Oct 28, 2019
by Roger Raiche David McCrory, Planet Horticulture
We are privileged to live in an extraordinary place on the planet. While no place is always perfect, we have a lot going for us. For folks who enjoy plants and landscape we are genuinely blessed with mountains, canyons, valleys, coastal bluffs, rivers and creeks, a moderate climate with adequate seasonal rains, and so much more. With the amazingly diverse native flora and the thousands of plants we use in our gardens and agriculture – an observer could easily confuse the County with Eden.
Gardening. This is a good time of year to appreciate the abundance of the previous season and start thinking about the promise of the next. Enjoy the colors of the foliage, late fruits, and veggies. There is a tendency as things go dormant to over-clean our landscapes, removing every leaf and excess twig and fallen fruit or seed head. Since we are likely to be beyond the prime fire season, give your space some breathing room, there are many months ahead to clean up, and many forms of life that need some of these resources to survive. Few images are more autumnal than leaves on the ground.
Rain. Once we get into the rainy season and the ground starts loosening up, and nights (and days) cool, late fall/early winter is a great time to establish many plants, especially many California natives that benefit from the extra months to put out deep roots and settle in. Don’t expect a lot of growth; you are mainly trying to promote roots, so by the next dry season, they are prepared. Some natives that have foliage sensitive to constant dampness, or prolonged shade; these can be planted later once we get around the Solstice, but most appreciate the long cool season. Proper mulching around plants is important to keep soil from splashing onto leaves, as dirt can carry pathogens dangerous to young or weak plants.
Most native annual seed mixes also really appreciate early sowing, just as the rains begin. Remember that most annuals require the open ground to germinate – sowing them into established grasses and weeds might help the birds and mice, but seldom produce plants. Rake the open areas with a garden rake to break the surface, and then re-rake after seeds are sown. Seeds are better distributed if you mix them with sand or the like; this gives you more volume to spread around. Water them in, if possible, to make sure they are damp and held into the soil.
Bulbs. Almost all hardy bulbs benefit from being planted before the New Year, whether in pots or in the ground. While you may not see them, they are developing their roots, and the longer they have, the healthier they will be. Some of the earliest bulbs, like paperwhites (Narcissus), or the native star zygadene (Toxicoscordion) or soap lily (Chlorogalum), really need to be in ASAP.
Other plants. If you’ve been holding other landscape plants in containers all summer, get them in now as well. Bare root season is typically Dec – Feb, but if you have access to any that you want now, earlier is better, unless there’s a hardiness issue. New plants are always more vulnerable to cold, so with tender items, hold off until February or March.
The reverse is also true if you are in a routinely frosty area and want to keep those tender succulents, or sub-tropicals alive, you might need to take cuttings and bring them inside a sunny window, put under an overhang, or cover with frost cloth.
Prepare for rain. While cleaning out gutters and drains is standard pre-rain activities, consider recontouring your land to facilitate keeping water away from structures, and helping it percolate into the ground. Most systems with pipes, drains (covered or not), including French drains, fail over time. It only takes a few leaves blowing around in a winter storm, or some errant branch, or an inquisitive root, to block most drains, which even if they worked only transfers the water to another place. By creating low gradient shallow swales in the land and then spreading out on your landscape, or into depressions, you can keep your structures dry and promote putting more water into the water table, not into the gutter.
While every property is unique, and water movement needs to be fitted to the specific site, these winter water swales can often be elegantly integrated into the garden design, even becoming the site for particular plantings that thrive on winter water. Remember that freshwater is crucial to almost all terrestrial life on Earth. After months of dry weather, we can rejoice that the rainy season is upon us.
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