Historic last frost data shows that for most of the Santa Barbara area, the season for possible freezing temperatures has passed. Even without that “official” determination, it is easy to see that spring comes very early in the year along the South Coast.
Mid-February is when plants here really start to return from their brief period of dormancy. There are hints all around from shy wildflowers to bright green new shoots. Fruit trees are sporting first blooms, deciduous landscape trees like willow, ginkgo, sycamore, and dawn redwood are beginning to glow with a haze of green, and then there are a few plants that — in spite of Jack Frost’s brief appearance — just keep growing. Even blooming ivy geraniums and lantana continue to provide cheery color and evergreen foliage. The cannas and bananas may be tinged with brown where they poke above their protective garden walls, but the black acacias are right on schedule and bursting into a yellow haze.
In some years, March can be one of the rainiest months, and that would be a very good thing. But it is definitely time to pay attention to garden possibilities and chores, and there are plenty of garden projects to start this month. Nurseries are full of choice in flowers and vegetables. The days may still be cool, but primrose, cineraria, pansies, violets, and Iceland poppies are in their prime to add color wherever it is needed. Winter vegetables like lettuce, chard, and peas can all be planted now. Choose loose-leaf types of lettuce so that you can harvest the outer leaves often while the plant continues to grow and produce more.
Extend the season by several months with successive plantings, and have much more control over the vagaries of insect pests and possible late deluges or other disasters. Aster, cosmos, lobelia, marigold, nasturtium, nicotiana, and zinnia are just a few of the bright flowers to sow in flats or recycled pony packs now for planting out later. Given the relatively cool (and foggy) summers along the coast, starting tomato, pepper, and eggplant seed now will also give these warmth-loving veggies a boost.
Just like the tomatoes and peppers, other subtropical perennials and shrubs from warm climes shouldn’t be planted out yet. Wait until the ground warms up to plant hibiscus, bougainvillea, gingers, and bananas.
Because the ground is still cold, the microorganisms are slow acting, and available nutrients may be in short supply in the root zone. To give plants a quick shot of nitrogen, apply a soluble form to the leaves as foliar spray. There are a number of organic products that can do this job, many with kelp or fish emulsion as a main ingredient. The garden will smell like the tidal flats for a day or so, but the plants will love it.
Keep an eye out for snails. Pick them off as they appear. Their eggs look like little pearls beneath the soil, so destroy them, too. The first aphids may show up soon, too, before their predators arrive in sufficient numbers to deal with them. Wipe them off leaves and buds with your fingers, or wash them down with a spray from the hose.
The calendar may not agree, but spring is here, and it’s time to get out into the garden.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.