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.
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.
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.
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.
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.