October Chores

Build Berms, Cut Tropicals, Gather Compost, and Start Planting

October is a really golden month in the Santa Barbara area. There will probably be a mini heat wave. Although most nights will be starting to cool, the soil is still plenty warm for planting and even transplanting some things. The days are getting shorter, but there are still a few hours of daylight to do chores even during the busy workweek. The first real rain may even fall. Here are some garden tasks that are suited to this beautiful month.

• Get ready for winter rains by creating diversions for rainwater to areas where it can percolate into the soil instead of rushing to the sea in the storm drain. One of the basics of diverting water is to move a little earth this way or that to channel it where it can do the most good. Small changes in grade can accomplish large results in terms of redirecting storm water. Mound up soil into berms perpendicular to the slope (and water flow) to contain rainfall in a basin so that it has a chance to percolate into the soil instead of rolling right off. Berms are also good places to plant those species that like a little better drainage than many area soils provide. Plant on the top of the berm or along the slope where the water will drain away quickly.

• Cut tropicals that have bloomed to the ground: bird of paradise, canna, and ginger. It is not too late in the early weeks of the month to dig and divide them, too. Dig up the clump, and knock off most of the soil to discover the branching pattern of the rhizome. There will most likely be some semi-rotten parts behind the vigorous, stem-producing sections. Trim off those old parts and discard. If the rhizome has branched, it is also possible to separate those branches from the main stem and replant them. Trim back the leaves by at least half, and replant immediately. Space the rhizomes at least a foot apart, and be aware of what direction the new growth will take and orient them for best growth and display.

• Collect and compost leaves of deciduous trees as they begin to fall. Pile them in a corner and turn the pile a couple of times during the winter, and they will produce a useful product by next spring. Leaves are almost the perfect compost material. Most of them are thin enough that no further size reduction is needed (like chopping tough stems might be). They are dry, but not too dry, and just sprinkling them with a bit of water will rehydrate them enough for the bacteria and fungi to do their job. They can easily be added to any ongoing compost pile, but left on their own through the winter, they will probably have broken down just fine to add back to the garden.

• There is also still time to plant: California natives are always a good choice, but spring bulbs may still be available to lend early bloom next year. Shop for winter-blooming shrubs such as Camellia sasanqua. Look also for Japanese anemones, which come in single or double forms, both white and pink.

It’s fall, but think spring.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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