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Fall Is the Best Time to Plant


While working in the front yard the other day, a neighbor told me about the new raised beds he'd built over the summer in his back yard, sadly concluding, "Too bad it's too late to plant."

Whoa! Not true! Why do you think I'm digging up the yard right now? It's actually the perfect time to plant, and the perfect weather to do it in.

It's sunny, warm and breezy, and usually pleasant enough at this time of the year to keep you from working up a sweat, even if you're trying to dig up tree roots the size of Volkswagens in preparation for planting.

In fact, from October through December is the best time to plant just about anything. Not just seasonal things like lettuce and pansies, but trees, shrubs, ground covers, herbs, bulbs and especially native plants and drought-resistant things.

It's far easier to list the exceptions to the "fall is the best time" rule--roses and fruit trees are more plentiful and considerably cheaper in January, and some tropicals, such as bougainvillea, citrus and hibiscus, are better planted as the weather warms up in May or June.

And, of course, there are those seasonal things, many planted in fall, but others, such as petunias and tomatoes, planted in spring.

Planted now, trees and shrubs have the time to grow a substantial root system in the warm autumn soil, and a low sun and winter rains will help, making life easier because you won't have to water as often. So much easier that it's just about the only time of the year I do plant (except for those seasonal things).

When spring comes the plant is able to sustain the growth that naturally explodes at that time of the year.

If you wait until spring to plant, growth will be less sure-footed, and there will be less of it. You also will need to spend a lot more time watering, and use a good deal more water in summer because the roots of new plants won't reach very far into the soil, so they'll still be dependent on you or the sprinklers.

The benefits of fall planting are especially true for native and other drought-resistant plants. Without all the root growth made in fall and winter, the plants are going to need frequent watering in summer, which makes them susceptible to various root rots brought on by over-watering. You will be walking a thin line between too much and too little water, a line too easily crossed.

That's why you'll see so many native plant sales listed during the autumn months.

Don't be discouraged by what you see at nurseries or plant sales. Most plants do not look their best right now, but put them in the ground and give them a few months and they'll burst forth come spring.

Seasonal plants, listed in the box on this page, can only be planted in the fall because they require cool weather to grow in and they bloom or mature during spring's warming days. The vegetables are called the "cool-weather crops" and the flowers are called "spring flowers," as opposed to "summer flowers."

Thanks to modern nursery practices, you can also plant these flowers in very early spring (late February and March) from larger nursery containers and still get a respectable show, but it will be short. Planted now, some of these fall-planted flowers will bloom all winter and spring.

Flowers sold in small packs are the best buy now because they have plenty of time to grow in fall and early winter, though if you are really in a hurry for color, you can plant from the larger "color packs" or from 4-inch pots (these are the best bets in early spring).

Don't overlook sowing things from seed. There are many handsome spring flowers unattainable any other way. Wildflowers, for one.

You can also plant bulbs and some nurseries are brim full of them. All can go into the ground right away, except tulips. In our mild climate, tulips need some chilling in your refrigerator. About six weeks should do it, though many good tulip growers wait until the end of December to plant, doing the work over the holidays.

Remember that tulips and many other traditional East Coast bulbs bloom for a very short time in Southern California, a week, or two at the most, while many of the unusual mild climate bulbs, such as freesias and sparaxis, or ranunculus and watsonias, bloom for a month or more.

Tulips are also a one-shot bulb; they will not bloom a second year and, after they bloom, you should pull them out before the foliage disappears and you can't find them.

The mild-climate bulbs, on the other hand, are quite at home here and bloom year after year and even multiply (though many gardeners start fresh with ranunculus each fall since they are likely to rot if left in over the summer).

The cole crops are king of the fall, winter and spring vegetable garden--broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower (and kohlrabi).

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