Save a Deer – Mount a Staghorn Fern on Your Wall

Hall O Staghorns at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

Hall O Staghorns at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

My last post was about composting so it’s sort of appropriate this post is about Staghorn ferns as they have perfected composting for survival.  Staghorn ferns are true ferns, meaning they produce spores as reproductive structures and not flowers.  They are epiphytic — meaning they grow attached to other plants, primarily tall trees.  They are not parasitic and therefore they do not receive any nutrients or water from their host plant, just access to light.  Their means of acquiring nutrients to me is one of the most fascinating in the plant world.

Tropical P. superbum - note the large "shield" fronds

Tropical P. superbum – note the large “shield” fronds

A spore will land on a tree, germinate and grow.  To survive, the fern has adapted two different types of fronds. The “shield” leaves act as a basket and catch plant debris, dead insects, animal feces, and any and all material that can compost down for nutrients. These “shield” leaves when old do not fall off nor do they decay, but build up and act as a sponge for water collection.  The secondary spore producing leaves – or “reproductive” leaves – form when the plant is mature (which can be as long as ten years).  These are the leaves that lend the name “Staghorn”. They are usually long and pendulous and dissected at the ends….resembling antlers.   Wind easily moves through these leaves to help with cooling and to disperse the spores that form on the undersides of the leaves.

Platycerium bifurcatum

Platycerium bifurcatum

Staghorns are found throughout many places in the world including  Australia, Africa, New Guinea, southeast Asia, and South America.  Most are from tropical regions and need to be grown inside year round.   Two that can be grown outside in Northern California are  from Australia — the commonly grown Platycerium bifurcatum and  Platycerium veitchii. These both can handle temperatures to 30 degrees, but any lower than that and they should be brought inside or protected. If growing outside they should be protected from direct full sun. Slight morning sun is ok, but afternoon shade is mandatory.

A lot of people have luck growing them hanging from large trees. We had one donated to the conservatory from a lady whose grandfather started it in 1946. It traveled everywhere with her hanging from trees at all the houses she lived in. Finally, she relinquished ownership of it to us.  By then it was about 5′ across and a few hundred pounds.  We didn’t have a place large enough for it, so we divided it and formed it into the “ball” you see below.  We created this by tying a few offshoots together and using a minimal amount of sphagnum moss between them.

Platycerium veitchii "ball" growing in the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

Platycerium veitchii “ball” growing in the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

Their growth habit is why you see them mounted and growing on wood.  They do not need soil as their roots are very minimal and used primarily to anchor the plant to the tree on which it is growing. If given a “pup” or “offshoot”  of a staghorn, it is easy to mount.  A good amount of sphagnum moss or peat should be laid down on the wood or bark to aid in water absorption and nutrients for the plant until it is established. The best way to secure the plant onto the wood or bark is using fishing line or wire.

Newly mounted offshoot of Platycerium superbum

Newly mounted offshoot of Platycerium superbum

When watering, make sure water enters the top of the “shield leaves”.  It is also necessary to liquid fertilize every few weeks if not more often. They can handle going dry between watering but they should not have prolonged drought. Other than that they are relatively free of pests and trouble free… especially for the amount of joy they are to view.

 

My Compost is Better Than Your Compost

Since when did decomposition become so commercialized?? Composting has been going on since the beginning of time.  I guess like everything, we want it easier, faster and better than ever. But with this onslaught of commercialization, a lot of “do this, do that, not this” has also come with it. Composting is not difficult.  Of course like all acts of nature there are rules and requirements. I have to laugh every time I hear the term “master composter.”  I’m not against this but I do wonder what requirements it takes to achieve this. “No your compost isn’t earthy enough.” “No, your compost just burned my plants.” I want to create a bumper sticker that says “my compost is better than your compost”.

