McCreary: Even in winter, gardening soothes soul

Sara Malone's garden shows off a lot of color even in winter. Photo taken on Wednesday, December 22, 2010, at her home in Petaluma, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


Gardening’s high points may come on a bright spring, summer, or crisp autumn day, but it’s possible to find plenty of satisfaction even as the year winds down and days are dim.

If the rainy season drives us indoors and leaves us feeling low, we can turn that around with a few hours outdoors when the clouds part, working with our hands, maintaining a medley of harmonious plantings year round.

Like walking and other outdoor activity, gardening has long been recognized as therapeutic, not only as healing oases at hospitals and rehab centers, but even among dabblers of all types.

A little puttering, trimming back shrubs, edging a flower border, or setting out bulbs and winter bloomers can do wonders for our spirits and put us at ease when body or soul needs rejuvenating.

Institutional healing gardens often include flowing streams and fountains, aromatic plants, soft foliage and engaging flowers to help children and adults set aside pain and stress during long processes of recovery. But our home gardens can induce good feelings with nothing more than a few pots on a patio or a postage stamp plot in a front or back yard.

Even when gardens seem overwhelming, we can find a glow of satisfaction admiring special plants and vistas that push the weight of chores aside.

If you need a creative burst, you can always find unusual foliage and collector’s species at Peacock Horticultural Nursery outside Sebastopol, open on weekends only in winter.

Neighborhood nurseries always fill shelves with a kaleidoscope of cheerful annuals in warm colors to liven tired gardens where leaves are dropping and stems are bare. Besides stocking the usual cool-season bloomers, Friedman’s in Santa Rosa and Petaluma and the relocated Prickett’s in east Santa Rosa have brought in a plethora of all-season species that are well adapted to our Mediterranean climate.

Seasonal tidbits

As you select winter ornamentals, don’t overlook hardy herbs. Thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, and parsley hold up very well under our cool temperatures. Except for parsley, a biennial, all are perennials that do best with regular shearing or harvesting.

Parsley produces leafy growth its first year, a tall flowering stalk the second year, then dies naturally. Numerous sprouts usually appear the following spring when seeds are allowed to form.

If you’ve been growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), an essential ingredient in Thai and other Asian cuisines, it must be sheltered throughout the winter months with a sheet or plastic suspended on a frame. Our climate is mild enough that it may not be killed by a sudden frosty cold spell; it may simply die back to the ground and re-sprout in spring. But it can’t survive freezing.

Hard frosts turn stems and leaves brown. If inner stems are undamaged, cut the clump about 4 inches from the ground or just above the soil level. By fall, it will regain nearly 3 feet in height.

The inch-wide, light green leaves bear pale center stripes and form an attractive arching clump wherever lemongrass grows. Like other grasses, clumps can always be rejuvenated by shearing them off just above the ground.

Outdoor snacks

As you go about making seasonal changes in the garden, check to see if you have some bird-friendly plants for our year-round residents and migratory visitors.

A flurry of early morning activity caught my eye a few days ago when I thought I saw the return of Northern flickers, but it turned out to be a bevy of robins flying in and out of a tangle of foliage visible outside my window.

Until I took a closer look, it appeared the birds were drawn to protective cover in a rambling violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides), but binoculars told me they were devouring berries in the adjacent myrtle tree, Luma apiculata.

Luma, native to Chile and Argentina where it grows quite tall, is unfortunately under-planted in our area. Our gardens seldom see it beyond 15 feet or so, usually even smaller. I was drawn to it for the evergreen small foliage that strikes an appealing balance with cinnamon-colored bark. A brief display of small white flowers in late summer is a bonus.

Glossy purple berries seem to satisfy birds, but the edible berries are rarely used as a substitute for blueberries in our kitchens, though they can be an agreeable topping for cheesecake.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher, and author of Tabletop Gardens, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Contact her at or write to her at 427 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa 95401.