Plant Now for Your Fall Garden

By Virginia Hayes

There’s just a hint in the air, a slightly different cast to the
light; yes, fall is on the way. For gardeners in Southern
California, this is the cue to set about getting a number of
gardening chores done. The most rewarding may be planting new
bulbs, perennials, and woody plants. While much of the country is
putting their gardens to bed, here fall is one of the best times to
establish new plants while the soil is still warm and the days
still long enough to foster good growth of roots below the surface
of the ground. Because the soil is nice and warm, all the organisms
that can form symbiotic relationships with rootlets, such as
mycorrhizal fungi, and bacteria that liberate nutrients from
organic matter are still multiplying full tilt. They will assist
the plant in getting a good toehold now before the cycle slows down
as soil temperatures drop. Come spring, these plants will
outperform similarly sized ones planted into the cooler soil. This
window of opportunity will last for at least the next two months,
so if you aren’t quite ready yet, there is time to plan and still
take advantage of the season.

This regime is good for a wide range of plant types. Among them
are those that come from other Mediterranean climate zones. Many
plants native to South Africa, Australia, Chile, and the
Mediterranean area as well as some California natives have been in
a somewhat dormant state through the warm, dry summer months. They
are adapted to take advantage of the coming cool spell by starting
a growth spurt in anticipation of the winter rains ahead. This is a
magic moment in their life cycles that embraces the lingering fall
warmth and, with our help, some supplemental watering to get them
off to a good start. A short list of candidates for immediate
planting follows:

Bulbs and other tuberous plants: anemone (Anemone coronaria and
A. fulgens selections), freesia, ranunculus (Ranunculus asiaticus),
Babiana stricta, Narcissus (daffodils and paperwhites), Hippeastrum
(also known as amaryllis), and Watsonia.

 Perennials: yarrow (Achillea species), Alstroemeria, Japanese
anemone (Anemone ×hybrida), kangaroo paws (Anigozanthus),
snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus), snow-in-summer (Cerastium
tomentosum), chrysanthemum (Dendranthema ×grandiflorum), sea holly
(Eryngium fastuosum), Gaillardia grandiflora, Gazania hybrids,
Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), coral bells (Heuchera
species), penstemon, Phygelius species, California fuchsia
(Zauschneria californica).

Shrubs: Acacia species, manzanitas (Arctostaphylos species),
Banksia species, Callistemon species, Ceanothus species, rockrose
(Cistus species), Canary bird bush (Crotalaria agatiflora), pride
of Madeira (Echium fastuosum), Eucalyptus species, Grevillea
species, lavender star flower (Grewia occidentalis), lavender
(Lavandula species), tree mallow (Lavatera species), Melaleuca
species, honeybush (Melianthus major), barberry (Mahonia species),
oleander, plumbago, scurfy pea (Psoralea pinnata), coffeeberry
(Rhamnus californica), rosemary, Westringia fruticosa.

Trees: peppermint tree (Agonis flexuosa), carob (Ceratonia
siliqua), Eucalyptus, olive, Pittosporum species, oak (Quercus
species), Afrocarpus/Podocarpus species.

All those plants are going to be around for years to come, but
there are always ephemeral species that can fill the garden with
color and beauty for just one season. The annuals that will be
coming into their own through the cool winter months and,
therefore, must be started soon can also be started from seed or
small plants. The classics are: stock (Matthiola majus), sweet
alyssum (Lobularia maritima), calendula, English daisy (Bellis
perennis), foxglove (Digitalis), godetia (Clarkia amoena), Iceland
and Shirley poppy (Papaver species), nemesia, pansy (Viola), and
short season sweet peas. If you start these you may have flowers
for Christmas.

The other big chore right now is making sure that tropical
plants accustomed to year-round rain get the regular water that
they need to perform well. This summer has been extremely unusual
in the amount and distribution of rain that has fallen on the South
Coast. It fell all through April as if it were March and then, not
just measurable, but significant rain fell in May, July, and even
August this year. Nevertheless, there are plants that are
definitely more suited to a year-round watering regimen, such as
citrus trees, that still need some extra TLC right now (don’t
complain, just think of all the irrigating you didn’t have to do
this summer). Without regular water, some plants won’t have the
resources to flower and fruit well. Camellias, in particular, need
to have a consistent supply of water now while they are forming
their flower buds. Between the normal dryness of the season and the
potential (if not inevitable) Santa Ana winds, camellias can really
suffer during the fall. The soil needs to be maintained at a
consistently hydrated state for them to weather the next few
months. If it isn’t, the buds will turn brown and drop off. This is
bad for the floral show next spring, but could also impair the
general health of the plants. Soil probes can be an invaluable tool
to monitor soil moisture so that an appropriate watering regime can
be maintained not just for camellias, but all your garden beds.

It is easy to see the smaller plants in the garden reacting to
weather patterns, but sometimes it is harder to see what’s
happening to larger or older trees and shrubs. A good policy is to
deep water redwoods, Monterey cypresses, palms, citrus, and other
subtropical or tropical plants at least once a month through the
summer and fall. Citrus trees that don’t get consistent water will
produce spongy, tasteless fruit, for example. It’s never too late
to start. And, be especially mindful of those tropical plants that
you just planted in the last few months. Bougainvillea, hibiscus,
philodendron, gingers, and many others will need your attention to
assure their success through this warm, dry time. If the fogs have
really gone, you may also want to mist or spray the more tender
plants and increase the overall humidity for their well being.
Keeping them well-grown and healthy will also ensure that they do
not succumb to the late summer pests such as spider mites and the
ever-present giant whitefly.

Fall is one of the nicest seasons on the South Coast. Gardening
will give you one more good excuse to be outdoors enjoying it.

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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