Growing up my dad never dumped any green waste out on the street.  He found a spot in the yard and simply dumped it there. I hated this.  It was not contained and not “pretty”. I don’t think his goal was to get compost because frankly we never did. Maybe he just wanted a habitat for snakes and such.  I think the good  intentions were there, the execution just left a lot to be desired – no turning, no watering. BUT, if he maintained it right it would have been a functioning compost pile.

compost bin

 

So don’t let the fancy, shiny,  expensive compost bins for sale at nurseries lure you in. The compost bins I use are simple sheets of perforated hard plastic, using wing nuts and screws hold them into a circle.   My garden mentor turned my on to them.  The price can’t be beat, the ease of use is awesome. When I want to turn them, I undo the wing nuts, unwrap the bin from around the pile, move the bin over a few spots and put the undecomposed material in. I’m left with composted material on the bottom. I have multiple bins going at the same time so I constantly have a place for material and have compost at the ready.

My friend Julie bringing rose prunings to compost bins

My friend Julie bringing rose prunings to compost bins

I have seen people form bins out of pallets, chicken wire and cinder blocks.  These work great. I’m a big fan of open bottom systems. The earthworms and decomposers find their way into the compost and this is much easier than trying to get them established. The hand cranked rotating ones have caught my eye a few times but to be honest I would need many. For the average backyard gardener I can see the appeal.  No backbreaking work!

Ok — rule time.  I’m not big on rules for gardening…just guidelines…but these are important.

1. Nitrogen and Carbon “materials’ are needed in close to equal amounts.  Nitrogen comes from ‘green waste’ such as lawn clippings and kitchen waste products.  Carbon comes from “brown” material such as dead leaves, wood chips, hay and newspaper. Layer these or throw them all in together and mix.

2. Compost bins need to stay moist.  For breakdown to occur, keep them moist but not too wet.  During the winter you most likely will not need to water the bins but in the summer you may find yourself watering them once a week.

3. Turn and aerate.   Just like soil that is too wet, compost bins will become anaerobic and stinky if too wet and not aerated. This will lead to inadequate decompostion. To prevent this and speed up the breakdown process, turn your compost frequently. Every few weeks is ideal.

4. Do NOT put these in your compost bin:  animal waste, meat products, weedy plants or seed capsules of weedy plants, plants high in tannins such as oak and black walnut, pine needles and plants sprayed by herbicides.

5. Do not make your compost bin too big.  If too big, turning is more difficult and maintaining the temperature best for breakdown (120-160 degrees ) is more difficult.  An ideal compost bin should be around 3-4′ by 3-4′.

 

Stop “Borrowing” Your Neighbor’s Roses…Plant Bare-Root!

Believe it or not spring will be here before we know it and instead of drooling over other people’s roses come April, plant your own NOW.  It’s bare-root planting season for roses, fruit trees, and other shrubs like lilacs.  Bare-root simply means the dormant plant is removed from soil and packed in either sawdust or placed in bins of sand. The benefits of planting bare-root versus a potted plant are such:

Root Establishment – At the first sign of warming up and longer days, your rose will already be in the ground and a root system will become established before the heat of the season comes.  A healthy established root system means the plant will have more energy for top growth and blooms.

In front of my 'Rambling Rector'

In front of my ‘Rambling Rector’

Selection – Let’s face it, in January nurseries are not the happening place. To drive customers in they advertise and really push the bare-root season.  As such,  your selection of roses is going to be greater than the rest of the year.

Transplant Shock – Roses handle their roots being disturbed, but are happier not being messed with.  That’s like a lot of people I know,  they can handle disturbance but a lot happier without it!

Yummy bouquet!

Yummy bouquet!

I prefer buying my bare-root plants from nurseries that place them in large bins of wood chips or sand.  This way I can lift the plant out and inspect the roots and graft.  If buying pre-packaged make sure the bag they are placed in is not full of water from sitting out in the rain. This is just rot waiting to happen. Look for a balanced branching structure – meaning growth isn’t all on one side. Some branch breakage is expected due to transport but limit that to a minimum if possible.  Also, stay away from plants that have brown or black sections on their stems.  This is rot or decay.

