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Fulfilling Winter Garden Fantasies

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Under the cold ground of winter lies a miracle: a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb biding its time until spring, or a bud ready to burst forth. During these dreary winter days, I sometimes look out my windows and my mind wanders into a fantasy garden with endless waves of color gleaming in the warm sun, and I can smell the drifts of spring blossoms. Then I get jolted from my dreamy state and remember that it will be two to four months before I can really dig in and once again work towards my vision. Sigh…

This is the time of year that calls for patience! Resist from giving in to the temptation created by tantalizing plant catalogs, magazines or emails and facebook messages from nurseries. Their beautiful pictures can cause us to give in and make purchases on impulse without giving it a second thought. But before you jump in and hit that website’s “BUY” button or run into the nearest nursery, consider these basic guidelines. If there is only one thing you take away from this article, let it be one word: PLAN!

Start with a basic overhead view drawing of the areas you want to target first. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do this for your entire yard! Then sketch in basic shapes that represent where the existing trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs are, keeping in mind those that are dormant and not visible in winter. You don’t have to be an artist or know landscape design. Doing this first will help you be more realistic as you choose your new plants and seeds.
Next, make a wish list of all the plants that have been enticing you, but keep it reasonable. During the year, I jot down ideas that sometimes come from gardens or nurseries that inspire me. I also take pictures of my garden at different points of time, so I can look back and remember the different phases of my existing landscape.

  • The key to success is using the right plant in the right place. The most important factors of choosing the “right plant” are those that are in our zones for cold hardiness and heat tolerance. Most of us in Tuolumne County are in the AHS heat zone 6 or 7, the USDA hardiness zone 7, and the Sunset climate zone 7 (the Sunset hardiness zone is more specific than the USDA zone). However, keep in mind that there may be microclimates within your property and these zones don’t always apply to our highest elevations. You can find the cold hardiness zones on the website, the heat zones at, and descriptions of the Sunset zones at
  • To choose the “right place”, do a little plant match making and group together plants with similar needs. The most important factors are: water requirements, the ultimate size of the plant, wildlife challenges, type of soil (i.e.: clay vs. sandy) and sun requirements. Take into account the differences in the types of sunlight such as morning vs. afternoon sun and summer vs. winter sun exposure.
  • Consider incorporating different colors in different seasons, including plants with fall colors and winter interest. Don’t forget the distinctive fragrance of the plants, as some are more pleasing than others. Then change it up with interesting foliage, forms and texture, and think about attractiveness to wildlife such as birds, butterflies and bees.

Now use your list to fill in the spaces of your drawing and buy the right plants and seeds for the right places – but plant them at the right time! Unless it is something like winter annuals or bareroot plants, don’t plant too early. You can risk damage caused by late spring freezes.
You might also harm the structure of the soil by causing compaction if it is still very wet under the surface.

Finally, be realistic with your goals. Ask yourself how much time you will actually have to maintain the landscaping. You can always execute your plan in phases so that you can actually have time to enjoy your hard labor. Being patient can increase your chance of creating that garden you’ve been fantasizing about. In the meantime, spend some of your time getting in shape for spring planting – it will be here before you know it!

Kathy Nunes is a Master Gardener whose patience with this winter is wearing thin.