The Southern California Garden in “Almost Winter”

Years ago as an early childhood educator I played around with the idea of writing a holiday book for Southern California children. Most of the under-six crowd in my classroom had never seen a snowman and didn’t own “warm woolen mittens.”

I went to the beach in December and took photos of people rollerblading  in swim suits, whizzing by homes elaborately decorated for Christmas. Little children played at water’s edge and there was little to distinguish the date from a summer photo, except the slant of the sun was a winter’s angle and not as harsh as in summer. It’s really quite beautiful.

Yes, that says 91 degrees at 10:00 in the morning.

This photo was taken last week. We enjoyed our turkey dinner and family festivities outdoors under the backyard oak tree, and we enjoyed a game our two until close to 9 PM.

We don’t decorate with real pumpkins. It took me a while to give in to artificial, but at least they don’t turn to mush in the harsh sun!

We have gradually shifted more towards either California Natives or at a minimum, California “friendly” drought tolerant plants. Although some of the groupings in my current landscape are no more than a couple of years established, I’ve been delighted to note seasonal changes.

Yes, the temperature may register a July-high in November or early December, but the nights are colder. There is often a nearly 40-degree shift between daytime and nighttime temperatures, and those differentials play a role in the way the succulents  respond.

The vibrancy and hue of colors is different this time of year. The subtle, yet observable change is delightful.

Kalanchoe lucite (Paddle Plant) with its spiky “sentinels” is readying to bloom.

For multiple years now I’ve sent inquiries to the most established monarch butterfly experts asking for advice about how to prepare my garden for these beautiful visitors. And all I’ve received is conflicting advice.

Originally I was told to either cut the milkweed back to the base or start with new plants in the spring. So I followed that advice and then in the early spring we couldn’t provide enough leaves for the caterpillars and the result was heartbreaking.

So this year, I didn’t drastically cut them back, and then I wonder if we’re upsetting their migration.

I hope he finds his way to wherever he needs to be!

And then we have “Winter with Darwin” to consider!

Despite my protestations, he has continued to dig his winter burrow under our outdoor water heater and about half-way under one small section of foundation. I stress over this, but he thumbs his nose at me and I’m going to have to let him be a tortoise. His instinct tells him this is it!

When we have sunshine, he still comes out and spends the day meandering, returning to his burrow by late afternoon. He doesn’t technically hibernate, but goes with the sunshine. If we have a cold winter, I will see less of him.

You’ll notice the garden boxes? Interesting story!

I have gradually given over all of my vegetable garden space to Darwin, and this year decided to invest in some above ground redwood containers. We planted rainbow chard, a variety of lettuces and peas–a few winter vegetables.

That greedy tortoise figured out how to stand up against the box and reach in to eat some of the tallest leaves. I wouldn’t believe it, except my family caught him in the act. Thus ensued the building of the cage to surround the garden. He really is a lovable pest!

The bird feeders are still amply filled, but the birds have all but vacated. Where did they go?

I wish I had captured a photo of the squirrels burying acorns all over the yard! These silly creatures ought to know by now they can skip this ritual. They’ll have plenty to eat even in the bleak winter months. But nature tells them otherwise.

I must admit that I have often thought if I lived in a colder climate I might not survive. But my friends who get excited every year at the first snow have at least made me very curious!

Maybe someday I will experience a White Christmas. I’ll need an entirely new wardrobe!







43 thoughts on “The Southern California Garden in “Almost Winter”

  1. You have enjoyed snow on occasion during trips, haven’t you? Maybe you can plan a ski vacation for January ~> you and I can sit in front of the fire after having a snow ball fight!

    Love your winter succulents! Gorgeous in their varied hues and textures.

    • Nancy, to be completely honest, I haven’t really experienced falling snow–ever! LOL! We aren’t extensive travelers, certainly, and when we go anywhere I seem to head to an ocean, or at least some place warm. But I think if we do get rain, thus snow this year, maybe I can head to the mountains and add to my experience. 🙂

      • Some ideas to add to your bucket list then ~> catch snowflakes on tongue, go for a sleigh ride through the falling snow (Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells), have a snowball fight, build a snow man, etc. I bet your grandkids would love to accompany you on a grand memory making adventure!

  2. As a long-timer here, I’ve always admired your gardening skills … and cheers for you using many native plants. It will be interesting to see if you ever experience a white Christmas – of course we know that will involve travel – but you like to travel! Cheers to Darwin for still doing his rounds in the winter.

    • We do have snow less than two hours from home, but I tend to forget that! I don’t want to drive up into the mountains in bad weather so we’d need to rent a cabin and stay put. It’s funny but it just doesn’t occur to me most of the time. But I think at some point I really do need to add in this experience. 🙂 Darwin seems to know what he’s doing, so I’m trying to let him go this year without moving him into the lovely little cabin we built him. He wants his independence!