After purchasing, decide where and when you are going to plant it.  If you cannot plant right away, place the plant in saw dust or compost or wrap in wet fabric. If a pre-packaged kind, remove it from the bag, leave it in the sawdust and wrap in a moist fabric. If the soil is a muddy mess, hold off until it is a crumbly consistency. Choose a spot that will receive at least 6 hours of sun and is in an area that will drain well.

When ready to plant, soak the existing roots in luke-warm water for at least 6 hours if not  overnight.  Dig a hole slightly wider (roughly 6″ on either side) than the existing roots.  The key to successful planting is to mound compacted soil under the roots so the plant does not eventually sink or form soilless cavities under the roots. Also, this protects the roots from breaking when soil is added back into the hole.

Roots spread out over a compacted mound

Roots spread out over a compacted mound

Backfill with the native soil. I prefer replacing about 30% of the native soil with compost which serves as a fertilizer and soil amendment. If you want to fertilize use slow release fertilizer if possible.  Fertilizer added directly by roots can cause burning. As you add soil, tap down gently to fill in air spaces.  Be sure to not bury too deep.  Your rose can rot if wet soil is too close to the trunk. Soil should be no higher than the level of the first roots. In a lot of cases planting too high is ok as the soil will settle.   You may lay compost or mulch on top, but also avoid placing up against the trunk.  Pruning is not necessary but if any branches or roots are broken or dead – prune them off. If planting in a large pot the same rules apply. Lastly, water in. This should suffice until growth occurs or it rains.

Roses are the easiest and most rewarding plants to grow. Nothing beats the first flush of blooms especially if you don’t have to pillage them from your neighbor’s garden!!

Devious, Evil, and Sinister Plants….Oh My!!

Getting into the Halloween spirit, I did a segment on “Good Day Sacramento” about evil, spooky, and devious plants.  There are no evil plants really… just misunderstood ones.  Their evilness comes mostly from defensive chemical compounds. Isn’t this how a lot of people live their lives, hurt others before you get hurt?  Hey, I’m not saying it’s right – just a defense mechanism! I included some of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory’s most spooky and evil plants below. I can’t promise you won’t have nightmares!!

Good Day Sacramento Spooky Plants

Bullhorn Acacia - Not a good climbing tree

Bullhorn Acacia – Not a good climbing tree

Bullhorn Acacia – Acacia hindsii:  Ants may be a nuisance to us but for many plants they could be necessary for survival.  One such symbiotic relationship ( I rub your back, you rub mine) is between the Bullhorn Acacia and ants.  The Acacia ants live in the hollow thorns and feed on Beltian bodies aka “protein bars” and nectar droplets the tree provides on its leaflets.  In turn, the ants protect the tree from being eaten by anything else. The best way to go about describing the deviousness of this plant is to tell the story about the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory’s former director, Tim Metcalf, and this one evil plant.  While in Mexico, plant hunting, Tim was shown a cycad he was searching for. In typical “Tim fashion”, he got really excited and proceeded to jump with joy.  What he forgot to take into consideration was that he was jumping underneath a 30′ tall Bullhorn Acacia.  Well, the ants living in the tree (possibly tens of thousands) felt the vibrations, thought something was trying to eat their home, and they proceeded to attack.  They didn’t bother to climb down the trunk of the tree; oh no, they just dropped right down onto poor Tim.  Ants are smart and confusing their enemies is what they do. Immobilizing quickly, they went straight for Tim’s eyes.  These are not our little Argentinean ants but large, stinging ants. They stung him repeateledy and his eyes swelled up to the point he could not see. Luckily, he got away and his eyes went down in puffiness. Knowing Tim, he probably considered himself lucky to experience this.  Other victims might not be so lucky.

