The door doesn't exactly slam shut on fall planting this week, but it does begin closing.
The weather begins to cool rapidly from now on, and by mid-month plant growth comes to a near halt until late February.
Those of us who have put off fall planting--waiting for cooler weather, substantial rain or a free weekend--had better get ourselves down to the nursery today.
The fruits of fall planting are pictured at right: ranunculus, tulips, daffodils, pansies, Iceland poppies, sweet alyssum and tufts of gray Dusty Miller in the San Fernando Valley garden of Rose Broude, designed by Diane Kennedy of Sassafras Landscape in Topanga. Planted in late fall, the flowers are peaking in early April.
At the nursery, first check the bulb bins or the bulbs in packages hanging on the wall. They may look a little picked over but it is not too late to plant what remains. Daffodils prefer an earlier start, but even they will bloom if planted where they get a little shade in spring.
A touch of shade is also a good idea for tulips. These bulbs should be put in the refrigerator for about six weeks and then they will be ready to plant. This mean planting in January, but that is not too late for tulips.
Tougher bulbs such as freesias, sparaxis, ixias and ranunculus can go in immediately. Remember that ranunculus should be watered once after planting, and then not again until they sprout through the soil surface. These bulbs demand a sunny spot in the garden, and one advantage of planting late is that shadows are now their longest, so you know what parts of the garden are sunny during the winter months and which have been plunged into shade.
Don't overlook Dutch iris, bulbous iris that are among the easiest of plants to grow in the garden. They are especially useful planted among annual bedding plants because they bring a little height to bland, low plantings. The white-flowered Dutch iris are favorites for this purpose, but you will probably find few in the box at the nursery this late in the year.
Annual flowers are easily planted this late--they simply flower later in spring. Try to find little plants at nurseries that have not outgrown their packs or containers, and that have not yet flowered. If they do have flowers, cut them off and let the plant start over.
The show will be very short if new plants begin blooming before they have grown roots out into the surrounding soil. Tangles of roots should be untangled, or even cut off. A little polymer (Broadleaf P4, for instance) in the planting hole will help these root-bound plants recover quickly from their loss.
Annual bedding plants in quart or four-inch pots are probably in bloom already and won't last long in the garden, but they do provide instant color. A good bet here are the various forms of ornamental cabbage and kale, valued for their colorful leaves. These will last a long time even when begun from a quart pot. They will also stand a certain amount of shade.
Pansies planted this late will still flower clear into summer, if they get full sun and a well-drained (not soggy) soil. In the shade, try primroses, another good bet this late in the season.
Some people actually wait until now to plant Iceland poppies, hoping that they will flower after the winter rains, so petals are not shattered in a downpour.
Do not be surprised if annual plants just sit and sulk for awhile. The soil is cold and the nights too, so planting late sometimes means that plants get off to a slow start. After two weeks, give them some liquid fertilizer and they should start growing.
December is a fine time to begin perennial plants if you can find them at the nursery. They don't look their best now so stock is usually low, but planting in late fall or winter gives them time to grow roots out into the soil before spring arrives and they begin making new leaves.
Delphiniums do particularly well planted now. Any earlier and they sometimes flower too soon in spring. Planted now, they should flower right along with everything else in April or May. If you want monster flower spikes, add a complete granular fertilizer and some polymer to the planting holes.
Remember that delphiniums need full sun, but foxgloves with their similar shape work just fine planted in shadier areas, though they will not tolerate dark shade. Try clivias, which, in another month or two, bloom with bright orange flowers in areas that are really dark.
Coral bells are another good choice for partly shaded areas, and you can find them inexpensively in flats or packs at this time of the year. They are hard to start in spring.
Any of the winter or cool-season vegetables can go in now from small packs. Seed may sprout this late but it may also be too cool for germination, so small plants are a better bet.