It’s cooling off and the sun isn’t lingering as long these days, but it is still a great time to sow many kinds of plants. A lot of the time we are planning only for the next season when we install something new. Here’s a nudge to get you thinking about every month of the coming year. The following plants are the all-stars, the tried-and-true performers, though there are hundreds of other choices for every season.
A number of flowering trees begin to bloom in January. Plant Acacia baileyana for a burst of yellow or coral tree (Erythrina caffer) for its red-orange flowers. The cheery clusters of orange blossoms on the marmalade bush (Streptosolen jamesonii) and the velvety purple princess flowers (Tibouchina urvilleana) echo these shades at eye level. Hardenbergia violacea will twine up your fence or trellis to cover itself with purple pea-flowers, too. Perennial favorites this month: Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) and aloes.
Both Tabebuia chrysotricha and Tipuana tipu will be covered with bright yellow flowers this month and then shower them down like fiesta confetti. Two prime colorists this month are camellias and azaleas. Available in many shades of pink, red, and white, both groups like some shade during midday and rich, moist soil. We can’t expect lilacs to bloom well here, but our California lilacs (Ceanothus species and cultivars) are great substitutes in shades of white, powder blue, and deepest sapphire. Grow some traditional orange clivias (Clivia miniata) or try the recently developed pink and yellow shades. Plant in shade and don’t disturb them; they bloom heavier when crowded. Interest doesn’t just come from flowers. Hammock fern (Blechnum occidentale) puts out its new fronds this month in an astonishing shade of shell pink.
Depending on the year’s subtle balance of rain and cold, redbuds may be eye-catching this month. Both Eastern (Cercis canadensis) and Western (C. occidentalis) will provide magenta flowers on sculptural bare branches before leafing out in tidy green foliage. Any year is a good year for Echium fastuosum. These denizens of the Canary Islands find even our dry winters beneficent. The bulbous plants from South Africa, calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and Veltheimia bracteata, are pushing up their handsome flowers this month, too.
Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda and W. sinensis) weave their magic this month. Train them against a wall or allow them to twine up into trees. Another vine that will knock your socks off is the evergreen clematis, Clematis armandii. The many varieties of Alstroemeria are coming into their own in April, so find a spot for several where they can remain undisturbed for years. Geranium maderense is a biennial, meaning that for the first year it is just a handsome plant with toothy leaves, but bursts into bloom with a spectacular dome of magenta flowers on fuzzy reddish stems the second year. It will reseed, so once you’ve established it you will have new crops coming up every year.
Many irises bloom in May, from the delicate-looking Japanese iris (Iris ensata) to the old-standard bearded ones. There are so many different types and species, they deserve an entire book (and they have one). If you hurry, you may find some rhizomes still available to plant immediately. The other belles of early summer are roses. Again, whole tomes are devoted to them, but my favorite rose is one that blooms nearly year-round, Rosa chinensis ssp. mutabilis, with flowers that open creamy yellow and age to a lovely rose pink. Many cacti are coming into bloom in May as well. Especially showy are the epiphyllums or orchid cacti. These are usually potted in hanging baskets so the fantastic flowers can be viewed up close as their pendulous stems hang over the edge.
June is a blue month. The jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) trees are covered with sky blue flowers that fall to make a glorious carpet. The blue lilies of the Nile (Agapanthus orientalis) are also looking splendid this month with their large starbursts rising above the strap-leaved foliage. The blue hibiscus (Alyogyne hueglii), a drought-tolerant shrub from Australia, also blooms in June.
In the heat of summer we all migrate to the shade. One shade-loving plant is impatiens (Impatiens walleriana). You will find all the colors of the rainbow except blue. Bright foliage is also welcome this time of year. Add some colorful coleus plants, with leaves variously splotched and striped with red, greens, yellows, even deep purple. They need filtered shade all day or relief from direct sun during midday. Another group of plants grown for their exuberantly colored foliage are the bromeliads. Normally epiphytic in their native habitat, they can easily be grown in the ground or pots in light shade.
Brachychiton acerifolius is rightly called the flame tree. On maturity, which may take five to 10 years, its tiny bell-shaped flowers and their stems are a brilliant red-orange in August. Another showy summer shrub is Brugmansia. Also known as angel’s trumpet, there are many single and double cultivars of this South American native whose large dangling flowers perfume the night air.
Some of the ornamental grasses are looking fabulous as they form their seed heads. Plant Miscanthus sinensis varieties, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum,’ or Briza maxima, to name just a few. One of my favorite shrubs, Bauhinia galpinii, is covered with rusty red flowers in September and the Mexican flame vine, Senecio confusus, is covered with orange blossoms. And who can resist the naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna)?
Most years, the Hong Kong orchid tree is in bloom this month with fluttery pink, sometimes nearly magenta, blossoms as is the floss silk tree, Chorisia speciosa. For a yellow flowering tree, plant the Chinese flame tree, Koelreuteria bipinnata. The exotic bird-of-paradise flowers seem to be around all year, but in fall, they appear larger and more vibrant.
Many sages are still going strong in the late fall. Try Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), autumn sage (S. greggii), or mountain sage (S. regla) for starters. Pomegranates are delicious, but they are also highly ornamental. They can be used as a hedge or specimen plant and the fruits are coloring up beautifully this month. Other colorful fruits soon appear on Pyrecantha, Cotoneaster, and the native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).
Fall color comes late in our mild climate. The golden leaves of Ginkgo biloba are just now falling to carpet the garden. Another ancient tree that loses its leaves is the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. This conifer dons a russet hue before revealing its symmetrical branching structure. Green is also a welcome color in winter. Holidays would not be the same without some decorative greens from holly, pine, and cedar. Even in our mild climate, there are species and varieties that will thrive here.