I like to make visitors squirm by telling them that Africa is also where Acacias have symbiotic relationships with ants, and that the ants find their way up into the trunks of elephant’s noses.   An urban legend I tell involves a parachutist who had the unlucky experience to land into one such tree. Not only was he tangled up in the horrendous thorns but the ants came out and they stung him to death.  Hmmmmm not sure where he was parachuting but it makes a fantastic story!

Bullhorn Acacia - Hollow spine and orange protein sacs

Bullhorn Acacia – Hollow spines and Beltian bodies

 

The poison tree

The poisonous succulent spurge

Poison tree - Euphorbia virosa:  “It’s what’s inside that counts.” “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  These all prove true with the plants in the Euphorbiaceae family, the Spurges.  Plants in this family range from harmless-looking… such as the Poinsettia to very spiny and scary – many could be found in the deserts of the world. Compared to cacti, they look safer to eat and to obtain water from.  If stranded in the desert, most people would bite into one of these instead of a cactus.  Bad choice!!  Lurking inside these plants is a toxic latex.  This white milky sap differs in toxicity based on the genus and species.  Some are very poisonous while others will just irritate your skin ever so slightly.  Some such as the Euphorbia myrsinites will make you break out in large blisters.  Oh yeah, I know this from first hand experience!  Some such as the Poison Tree from Africa,  Euphorbia virosa, have the capability to kill animals and has been used as an arrow poison. It can also blind you….temporarily!  Story time: we have many Euphorbias at the Botanical Conservatory.  A professor years ago was researching them and kept them here and we have just held on to them for the collection. Years ago, a student worker back in Ohio was pruning in the desert room of a greenhouse.  She wore long pants and sleeves, gloves, and even goggles.  Some of the Euphorbias drip like a Pollock painting and what was not taken into consideration was the heat turning the liquid into vapor.  Somehow the vapors made it under her goggles, into her eyes, and burned her corneas.  She couldn’t see well for several days. Obviously they have since changed pruning protocols.

Jumping cholla and its victim

Jumping cholla and its victim

Jumping Cholla – Cylindropuntia fulgida: There are no cacti that will kill you.  Yes some will make you hallucinate and vomit even maybe making you wish you were dead.  Cacti protect themselves mainly with their spines (actually reduced leaves). Besides protection, in some species, the spines aid in plant reproduction.  The jumping cholla,  when brushed up against, will sink its barbed spines into unsuspecting animals, sections of the plant will easily break off, and the animal will deposit the plant section miles away.  The cactus once on the ground will be able to root at the nodes and a new plant will grow.  These spines and the ease of which parts break off make the jumping cholla one of the most devious and evil plants.  The spines on them are hooked to ensure that the plant part has a good hold on the animal.  This makes it extra difficult to remove if you ever have the unfortunate experience of coming into contact with this plant. This plant grows in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, so be careful when hiking around in those parts.

Tropical stinging nettle

Tropical stinging nettle

Tropical Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica: This is an (über) stinging nettle.  A lot of us are familiar with the stinging nettle encountered while hiking – but this one is extra special. The spines along the leaves and the petioles contain mainly formic acid and histamine. When the leaves are brushed up against they will cause swelling, itching, and irritation that can last days.  The stinging nettles strangely enough are high in Vitamin C and have been boiled and eaten for years. The key word is “BOILED”!! Watch below as my co-worker and I purposely hit ourselves with the Urtica! This is what happens when I get bored at work.

