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GARDENING | IN THE GARDEN

Dig In: Fall's the Best Time to Plant

September 27, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Gardeners, start your engines. Get behind that rototiller and begin preparing the soil because it's time to plant.

According to one experienced landscaper, the fall planting season began Sept. 20 on the Westside and in other coastal areas, and will get going toward the end of October in the San Fernando Valley and similar inland locations.

It will last until late January or even early February, but it is a race against shorter and shorter days, rapidly cooling weather and rains that can make a soil too wet to dig in.

For those unfamiliar with this fantastic season, autumn is considered by most expert gardeners to be the best time to plant just about anything. Spring is not the best planting season in Southern California.

The logic goes something like this: The sun is lower, days are getting cooler (nights already feel a bit chillier) and winter's rains are coming.

Plants have a chance to make roots and become thoroughly established in your garden well before the onset of the spring growing season.

While plants do most of their growing in spring or early summer, they're not going to do much if they haven't the roots to support all that herbage up top. Research also suggests that roots do most of their growing in the autumn months.

Another disadvantage with planting in the spring is that you'll have to water often, as summer is approaching. It takes several months for the roots of new plants to grow out of their old nursery-can root ball and into your garden soil. It can take a year or more for them to become completely established.

In the meantime, they need lots of water--a good soaking every few days at first for gallon-can sized plants, more often for bedding plants and plants from 4-inch containers.

Planting in the fall lets you water less often because the plants are not under so much stress from the spring and summer sun. Soils stay wet for days, even weeks by winter.

If it rains much this winter, you hardly have to water at all. Things I planted last fall didn't need any irrigation until late spring because of all that rain!

Not having to water so often becomes a moot point if you garden under automatic, every-other-day irrigation, but for those of us who water by dragging a sprinkler around on the end of a hose, not having to water as often is a real boon!

Don't be disappointed if you don't see much growth from plants put in during the fall months. It's the roots that are growing, not the tops.

Typically, plants just sit there until January near the coast, February further inland, but then they begin growing furiously.

It may take you until February to get everything in the ground if you've got a big planting project cooking, though the sooner the plants get in the ground, the more they will grow in spring.

I've planted entire gardens in the fall and found that it's important to do all the soil improving and other hard, time-consuming work (like building fences or laying pavers) as early in the season as possible, so you can just plant during those short days.

I often end up doing most of my "fall planting" in late November, December and January. But that usually works out fine.

We often get our rainiest weather in February and March, so finishing up by the end of January still guarantees that they get a couple of months of natural irrigation.

And as most of us saw last year in our gardens, plants are a lot happier with natural rainfall than they are with irrigation.

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You can plant just about anything now, but a distinction needs to be made between annual color or vegetables and more permanent things.

Flowers and vegetables such as Iceland poppies and cauliflower that must be planted in the fall or winter, because they only grow during our cool season.

There are also bulbs that must be planted in the fall.

But more permanent things such as trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials, which can be planted at other times of the year, are best planted in the fall.

One group of permanent plants that I would plant at no other time are the California natives and, to a lesser extent, all drought-resistant or Mediterranean-climate plants--plants that simply won't live under automatic, frequent irrigation.

Planted between now and January, they almost always succeed. One expert thinks that January is actually the best month to plant natives. Planted in other seasons, they almost always fail. It's hard to keep them properly watered.

As you will discover, if there's a trick to fall planting, it's finding suitable. Nurseries tend to hide them away (or get rid of them in the case of perennials) if they are not looking their best.

I've taken to buying plants when they are easy to find, then keeping them in their pots until fall.

Those plants that can be harmed by frost in your area, such as bougainvillea or citrus, are the big exception to the theory that all plants do better put in during the autumn months. These semi-tropical, slightly tender plants are most susceptible to frost when they're young, so it's a better idea to plant these in early spring, when the weather is warming. They'll need frequent irrigation at first, but then these plants like water.

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