      • Maybe someday you’ll remember to head for the mountains for some snow. Meanwhile, with all the Darwin stories I’ve read here, I find it hard to believe that he like independence.

  3. You’d love it here right now. An engaging mixture of rain, wind and sleet, with temps around 4/5C! 🙂 🙂 It’s hibernate and write Christmas cards time of year. Whatever possessed me to come back from the Algarve? There is a certain magic to the first delicate flutters of snow, but soon after that I want it gone. It’s treacherous to old bones. Happy festive season, Debbie!

  4. For many years, part of our Christmas family tradition in SC was playing tennis (outdoor) with and against each other. Sure beats shoveling slush.

    Did Darwin ever try mushy pumpkin?

    • Yes, Ray, Darwin does eat pumpkin, so if the fruit flies weren’t too overwhelming we could share with him. I think I prefer purchasing it in a can, however. 🙂

  5. After almost six weeks in the sunny southland, from Laguna to Cabo, we are back in the cold rain at Oregon’s north coast. It is good to be home. And that’s what it’s about, yes? Home? I enjoyed the warmth during our time away, but I still love the storms that roll in off the ocean here. As a bicyclist pal of mine says: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s only inappropriate clothing.” I try to take that to heart.

    • After six weeks of travel I’m sure you were ready to return home. Home typically fits us best, wherever it is! I also completely agree with your friend about attire! I would need more space in my home if I had to accommodate really cold weather, as I don’t have the clothing.

  6. You only need to experience the snow event once and you have enough. If I could I would box it and send it to you. As some others have said, the first one is magic. The last one in March (or egad! April) while you are planning your garden is not. I am ready for spring on January 2nd but the calendar says another thing.

    • I think snow must be very beautiful, but I cannot imagine the amount of work that comes with it! Not long after I started this blog someone made mention of all the things I was doing, commenting that I was so active! It was in the winter and I knew she lived in the midwest. I can recall laughing and describing to her that I could stay more active because I didn’t need to pull on layers of clothes, worry about de-icing my car or driving safely, and really, dozens of little things that I know would keep me home! Now on the other hand, as you’ve perhaps heard today, we have more horrible fires raging again. No snow or cold weather to contend with, but every geography has its burdens I suppose!

  7. One of my favorite sayings is, “If you can see snow, you’re too close.” Up in here in NorCal the main difference between summer and winter is a bit colder temps and rain from time to time. We do have other seasons up here: Mudslide season, Flood season, Fire season, people wear long pants season, etc.

  8. I experienced snow in my twenties and with the proper clothes it was fun. I would like to experience at least one white Christmas but now that I am much older, if I don’t plan it for the next couple of years, it probably won’t happen. Hopefully, once I retire I can plan ahead a little. Hope to see you soon.

    • That’s my thought, too, Catherine. I want just one white Christmas! 🙂 I can’t imagine talking my entire family into Christmas travel, but maybe they’ll do it just once for me…all because I AM much older–a sympathy move! 🙂

  9. It is really interesting for me to read about your garden and climate Debra! I love the succulents with their pinky orange tinge, and your grasses are lovely too. I think your pumpkins look quite real. Do you think Darwin will hibernate? Those raised veg beds are a great idea! I have something similar, but the birds were pecking in mine last spring before anything germinated, and the snails even managed to get up there, so I am looking for new ideas… a cage might be useful! I may moan about the weather here, but I couldn’t imagine a warm Christmas and I always hope it will be white!

    • I can understand your love for home and a white Christmas, Cathy! I am sure I’d be thrilled to experience the beauty, if not the cold itself. 🙂 The raised beds are working well so far, as Darwin can’t reach, and we haven’t had any other pests. Darwin doesn’t actually hibernate, but his behaviors mirror hibernation. He will stay in the burrow as long as it’s cold and gloomy, but as soon as there’s a day of sunshine, he will at least come out for a while. He doesn’t eat as much and isn’t as active overall, however. He’s a character! I’m glad I could share my garden with you, Cathy. You can see why I drool over all your green. 🙂

    • Yes, Ronnie, some of the snow birds come our way! Palm Springs and some of the desert towns do very well with out-of-state tourism this time of year. And I think that’s so true…we want what we don’t have. I might need to “practice” winter by going up into our mountains and at least experiencing snow, but without blizzard conditions. 🙂

  10. I also love my Southern California winters. My Kalanchoes are all dressed up in their red and green(ish-blue) colors and my natives are happily basking in the sun. I’ll take succulents over annuals any day.