Evil Woman ready to inflict pain to any unsuspecting victims

Evil Woman ready to inflict pain to any unsuspecting victims

Cnidoscolus urens: The Cnidoscolus is technically not a nettle.  It is a member of the previously mentioned Euphorb family but it acts like a stinging nettle.  This plant has a few common names but my favorite is “mala mujer” meaning “evil woman”. Of course I’m assuming named by a man! This one I will not willingly subject myself to.  I have accidentally bumped into this twice and walked around with a forehead twice its size the first time.   Second time,  I hit my lip on it and thought “hmmm new collagen injection for lips?” The hairs will break off and inject a toxin into the skin somewhat like how a hypodermic needle works. The sting is bad but eating it is even worse, it contains the poisonous latex found in the Euphorbia family.  This is probably one of the most dangerous plants we have in our collection. Luckily for most, it is native to South America and not the U.S.

watch out for the "fangs" on this Nepenthes

watch out for the “fangs” on this Nepenthes

Nepenthes.bicalcarata.Jan2005 034

Nepenthes bicalcarata — SOOOO spooky

Tropical pitcher plant – Nepenthes spp.:   How could I have a list of devious plants and not include at least one carnivorous plant?  Everyone is familiar with the Venus fly trap but to me, Nepenthes is sooooo much more devious – using nectar to lure your prey in, come on?!?  Immobilizing them with an anesthesia-like chemical?! Way more devious than just trapping and digesting.  Aren’t kids told all the time to not take candy from  strangers?  I guess parenting skills in insects have a long way to go. The Nepenthes, growing in the wet Southeast Asian tropics, rely on insects and even mammals as a food source. Some traps, which are actually modified leaves, are so large, that small monkeys and large rats have been found in them.  Nepenthes bicalcarata however, takes it to another level with fangs!

The titan arum blooming and stinking in the conservatory

The titan arum blooming and stinking in the conservatory

Corpse plant – Amorphophallus:  Speaking of insects and trickery, sometimes sweets just do not do the trick and the smell of putrid death will draw them in more.  The Amorphophallus, corpse plant,  has an inflorescence that smell like a rotting cadaver.  Just this week, my coworker and I spent 3 minutes scouring the greenhouse for either a dead rat or a blooming corpse plant.  Thank goodness we found  a small one blooming…… I hate dead rat patrol.  It’s like Easter egg hunting but with the prize not being as nice. The plant lures flies and carrion beetles looking for a food source for their larvae. Inadvertently the flies and beetles pick up the pollen and move on to the next inflorescence after they have been tricked.  The inflorescence of the Amorphophallus titanum can be as large as 9′ and the smell can be quite overwhelming.  We have several in our collection and hope to have a large one blooming sometime early next year.  People line up around the greenhouse to come in and smell something that smells like a dead body!

Hope these plants don’t scare you from venturing into your garden!!!!

 

“Step Away From the Plants!”

“Step away from the plants” is a quote I have uttered many times to people regarding their plants.  I first used this on a repeat customer, at a nursery I worked, who would bring in a leaf from his Pittosporum…….EVERY week.  I pictured him at home every morning fixating on every negative defect of this poor plant and freaking out about it.  I wonder if he was married and if his wife suffered the same critique. After several weeks of telling him that the brown leaves were perfectly normal,  I finally told him, “Step away from the plant.”  This means if you are doing everything right for your plant do not look at it everyday, do not scrutinize it, do not freak out, do not count the number of brown spots.

Ends of the Welwitschia leaves not meant to be cut off.

Ends of the Welwitschia leaves not meant to be cut off.

We rely on our student workers and interns at the botanical conservatory to keep our plants looking tidy and clean.  We train them for a full quarter but of course that is just a drop in the bucket to understanding plants.  When we send them into the greenhouse to tidy up we say “remove brown, yellow and dying leaves”  and we assume a lot of times they understand their task.  It is not until afterwards, when we are looking at our completely defoliated staghorn ferns or our Monstera is left with a few pathetic new leaves that they indeed DID NOT understand.  I encounter the same question a lot on “Good Day Sacramento” when people wonder why the leaves on their Alocasia or Peace Lily are turning brown.  A simple way of explaining this is some plants have fewer, larger leaves while other plants have large numbers of small leaves — plants with large leaves put their energy into making a few leaves versus some plants like Ficus benjamina which produces an abundance of small leaves that are more expendable. Salts and fertilizers build up in the leaves resulting in brown tips and margins. Plant with large leaves that are fewer in number will generally persist longer than a plant with small leaves it seems more noticeable. Plus plant leaves simply age and hey, none of us look any BETTER with age.

