Although the days are shortening at this time of year, a gardener's to-do list is not.
There are so many things to do right in the fall that it's difficult to know where to start. Planting, pruning, planting, dividing, planting, weeding and more planting. For those of us lucky enough to live in Southern California, fall may be the best time of the year to spend time in the garden. It is certainly the most important time.
The soil is still warm, rains are near and cooler temperatures make being in the garden even more pleasant. The clean, crisp smell of the air and the lengthening shadows on the soil make this my favorite season in the garden.
For me, the soft, golden light of autumn is especially notable. California's clear, sunny skies are special at any time of the year. Our exceptional light has attracted legions of gardeners as well as plein air artists to our state. It is the quality of California's light that has enticed countless artists to our landscapes and our gardens, as they render what they see from eye to palette to canvas. But the light of fall is the most special. Warm yet soft, bright but restful — it's a pleasant light, a subtle combination of radiance and calmness. Fall's is a kind, friendly light … a perfect light for gardening.
Plant winter vegetables and herbs
Changing temperatures mean changing your tomatoes, peppers, squash and other summer plants to their cool-season counterparts. Now is the time to put out leafy specialties like all lettuce, romaine, endive and spinach, also Asian greens and gourmet choices like arugula and radicchio. Onions, garlic and chives are in season, as are all the brothers and sisters of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale. Root crops like these seasons' shorter, cooler days and include radish, beets, turnips, carrots and even potatoes. Finally, this is the time to start any type of peas as well as nutritious fava beans.
If you've previously failed at cilantro, try it now. It won't wither away or go to seed instantly, like it does in the warm months. Other herbs for the season include the cousins anise, dill and fennel as well as borage, chervil, chamomile, chives, parsley and sorrel.
Flower bulbs, such as daffodils, paperwhites, amaryllis, freesia, anemone, Dutch iris and ranunculus are planted now. These are among the easiest and least expensive additions to a winter and spring flower garden. Either in pots or in the ground, these bulbs will need almost no additional water, fertilizer or other attention. Beware of the packs of tiny little bulbs at a cheap price, which provide very few flowers. Hunt for the largest bulbs available and plant them in groups, taller varieties behind the smaller ones, either in containers on in the ground.
Just like summer vegetables, it's time to replace summer flowers with winter flowers. Petunias, zinnias, dahlias, lobelia and others should give way now to cool-growing pansies, violas, snapdragons, stock, poppies, sweet peas and more. In shady spots, impatiens and begonias will struggle, but cyclamen, primrose or cineraria will be alive with colorful flowers.
Plant native plants
The growing interest in adding a few California native plants into local gardens is long overdue. If you've got the itch, this is the best time to scratch it. Go shopping now and start planting. Easy native specialties like ceanothus, coral bells, California fuchsia, toyon and others should be in good supply and love to be planted just before winter rains.
If you haven't started composting at home, this is the time to begin. Fall leaves and garden trimmings offer a plentiful supply of all the ingredients needed to make your own brown gold. Rather than roll the green-waste bin to the curb each week, add it to the compost bin. Soon you will have your own supply of rich, organic mulch — just what your garden needs.
Turn off your sprinklers
I always remind gardeners about now to turn off their sprinkler controllers. Unlike summer, the weather during the next several months is too irregular for any clock-driven device to be accurate. Until summer returns, it's easy enough to simply use the manual feature on the controller. You will save precious water and your plants will thank you.
RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar.
Question: I need a couple of smallish landscape plants for a very shady area and have failed several times. Can you give me a couple of suggestions?
Answer: Most shady areas are also quite well-protected. I would encourage you to consider several foliage plants that might traditionally be seen as indoor only. This list would include Sansevieria, cast-iron plant (Aspidistra), pothos, certain philodendrons, ZZ plant (Zamioculcas), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), peace lily (Spathiphyllum) and some ferns. Clivia are also well-suited to this environment.
ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.