Geraniums, camellias and leafy greens: What to do in the garden this week

1. Winter is wondrous for geranium watching. Along Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, large baskets of geraniums hanging from signposts are in full bloom. In truth, the flowers we commonly call geraniums are actually their pelargonium kin. True geraniums have flowers that are white, pink, blue, or purple, while pelargoniums have flowers that are white, pink, orange, magenta, lilac, lavender, purple, or red, but never blue. The most commonly seen pelargoniums are known as zonals (Pelargonium x hortorum). They are upright plants with lobed leaves – sometimes colorfully patterned – and always with a distinctive odor on account of which they are sometimes referred to as fish geraniums. Ivy geraniums (Pelargonium peltatum) are easily identified due to their trailing growth habit. Martha Washingtons (Pelargonium x domesticum) have flowers in many fetching colors, including salmon, creamy pink, and lavender-purple, along with foliage that shows off sharply toothed margins. And then we come to scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), of which there are probably a hundred different kinds or more. Their flowers in pale pink or white are an afterthought to the plethora of scents – peppermint, lemon, chocolate, nutmeg, apple, ginger, apricot, attar of roses, and cinnamon, among others – that their leaves transmit upon being rubbed or crushed. The chemical compounds that create these scents also impart a significant measure of drought tolerance. All pelargoniums are easily propagated from four to six-inch terminal shoot cuttings.

2. Camellias are the stars of the winter garden but they are susceptible to certain ills that can stifle their flowering potential. Camellia diseases are quite common and are typically traced to excessive watering, poor air circulation, or heavy soil. Overhead sprinklers, in depositing water on leaf, stem, bud, and flower surfaces, encourage the development of fungi. Petal blight, caused by the Sclerotinia fungus, appears as brown spots on flower petals. When the infected petals drop to the ground, the fungus spores lie dormant until the following year when, once again they will blight the flowers. To control this blight, pick diseased flowers off the plant before they fall. Alternatively, a fungicide applied to the soil just prior to bloom will prevent germination of fungal spores. The most frustrating phenomenon to be seen on certain camellias is not the result of a disease but of a physiological disorder. This condition, known as bud drop, is characterized by the falling of unopened or partially opened flower buds. Several conditions, some of them at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, have been implicated in the occurrence of bud drop: dry soil, overly wet soil, freezing winter temperatures, excessively warm winter temperatures and inadequate light exposure. Bud drop is less likely to occur where camellias are well-mulched.

3. A Blue Moon Bird Feeder is available through Gardener’s Supply Company ( The feeder, in the shape of a hollow donut, is nine inches in diameter and made of sparkling “extra thick crackle glass.” It holds three cups of birdseed and has holes in the bottom so rain will drain through the feeder. A six-foot support stake from which the feeder hangs is included.


4. Leafy greens of every type can be planted throughout the winter and mesclun is a salad mix of several types. First grown in Provence, France, mesclun originally consisted of chervil, endive, lettuce, and arugula. Today, however, there are many different mesclun mixes which might also include one or more of the following: Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, radicchio, and sorrel. Mesclun can be harvested continually by cutting off the top growth with a scissors. At, you can find packets of six different mesclun seed mixes.

5.  Soil has been described as the body of the garden. Just as we are unable to be nurturing when we are sick and need nurturing ourselves, so it is with garden soil. One of the ways to enhance soil health is by mulching with straw. A 3-4 inch layer of straw will prevent winter weeds from sprouting and also deter disease organisms from proliferating in the garden. Most plant diseases are fungal and many of them spread through fungal spores on the soil that are splashed up to leaves by rain or water delivered through overhead irrigation or even from a hose. Straw, however, absorbs rain or irrigation water and prevents splashing. Reduction in watering frequency is straw’s major benefit. In the words of the “Old Farmer’s Almanac”:  “Watering the garden once a week will be the norm. If you live in an area of the country that is experiencing rainfall shortage or drought, straw mulch is gold!” Straw bales measuring 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet are available at animal feed supply stores for around $20. As an aside, you may be interested to know that straw bale gardening, especially where vegetables are concerned, has become popular. You germinate seeds directly in the bales or plant vegetable starts in them. If bending over is hard on your back, you can stack two or three bales so as to garden in a standing position.

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