Welwitschia mirabalis with its perfectly normal brown leaf tips

Welwitschia mirabalis with its perfectly normal brown leaf tips

 

Alocasia with some older browning leaves

Anthurium with some older browning leaves

The extreme example of this is Welwitschia mirabilis — an African plant that only has two leaves its whole life and in Africa, some of these plants are thought to be over 1,000 years old! It is perfectly normal for the tips of these leaves to be brown and dry.  We have many in our collection and our oldest is from the late 1960’s.  Every once in a while during training, we will forget to tell students to not prune the Welwitschia. We will walk in and have a freak out moment when we realize they have done exactly what we tell them to do with most plants – cut the brown tips off. Luckily, we have not suffered the same fate as at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. Garden legend has it that a volunteer cut back the entire two leaves of the Welwitschia based on the general consensus that leaves with brown edges should be removed. Yes, this is every horticulturalist’s nightmare!!! A large OOPS we have experienced is a student cutting down our Amorphophallus leaf.  The corpse plant, for which we are most well known, produces one large leaf and like all bulb and bulb-like plants the foliage should be left to die down completely before being removed.  Our good students, pruned “vigorously.” Honest mistake and…lesson learned.

An Amorphophallus leaf beginnng its dieback.

An Amorphophallus leaf beginnng its dieback.

There are so many other battles in your garden and in life that one must not scrutinize the small details but look at the broader scope of it all and decide when action and energy needs to be allocated (do like a leaf).  And of course your biggest help in all of this is knowledge — how a plant grows, acts, and what its limits are. So when it comes to brown or dying leaves, remember these stories and “step away from the plant!”

 

If Only I Could Look This Good Stressed

As gardeners we are already aware of how amazing plants are.  I mean they give us life sustaining oxygen – nothing more even needs to be said.  Beyond this though their ability to survive in harsh conditions without the means to get up and move mean that they have developed mechanisms of survival through adaptation that could fill numerous numbers of pages.

A lot of these traits go unseen but I am asked a lot about one particular stress adaptation on a regular basis – plants, especially succulents, turning various shades of red.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why a plant is doing this? The science behind it is pretty amazing. (Calm down, I am not going to get too technical and wordy)

We all know plants photosynthesize using chlorophyll (green pigments).  In addition to chlorophyll, photosynthesis requires  light and water.  Water is a limited resource a lot of times for succulent plants and on the other hand light is too plentiful.  The solution – mask your chlorophyll or even break it down to prevent water loss from photosynthesis.  The pigment which becomes dominate is anthocyanin.  This is the red pigment in almost all the red fruits and vegetables you eat high in antioxidants.  So why the red pigment and not say carotene (orange pigment)?  Red is the hottest wave length in the light spectrum. When we see red we are in fact seeing the red light being reflected off of the plant and not absorbed, therefore the plant is staying even cooler.

Aloe  showing signs of heat stress

Aloe microstigma showing signs of heat stress

During the summer this is evident on a lot of our succulents.  Many cacti and succulent growers who enter plant contests encourage this because it is pretty darn beautiful having red hues as well as the green ones.

Aloe mitriformis stressed

Aloe mitriformis not stressed

Aloe mitriformis not stressed

Once temperatures cool and rain returns the plants will revert back slowly.  Red leaves however can happen during the winter months as well. Cold is also a stress and succulents do much better in the frost and cold with high moisture content in their leaves therefore preventing water loss is also important.  This is actually why the east coast has better fall color.  The sudden change from warm humid conditions to cold stresses the leaves resulting in quick breakdown of chlorophyll. This results in beautiful fall colors!!