    I think I’ve been in actual snow – coming down from the sky – maybe three times. It’s a novelty, but it’s not something I yearn for.

    I have seen other butterflies flittering about, but not any monarchs yet this year… I sure hope they are flourishing somewhere.

    • It really is a lovely time of year, isn’t it? And your garden sounds beautiful! I am probably more curious about snow and “true cold” than actually yearning for it! 🙂 I know we’re both hoping we get some rain soon and I do hope you aren’t anywhere close to the fire areas?

  11. I never thought I would say these words but I like the change in the weather here! I even like the snow long as it doesn’t last too long! But do miss you and the Calif oceans ! love Deb

    • I’m so glad you’ve made Colorado “home,” Deb. As someone raised in California you know the difference in the seasons and you can appreciate the beauty in your new home! And let me tell you, I miss you, too! 🙂

  12. The garden looks lovely Debra 🙂 I’m hoping we may get snow this winter but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. It was cold last week but when the clouds did move in the temperature crept up above freezing and it was just miserable. It’s grey and horrible out there again today. We definitely used to get more snow when I was a kid – climate has warmed up 😦

    I see Darwin is digging for victory then! You need to come to an arrangement with him – he digs the vegetable plot for you and gets some vegetables as a reward 😉

    • I’m interested in your response that you experience fewer days of snow now than when you were a child, Martin. It is such a concern when we already experience weather pattern changes as a result of global warming. I heard a report today that California may be in for even more frequent and prolonged drought, as a result of waning polar ice. I like your idea of setting up a more cooperative venture with Mr. Darwin. 🙂 Sending you some very warm thoughts, Martin. 🙂

  13. Quite a different Christmas surroundings that I am used to for sure. You have managed to create such an awesome and lush garden despite high temperatures and drought in summer time. We have had our bit of snow, but unfortunately (yes, I like winter) it’s gone again.

  14. I love the pleasant weather in south California. Nice and warm in winter, so wonderful to see everything is growing well in your garden, Debra. 🙂

  15. Debbie- I’m just popping in full of panic this morning. I watched the fires raging on the news and it looks totally out of hand. I so hope you and your family are safe. Thinking of you!

    • Jo, I’m so sorry that I somehow didn’t see your question until this evening. We are truly fine, but I really appreciate that you thought of us. The larger of the fires is STILL raging and the destruction is just unimaginable. The areas that have been affected are definitely favorites of ours, and I am not looking forward to seeing the scars when we are finally able to return. We are being warned that these fires are going to be phenomena we will need to adjust to as climate change is affecting our west coast with dry and windy conditions. I feel deeply grieved as I hear these predictions, but for today, we are doing well. Thank you, my friend.

  16. Dear Debra, right before coming to your blog, I read Carol Z’s blog. She lives in New York City–you live on the West Coast. So far apart. And yet from the two of you I learn so much about nature and environment and the beauty that is part of both East and West.

    Her postings are about places to see and enjoy in New York City. You have often posted about places to visit in California. And both of you write of nature.

    This posting of yours teaches me so much about living where snow isn’t! I’ve always lived in states that enjoyed at least some snow during the winter: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, New Hampshire, Minnesota. Snow, blizzards, ice, hail. Yes all of it. And so I have no idea what a winter like yours is and what plants continue to change and grow.

    Thank you so much for sharing your life and your surroundings with us. Peace.

    • What a lovely comment, Dee. I really enjoy sharing about living in our climate because it is so different from much of the country. I think one of the best outcomes of sharing within a blogging community has been becoming more aware of one another and gaining some knowledge of our different life experiences. I’m always so pleased to have you visit, my friend.

  17. Oh that Darwin…he can have a blog of his own with all his adventures. Such a lovely space you have created in your garden Debra. In my opponion, the snow is not that spectacular, I’d rather be digging in the dirt. Happy digging my friend and happy harvesting to you and Darwin!

    • I understand that snow is a lot of work, Cristina. In that regard, I do completely understand your comment. LOL! I think sometimes I’m simply so fascinated as I read other blogs from around the country and see the shift from fall to winter, and here we are, still walking around in our summer clothing. It just seems so strange. I hope you’re doing well as you prepare for your own family celebrations. I’m sure the boys are really excited about a Christmas school break. 🙂 Hugs!

  18. How lovely your landscape pics are! I wish we were able to use all the varieties of succulents in our climate here at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mts. but we have to be extremely selective. I was also jealous of your beautiful aloe plants!

    • Thank you so much. We enjoy our succulents and drought tolerant landscaping, but I must add, that I’d be tremendously content to live at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. We just LOVE that area–all of it! 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a nice comment.

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