonly planted late summer for a fall harvest, but can also be planted late fall and early spring. Hot weather causes the plants to bolt, which means they quickly flower and go to seed. It grows about 2 feet tall.
- Pat Rubin
Fresh: Store it in the refrigerator and plan to use it within a few days of harvest. Steaming or blanching turns the color bright green. Be careful not to overcook or it turns mushy. Good for stir-fry and other quick-cooking method. If you add it to soup, wait until the last 10 minutes of cooking time. Pairs well with lemons, cheese sauce, butter, pasta and rice.
Preserving: Too fragile for canning. Broccoli can be dehydrated. Blanch it first to preserve the color. Drying takes 12 to 15 hours.
- Gwen Schoen
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 8 minutes
A medium-size skillet can be substituted for a wok. For variety and to turn this into a main dish, add diced, cooked chicken to the wok during the last few minutes. Serve it over a bed of rice.
1/3 cup chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon grated, fresh ginger
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced carrots, about 3 medium
2 cups broccoli florets
1/4 cup slivered, blanched almonds
In a small bowl, stir together the broth, vinegar and cornstarch. Set aside.
Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet. Add more oil if necessary during cooking. Preheat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and stir-fry about 15 seconds. Add the carrots and stir-fry about 1 minute. Add broccoli and stir-fry 3-4 minutes or until the vegetables are tender-crisp. Push the vegetables to the side of the wok.
Stir the sauce to blend, then pour it into the center of the wok. Cook and stir the sauce until thickened and bubbly. Push the vegetables into the center of the wok and cook and stir about 1 minute until vegetables are coated with sauce and heated through. Sprinkle almonds over the top.
Success in the February garden
February can be our coldest month, so protect tender plants. Keep succulents near the house. Do not water succulents if the weather is going to be frosty.
Cut branches of quince, cherry and other early spring bloomers to force into bloom inside. Mash bottom inch of the branches. Fill vases with hot water. Flowers should open in a few days. Change water every couple days.
Last chance for dormant oil spray on fruit trees.
Plant seeds of summer vegetables and herbs, such as basil, indoors for late April to mid-May transplanting in the garden.
Add compost to the garden.
Camellias are in full bloom. Buy them now when you can choose the colors you like. Keep spent flowers cleaned up off the ground to prevent spread of petal blight.
Prune summer blooming shrubs now: oleanders, hydrangea and butterfly bush.
Plant bulbs for summer bloom: dahlias, begonias, gladiolus, lilies and more.
It’s time to plant potatoes. They come in many colors and shapes.
Spray for brown rot on plum, apricot and almond and other fruit and nut trees when buds open. To control leaf curl on peaches and nectarines, spray with fixed copper or copper sulfate. If you can only spray once for leaf curl, the best time is when the buds start to show pink.
Watch for aphids on roses, iris leaves and bulb foliage. Wash then off with a strong jet of water.
Plant dahlia tubers.
Plant tomato and pepper seeds indoors. A sunny windowsill is a great place.
All herbaceous perennials (those that die back to the ground each year) should be cut back before new growth starts. If clumps are crowded, divide them.
Paint the trunks of young fruit trees with ½ water-based white latex paint and ½ water. This protects the trunks from sunburn until the tree is mature enough for the leaves to shade the trunk.