An example I love to use in the greenhouse to show students heat adaptation is an epiphytic cactus from Brazil, Rhipsalis pachyptera.  When in its ideal habitat of a humid, shady forest the cactus has wide, dark green stems.  We have the  same species growing in our desert room in low humidity, high temperature, and light.  It is growing but not happily and the difference in appearance is phenomenal.  The desert growing one is turning dark red with twisted stems trying to self-shade.  The shaded parts of the stem are more green while the exposed parts are red. The shade growing one needs as much surface area and chlorophyll as it can get to capture light which is a limited resource in the tropics.

Rhipsalis pachyptera

Rhipsalis pachyptera thriving in a humid shady location

photo-7

Young Rhipsalis pachyptera starting to turn red and twist to avoid too much sun and heat

Not all succulents will do this so before you withhold water trying to force your plants into a rainbow of red make sure you know its growth habit. Some succulents when stressed will brown and look more crispy. They can look like   they have literally curled up and died (but do not worry they most likely just look that way). Others will just endure summer with a bleached appearance.  Examples of some that will put on a show for you are:   Many Echeverias including Echeveria ‘Big Red’, E. runyonii, Aloe striata, Aloe microstigma, A. buhrii,  Graptopetalum paraguayense, Kalanchoes, Haworthia comptoniana (grown in sunny window), many Sedums, and some Euphorbias such as E. tirucalli ‘Rosea’.   So really why is it some plants look phenomenal and extra gorgeous when stressed but when I am stressed I have no such luck!!!

Fall Garden To Do List

Do you feel it?  That feeling of fall in the air?  I’m not quite sure what it really is but I can feel it!  I wonder if scientists have researched it and figured out what makes fall so, well, fall like.  I’m sure it is just the combination of softer cooler breezes, the sun at a slightly less intense angle, the sound of leaves rustling, and the need to almost wear a sweater in the morning but I like to think there is truly a “scent” of fall.  Like a pheromone, the scent draws me to my garden.  My garden at home is usually neglected during the heat of the summer and this year due to the drought and other distractions it has been exceptionally forgotten.  Now I’m scrambling to catch up and do everything that is on a ‘fall garden to do list’.

I cannot stress enough how this time of year is the perfect gardening time. Temperatures have cooled but the chance of frost is still far enough away.  Rain (fingers crossed) will be returning to water in new plants and you yourself will not wilt from extreme heat.

Plant Cool Season Vegetables

Cool season vegetables planted in mid to late September?! Yep!! The key is to keep them well watered in until they become established.  This can be in as little as a week.  Broccoli, brussell sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, beets, cauliflower are just the basics that should be planted now.  Thank goodness nurseries are finally supplying them at the right time.  I remember going into nurseries just a few years ago and not seeing starts until December.  And people wonder why they bolted or didn’t produce for them. Keep some Bt on hand though.  This is a naturally occurring  bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) which will kill the larvae of the cabbage loop worm.  These green caterpillars are capable of eating your plants down to stems overnight.  When they eat the leaves with the Bt they cannot digest it and they die.  It is certified organic and can be applied to plants up until the day they are harvested.

  Buy/Plant Bulbs

If you want Daffodils, Hyacinths, Tulips and other spring blooming bulbs, now is the time to plant or at least buy.   Thankfully the bins of bulbs hitting you smack in the face when you enter a hardware store or nursery help to remind you when your brain cannot comprehend two days from now let alone 6 months from now. Remember, bulbs like Hyacinths and Tulips need to be chilled before you plant.  Chilled NOT frozen.  I know a few people who thought if cold was good for bulbs well freezing temperatures would be even better. Not good! Most require 6 weeks of chill time.  Try different bulbs this year.  One of my favorites is Ixia.  This South African bulb will naturalize and give a burst of bright brilliant colors.  Giant Alliums are also pretty amazing in the garden.  Their form is beautiful and the large flower heads are very showy. For some off the wall, unusual bulbs go to Telos Bulbs.  Sooooo many bulbs, so little time.

