A Southern California Winter Garden

The sun peaks through rain-filled storm clouds

The phrase “A Southern California Winter Garden” seems like the most ridiculous, contradictory statement. We don’t have winter. We have summer and semi-autumn. Not winter. I know many gardeners in states like New York or Idaho would probably be very offended by the idea of San Diego gardeners complaining about the weather.


Here in sunny SoCal, we’re known for our 65+ degree winters with abundant sunshine, backyard barbecues and beach days. We get laughed at by the middle and eastern portions of the country when we complain and bundle up in our over-stuffed jackets and beanies when the barometer drops below 60. Their mirth is understandable – especially when the majority of the Midwest is buried under a giant polar vortex right now. Sorry, guys.

For the past few months, however, San Diego has been experiencing one of the coldest and wettest winters on record. Now, this isn’t to say that we can compete with the frigid forecast for Chicago or Milwaukee, which are both currently being greeted by below-freezing temperatures this Friday morning, but for a Mediterranean climate like ours, a big dip in temperature really takes its toll.

This meme is not mine, but it’s funny cause it’s true.

Today is the first clear, sunny day we’ve had in nearly two weeks. It was 34 degrees when I woke up this morning, with a daytime high of 55 degrees – that’s cold for us – so let me vent a little. #hatersgonnahate

In any case – these temperatures are far below average for us, and because of that, we San Diegans are experiencing unusually frosty mornings. Frost typically isn’t a big deal, but this year it’s taking a significant toll on my garden. We’ve had a whole month with two more more overnight frosts per week – that’s unheard of for most places in southern California, besides the mountain areas. We typically only get five or six overnight freezes per year. We’ve had four in the past week alone.


The plants that I do have growing right now are all cold-tolerant but not frost-tolerant. Especially because we’ve had so much rain over the past month, my plants are also waterlogged and soaked through.

One of my surviving cactus arrangements

This is posing quite the problem for the many varieties of cactus that I’ve started to cultivate as well. Out of the 20 separate potted cactus arrangements I have in my yard, I’ve lost six plants total, due to the excess water they’ve been sitting in despite the fact that I drain whatever water I can every single day. The remaining cacti that I do have I’ve since moved to covered areas so that they can start to dry out a bit.


I’ve also been growing many different varieties of flowers. About a month ago I sowed a six-foot area with California-native wildflowers. Normally those would start to germinate in about five to six days, but they’re just now starting to sprout.

I had a few wildflower seeds left over, so I planted them in a little starter pot. They’re just starting to sprout.

I also have two terracotta pots in which I’ve planted one of the most gorgeous blue flowers – sapphire blue regatta lobelia, and while they’re blooming and doing okay-ish, some of the leaves have started to turn brown, which is the first sign of frost damage. Even my beloved sweet peas have started to succumb to the cold, despite the fact that I’ve covered them with drop cloths every night it’s frozen over. Their little climbing tendrils have gone from bright white to bronzey-brown and I’m doing all that I can to try and save them. I have another batch of sweet-pea seedlings that I’m keeping indoors until the freezing temperatures give way to slightly warmer nights.

My sapphire blue regatta lobelia plant

As for vegetables – back in October I started a crop of beet and lettuce plants which did rather well until the cold settled in. Admittedly, I’m a novice when it comes to growing vegetables, so while my beet-tops flourished, their roots never formed because I didn’t thin them properly. Oh well, lesson learned. I was really looking forward to roasting those beets with olive oil and garlic, though. Yum.

Our backyard soil is not quite fertile enough for me to start an in-ground garden, so I’ve re-purposed some old wooden shipping pallets and placed fabric grow-bags on top to create my raised-bed garden. To make things a bit easier on myself, I deliberately chose to grow vegetables that are notoriously hard to kill.

In the largest of my garden beds, I’ve planted a mixture of spinach and arugula. Arugula has to be my favorite salad green – it’s a little spicy and has the most amazing crunch to it. I love to put in on everything from sandwiches to pizza – I’ve even stirred it into pasta dishes right before I serve it so that it wilts ever so slightly but retains its peppery flavor.

So far my arugula has been growing well, but I can tell the cold has stunted the growth of the little seedlings somewhat. I try and maintain a constant soil temperature of around 55 degrees by placing trash bags around the base of my grow-bags so that some of the heat remains.

Arugula sprouts are barely visible on the lower right side

My spinach crop however, has not taken well to the below-average temperatures. I planted the seeds a little over a month ago now and they still have yet to sprout. I did have one or two little brave spinach scouts poke out from the soil, but as soon as the temperatures dropped below 40 they withered away. If anybody has some tips or tricks on how to grow spinach, please let me know!

Because I’ve lived in San Diego my whole life, I’ve actually grown quite tired of the never-ending sunny skies and warm temperatures. So when we do get winter weather like this, normally I’m overjoyed to break out my umbrella and bundle up on cold mornings. I love the rain and cold weather because we don’t get it that often here.

But now I’m getting tired of it. My garden is one big swamp, our yard is a giant mud pit and my skin is drier than the Sahara desert in July from getting blasted by the heater in my office every day. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the heat and the sun that I’ve always taken for granted.

So please, weather gods, can you lighten up a bit? If not for me then for my plants? My babies need their sunlight.


Cold in California

**Featured image of the frozen sunflower is courtesy of Mount Baker Experience Magazine

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