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The Fall Guy

It's prime planting time in the Southland, and our garden editor taps the power of autumn in transforming his own frontyard from tired lawn to vibrant cottage garden.


The advantages of planting a garden in the fall are immense, even if the gratification is not immediate.

Plants grow slowly but surely at this time of the year and, by spring, with their roots deep in your soil, they are ready to explode with new growth.

Let me give you a firsthand example from my frontyard:

Back in 1994, we decided that our sunny yard was too valuable to waste on a bone-tired Bermuda grass lawn. Even though we made the decision in spring, we waited until fall to do the actual work, knowing from experience that it would be so much easier then.

In autumn, the sun would be getting lower and less intense, so there would be less stress on new plants. Temperatures would cool down, so we would need to water less often and, with any luck, winter's rains would help. As it turned out, we barely had to water the garden--falland winter storms did all the work (and forecasters say this winter will also be wet).

Planting in spring would have been a different story--days would get hotter and hotter and the sun more intense, with watering becoming ever more critical and tiresome. We might have had to water every day at first and then run the risk of overwatering some plants, particularly those that are drought-resistant and sensitive to too much water.

Planting in fall meant we wouldn't see too much growth right away, since so many plants are slowing down for winter, but we knew the roots would be growing out of their little rootballs and into the garden soil.

Come spring, when most plants do their above-ground growing, they would be established in their new home, rooted deeply and ready to grow, not needing constant watching and daily watering.

This is true for most plants--trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, herbs and especially California natives. We would be planting lots of these more permanent kinds of landscape plants, because the plan was to give lasting structure to the new garden with drought-resistant shrubs and perennials.

Some short-term annual plants must be put in during fall because they grow only in cooler winter weather, then flower or fruit in spring, dying by summer. Because we would be planting vegetables in raised beds, plus a few spring-blooming annuals and wildflowers, we would also be planting these seasonal plants, often called the "cool-season" annuals or vegetables.

A few plants on our plan would be planted at other times of the year because there are exceptions to the rule that all things do better planted in the fall in Southern California.

We would wait until spring to plant a Valencia orange because subtropicals such as citrus and bougainvillea grow better planted during the warming months, and they are not as susceptible to overwatering.

In winter we would plant blackberries and roses, because these are available bare root in January, when they are easier to plant, when there is more variety at nurseries and when prices are about half what they are at other times of the year.

If there is a disadvantage to fall planting it is that nurseries are not particularly well-stocked at this time of year. Many people can't resist buying plants in spring and early summer, when so much is in bloom, so nurseries look their best at those times of the year.

I am not immune to the glitter and glamour of plants at nurseries in spring and summer, so what I do is buy them, then keep them on the patio in their containers until fall. Watering all these little potted plants huddled together on the patio is much easier than watering them when they are planted and spread throughout the garden. And, because they are potted in fast-draining nursery soil, they're not likely to die over the summer from overwatering.

It's perhaps an odd strategy, but it works, and we actually had most of our new plants on hand well before we started building the new garden.

Planning the Yard

What we wanted in the new garden was a sunny place to grow herbs and vegetables and a lot more flower and foliage color. The frontyard faces south and has fewer trees than the backyard, so it is much sunnier.

Our kids no longer used the lawn in front and were, in fact, heading off for college and careers that fall, so there would be no one around to complain when the lawn disappeared. (Children are probably the best reason to have a lawn.)

My wife and I designed the new garden as a place to putter, full of interesting plants and flowers that required care but not constant, monotonous upkeep--fun stuff. It has been exactly that, and although it may not be as exciting as having a new baby in the house, when I'm out front working on a quiet Sunday morning, it is pure joy.

It has also fed us elegantly, with everything from fresh fraises des bois and blackberries to beans and tomatoes sprinkled with African basil, and we've managed to have fresh salad every night for the last three years. Not bad from a frontyard.

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