 Plant California Natives

Yes many California native plants are drought tolerant but they will thank you in the spring when they have been well established before the heat of summer arrives by being planted this fall.   Remember, most drought tolerant natives prefer well draining soil.  In summer the soils dry out pretty fast but in the winter even slightly depressed areas will puddle leading to death of plants that do not “like their feet” wet. You can almost hear the poor plants screaming: “help me, I can’t breathe!”.  If in doubt of your drainage always plant on a mound.  Even 6″ of elevation will make a huge difference in the survivorship of a plant.

 Plant Most Perennials MINUS Frost Sensitive

Like natives, most perennials benefit from being planted in the fall. Being planted in the fall allows roots to become established way before the heat of summer arrives and the cooler temps means you have to water them in way less then you would planted in spring.  However, frost sentive plants should NOT be planted in fall.  These plants will not be established enough when the cold comes an most likely will not survive if a heavy frost hits.  Certain Salvias, Citrus, and Brugmansias are just some plants that should wait until spring to be planted.  Also, many times the tops will die back on herbaceous plants.  This does not mean your plant is dead.  Echinacea is a perfect example of this.  Planted in fall as a nice healthy plant the foliage may quickly die off.  Instead of fretting that you killed it, picture its roots growing and establishing for next year’s fabulous growth.

Pruning

I do not mean fruit trees when I say pruning.  Fruit trees in fact can wait until later fall or winter.   I mean cutting back of perennials that have become gangly and have finished blooming and should be cut back to allow new growth to come through. Remember however, shrubs that bloom once in the spring should always be pruned directly after they bloom.  Do not prune these now.  If you do you are potentially pruning off next years flowers.  How Sad!! If you are concerned a plant is frost sensitive leave the old growth over the winter to act as a blanket and cut back in spring.

Mulch

Mulching should be done twice a year.  I know it is difficult to even get to it once a year but mulching in the fall will help to prevent those pesky winter weeds (can we say storksbill) and if mulching with compost the theoretical winter rains will work the compost into your soil before spring. Make sure that what ever mulch you use (wood chips, compost or hay) you do not place it right up against woody stems (can you say fungal party?).

Transplanting and Dividing

Clumping grasses, ferns, Agapanthus, and the likes can be dug up, divided and replanted this time of year.  For fibrous root systems like grasses, a serrated knife works best.  For bulbous plants simply use your hands to split sections apart. If you need to relocate a shrub or tree fall is a good time once it has gone dormant.  Instead of just pruning back, digging up, and replanting- prune back first, wait until some new growth appears and then dig up.  The new growth is a sign that key hormones for root development are being produced.  Your plant will establish much faster than if roots and crown were disturbed at the same time.  Hormonal imbalance!!! We can all empathize with that!  I recently watched a UK gardening show from the 70’s ( ok maybe I do need a life) but I learned a fabulous tip.  When transplanting a large tree or shrub dig into half the root ball, come back 3 weeks later, dig into the other half, wait 3 more weeks and then lift it  and move it.  The theory behind this is new roots will have started when the root ball was cut into.  Transplanting will be much more successful.

Fertilize

Fall is a great time to add fertilizer to your garden.  The rains will work it into the soil and by spring plants will have been given an added boost.  Try not to fertilize citrus and frost sensitive plants however.  This will result in a flush of new growth which will be tender and susceptible to winter frosts.  For acid loving plants such as Camellias, Hydrangeas, and Citrus add soil sulfur in around the base.  The sulfur will reduce the pH of the soil and aid in iron absorption of the plants.  It also helps to make your pink Hydrangeas blue.

I hope this run down makes your fall gardening less confusing.  It really is a fabulous time to be out in the garden and the rewards for your hard work will be evident with your first spring bulbs.