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The many delights of observing in a winter garden

December 24, 2021


Winter fun in Marin gardens should begin with feeling the wonder of loving the Earth. Just before the rains in late October, I sat at dusk with friends in my garden when an Anna’s hummingbird arrived to sip from a border of blooming sage, rosemary and roses. This enchanting moment reminded me that when you observe in a garden, you are rewarded.

Here are some fun, simple winter garden activities for all those who love to look up, look down and look all around in Marin winter gardens.

Photo by Anne-Marie Walker

Rose hips make a vitamin C-rich tea. Pour 1 cup of hot water over ¼ cup of hips. Steep 20 minutes.

• Daisies, parsley, mint and roses are still blooming in Marin. Harvest a leaf, flower, fruit, stem and seed from each and play a game comparing plant family characteristics. For example, mints have square stems and fragrance. Daisies have composite flowers with disks and rays. In the rose family, look up into crabapple trees and climbing roses. Harvest their fruits and sample for fun; crabapples are tasty dipped in caramel, and rose hips make a delicious tea. Parsley and herbs can be picked and chopped to mix with butter for herbed popcorn.

• If you are growing winter greens, look down and engage in a bug treasure hunt. Inspect the leaves for the larva of leaf mining flies and moths. Check for an ambush bug, a fierce predator that captures prey 10 times its size and eats aphids, scales, leafhoppers and other destructive insects. Remember, it is good practice to watch but don’t touch, especially while determining if it is a pollinator, predator, prey or decomposer.

In the soil under your veggies, look down and you may find a roly-poly (pill bug), a decomposer that breaks down dead leaves. Roly-polys are not insects but rather terrestrial crustaceans that roll defensively into a ball. You may also find ladybugs and spiders, both predator insects. For fun, sing songs and not just nursey rhymes like “Ladybug, Ladybug” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” but also “Boris the Spider” by the Who.

• Look all around your garden to better understand the dynamic between plants, soil and wildlife. Do you see lichens, galls or cones? My 2-year-old granddaughter happily gathered and assembled some in a dish after a garden walk in West Marin. Lichens gather moisture and nutrients from the air and produce acid, which in turn breaks down the rock to form soil. Soil builds up when plants move in, followed by decomposers and other organisms that further break down plant material.

Photo by Anne-Marie Walker

Crabapples are any apple smaller than 2 inches. Skewer them and dip in caramel.

You may see squirrels and birds pick apart ripened cones that have fallen to the ground, an important, nutritious source of food to lots of wildlife. Collect and compare the size of cones to their trees; you may be surprised. California’s tallest tree has one of the smallest cones.

If you are lucky enough to have an oak tree in your garden, it is fun to watch jays pilfer in granaries made by acorn woodpeckers. By observation, scientists have discovered that woodpeckers prefer large acorns while jays prefer smaller acorns. Both birds stay year-round in Marin, avoiding the dangers faced by animals that have to migrate in search of food habitats.

Having so much fun, you may ask what can be done in winter to make our gardens thrive and support wildlife and the greater ecology. We can let seeds develop in flowers so birds can eat that seed. When all those seeds are eaten, we can plant attractive berry plants, including currant species, viburnum and hawthorn.

We can install a small water feature.

We could build a birdhouse to attract bird species; go to the Audubon site for specifics.

We can leave small piles of leaves undisturbed, giving cover to resting butterflies like the mourning cloak, as well as overwintering eggs and larvae.

So venture into your garden this winter for some fun.

Sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension, the University of California Marin Master Gardeners provide science- and research-based information for home gardeners. Email questions to Attach photos for inquiries about plant pests or diseases. The office is closed for drop-in visits. Subscribe to the Leaflet, UC Marin Master Gardener’s free quarterly e-newsletter, at

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