California Gardener's February Checklist

When I worked for a California magazine business, the business people believed that February was the opportunity to invite potential clients to the home office, a place with a big garden and patio for outdoor fun — an ideal setting to get a small brainwashing about various ways people lived on the West Coast. East Coast clients would arrive using raccoon coats (perhaps it wasn’t actually that long ago), runny noses and frostbitten fingers from shoveling snow off their drives. They would be served orange juice from fruit plucked from trees from the garden, so the story went. Camellias, daffodils and magnolias were prospering. The yard was green — anybody for volleyball? Brainwashing accomplished; ad pages sold.

Somehow February over any other month reflects just how identifying California’s gardening stinks are. We’ve got so much to respect and to plant life. Consider the five under California classics — favorite plants which glow this season, defying winter with vibrant color, sexy fragrance and, sometimes, mouthwatering flavor.

More regional garden guides


Meyer lemon. Apparently forever that was the ultimate California backyard fruit. It was in each garden, a handsome evergreen shrub with fragrant flowers and abundant fruit. Was it ever abundant! Our one tree created a lot of lemons that we could not give them away, and our golden retrievers munched about the dropped lemons (fine breath!) .

Then a couple of things propelled Meyer lemon into a new level of desirability. In the 1970s plant breeders developed ‘Improved Meyer’, immune to the virus which had led to a ban on interstate transport of Meyers. And Alice Waters got hold of those lemons and made the most of their juiciness and lower acidity.

I remember the first time I tasted a wine spritzer created with Meyer lemon that the restaurant Chez Panisse functioned from the 1980s. In 1987 The New York Times published a recipe for Chez Panisse’s Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie.

It’s easy to discover a spot for Meyer lemon in just about any garden. Plant one near a patio, in a border or trained as an espalier on a fence or wall. It will produce fruit all year, such as in winter and early spring, when it is most welcome.

Botanical name: Citrus meyeri ‘Improved Meyer’
USDA zones: 9 to 10 (find your zone)
Water requirement: Moderate and routine. Do not allow the soil dry out.
Light requirement: Full sunlight; a little shade is OK in warm climates.
Mature dimension: 8 to 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide. Dwarf types are available.
Growing tips: Prune in spring to control both the size and shape. Fertilize regularly with a particular citrus food. Yellowing leaves often indicate deficiency in iron or nitrogen; correct that using products especially for those ailments.


Saucer magnolias. Also referred to as tulip trees, all these are varieties of Magnolia soulangeana, a deciduous small tree with supersize flowers on bare branches in late winter and early spring. Colors vary from pure white to purple — a few are so amazingly dark that they look black. Shown here is ‘Black Tulip’.

Contemplating their great looks, saucer magnolias are amazingly easy to grow in almost all California gardens. They make great yard trees. Smaller varieties can fit to a border or elevated bed of spring-flowering annuals and perennials. Wherever you put the tree, then make certain it’s a focal point at the time of year.

Botanical name: Magnolia soulangeana
USDA zones: 5 to 9
Water requirement: Moderate to more
moderate requirement: Total sun
Mature size: 15 to 25 feet tall and 6 to 15 feet wide, depending on variety.
Growing tips: Provide rich soil, with lots of alterations at planting time. Do not allow the soil dry; watch for sogginess. Prune only to restrain size, after the spring bloom.

The New York Botanical Garden

Artichoke. This Mediterranean delicacy is ideal for eating in late winter and early spring along the foggy California shore. Now is also a good time to begin your own. Away from the shore, expect your chokes to earn tough and dry eating, however, the plant is, shall we say, an interesting addition to a vegetable garden or perhaps a flower border. It grows to a striking, if sprawly, gray-green plant at one growing season.

The New York Botanical Garden

Even if your artichoke plant doesn’t do much for the dinner plate, it can produce striking purple thistles to use as cut flowers.

Botanical name: Cynara scolymus
USDA zones: 8 to 9
Water requirement: Moderate
moderate requirement: Full sun to light shade
Mature dimension: 4 ft tall and 6 to 8 ft broad
Growing tips: Start with roots, accessible summer time, or young plants at nursery containers, accessible all year. Keep the soil moist, especially if you want to have an edible crop. Fertilize monthly. Harvest chokes for eating whenever they’re tight, fat and glossy. If you leave the chokes on, they will develop into eye catching purple thistles; reduce them just before they completely open and then use them as cut and dried flowers. In the end of the year, cut the entire plant near ground level; it ought to resprout next year except in cold climates.


