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Winter Seeding, Weeding : * Experts say transition from summer into fall is a good time to plant much of what grows in Southern California.

September 24, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times.

Nothing gets a gardener's blood going like a change of seasons. Into the brief, pregnant pause between one cycle and the next, dreams begin to rush: That drab perennial bed could be dressed up with some exotic bulbs, potted lemon trees might illuminate the patio, a tired kitchen patch could be the future home of a burgeoning cabbage crop.

"I'm counting the days till I can rip out my summer vegetable garden," says Dawn Widjaja of Santa Clarita, who is contemplating her first winter spread of broccoli, potatoes and sweet potatoes. For this cold-weather effort, she has her strategy mapped out: "I'll use seeds, but to play it safe, I'll get seedlings too. As far as soil preparation, the back of my car will be loaded with bags from the nursery."

Experts agree that the transition from our usual Indian summer into fall is a good time for planting much of what grows in Southern California, as well as tending to other vital garden jobs.

"It's best to plant once the heat goes down and before the cold comes on," says Mike Lentz, manager of Cacho Nursery in Sylmar. "That way, you establish root systems before the winter chill sets in." Besides the hardier vegetables, Lentz advises planting big trees, shrubs, winter annuals and bulbs while the weather is still mild.

A spokesman for Green Arrow Nursery in North Hills (who, citing company policy, requested anonymity) adds a few more chores to the landscaper's list. "Fertilize your lawn now--especially bluegrass--if you want it to stay green," he says. "Feed your shrubs, your citrus and your shade plants, and cut back trees."

While these jobs are relatively straightforward, the timing of planting can be dicier, especially for vegetable gardeners who still may be harvesting from summer plots.

"I wait as long as I can to plant," reports Milton McAuley, a Canoga Park environmentalist who has grown vegetables on a community garden plot at Orcutt Ranch for 17 years. "I'm still getting tomatoes, peppers and beans, and I've at least got to wait till my beans are gone."

Sherman Oaks garden designer Michele Logan describes a regular autumn battle with her husband that pits her winter-blooming sweet peas against his lingering tomato crop as they compete for the same corner of the yard.

"He wants to keep picking, and I want to get planting. Put sweet peas in early, you get flowers before Christmas," she says.

Despite her passion for these fragrant sprays, Logan is not someone who faces the dormant season with trepidation and reaches for the annual color. "It's probably because I'm English," she says, "but I like seeing the garden a bit barren. Here, we have such a forgiving climate, we tend not to let things rest enough."

Because our winters are short, however, and bulbs planted in October may be flowering by February, Logan has been haunting bulb purveyors and poring over catalogues. This year, in addition to her existing daffodils, paper whites and freesias, she plans to try sparaxis, nerines, giant alliums, watsonia and bulbinella. Because most of her bulb picks come from South Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean, she says, "They're very suitable for interplanting with the natives here and do especially well with no summer water."

Such temperate-zone varieties may be planted as soon as they appear in nurseries, while those native to cooler climes--tulips, hyacinths and crocuses, for example--should be refrigerated six to eight weeks to simulate the early chill they need to germinate.

The question may arise, particularly in the mind of the fair-weather gardener, "Why start something now that requires trudging out in the cold to water, weed and worry about?" McAuley has a comforting answer: "Gardens are easy to maintain in winter. They have few bugs, take little water and the weeds don't grow much. Of course it's great," he adds, "in any weather, to go down to the garden and pick your dinner."

Sources for Supplies

Nurseries are already stocking a good supply of bulbs, along with winter vegetable seedlings and seeds. Garden designer Michele Logan's favorite sources:

Green Arrow Nursery, 8845 Sepulveda Blvd., North Hills. (818) 894-8301.

By mail from Netherland Bulb Co. in Pennsylvania and John Scheepers, (800) 788-8547 or (203) 567-0838 and Van Engelen in Connecticut, (203) 567-8734.

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