Daphne odora. A total diva. Has the most evocative fragrance of any plant (yes, that is subjective). Doesn’t deign to have a frequent name. Will sulk and die for no apparent reason. But try daphne at least one time. Find a place in semi shade and well-drained dirt, where it is possible to see and smell the small pink winter flowers, and give it a go. If it dies, try again someplace else. Try it in a pot.

Daphne is a good-looking evergreen with dense foliage, shiny green leaves (there’s a variety with variegated leaves). It seems great in a mixed border, at a raised bed and at a container.

Botanical name: Daphne odora
USDA zones: 7 to 9
Water requirement: Moderate. Do not allow the soil dry out.
Light requirement: Partial color, especially when there’s midday sunlight
Mature size: 3 to 4 ft tall and broad, and larger
Growing tips: Requires perfect drainage. Amend the soil thoroughly with compost; don’t bury the top of the root ball. To control the shape and size, you can sew, even shear back, a few inches after bloom.

Camellia. Here we’re talking about Camellia japonica, the astonishingly sturdy evergreen shrub with stupendous flowers that we take for granted. It can grow in many California gardens, in the shore to the foothills, in areas as warm as Sacramento or Arcadia, as trendy as San Diego as well as San Francisco.

Shown here is ‘Guilio Nuccio’, which, as stated by the Sunset Western Garden Book,is “considered by many to be the world’s greatest camellia.” Produced by Nuccio’s Nurseries, of Altadena, it’s a vigorous, upright tree that generates great large rose-colored flowers.

Botanical name: Camellia japonica
USDA zones: 8 to 10
Water requirement: Moderate
moderate requirement: Partial shade
Mature dimension: 6 to 12 feet tall and broad, and larger, depending on variety
Growing tips: Plant it in well-drained soil, kept moist. Mix in organic matter at planting time. Fertilize with special camellia food after bloom. Prune after bloom as needed to control the size and promote bushiness. Always pick up dropped blossoms to prevent spread of this illness called petal blight.

Choosing a camellia. Hundreds of types have been developed since the introduction of Camellia japonica into California from the 19th century. Flowers vary in color (white to pink to red plus variegated) and shape (single to double or more complicated). When deciding upon a specific kind, keep a couple of things in mind along with the flowers.

When would you need blooms? Varieties are categorized by bloom time: early (October to December), midseason (January and February) and late (March and April).

Also, study variety descriptions to observe how the plant fits into your landscape. Plants are explained in terms such as “upright,” “tall,” “distributing,” “compact” and such. It’s possible to use a camellia as a single specimen shrub, as a container plant, to get a hedge or screen, even as a little woods. The ‘Guilio Nuccio’ revealed here serves as a background tree at a raised border; about 15 years old, it’s 12 feet tall and 7 feet wide, with at least 50 blossoms open in late January.

Land Design, Inc..

What Else to perform in February in Your California Garden

based on how fast your climate warms up, there’s a lot you can do this month — such as winter pruning and planting of spring flowers and veggies, which can be hauled up by the warming effect of a raised bed, as revealed.

Deal with frost damage. If winter frosts hit a few of your crops, wait till after this month to prune off the harm.

Get conventional winter plantings from the ground. Now’s time to plant bare-root roses, fruit trees, berries, even color trees. Keep the roots moist until you’re ready to plant. Do not buy deal plants with dried-out roots.

Plant cool-season yearly flowers. They should peak in midspring and last until hot weather: calendulas, dianthus, Iceland poppies, pansies, snapdragons, violas and more. Provide the sunniest spot you can find in your own garden.

Set out cool-season vegetables. These include lettuce, broccoli, spinach and more. Swiss chard is actually simple.

Prune roses. End pruning this month except at cold-climates such as the large mountains. Generally, cut hybrid buds by about a third, and abandon three to five canes sprouting out of the foundation. Shrub roses require less exact pruning — essentially, shear them to restrain the size and shape. Fertilize all roses after pruning.

Prune fruit trees. Spray and exfoliates deciduous fruit trees, such as apple, cherry, apricot and pear. Check about the how-to with specialist books or consultants at your local nursery.

Plant summer-blooming bulbs. In per month full of daffodils, consider planting bulbs to bloom in late spring and summer: tuberous begonias, gladiolus, tigridias and more.

Snails and slugs. February could be declared California Snail Month. They like it moist and warmish (but not hot). Watch for telltale signs of chewed leaves or the creatures themselves, and scatter pet-safe lure.

More regional garden guides
direct to growing cool-season crops
Step-by-step guide to pruning roses

See related