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Fall Is Orange County's Second Spring

November 27, 1999|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just because the weather is cooling and leaves are dropping, don't think it's time to put away your shovel and spade. Fall is a great time to plant in Orange County. In most cases, it's better than spring.

"Many people get the urge to plant in spring, but the truth is, from a plant's point of view, fall is generally the best time to plant," says Steve Hollister, manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Santa Ana. "Autumn is the ideal time to get many plants into the ground, such as fruit and foliage trees, shrubs, many perennials, winter annuals, lawns and cool-season vegetables."

Fall in Orange County is like a "second spring," agrees Vincent Hakes, owner of Huntington Garden Center in Huntington Beach. "It's an excellent time to plant."

By planting now, you will give most plants a head start on spring.

"Plant a shrub like gardenia, lilac or Indiana hawthorne in autumn and it doesn't do a lot of visible top growth between now and spring," says Hollister. "But the shrub does develop its root system so that when spring's growing season arrives, it's prepared to make the most of it and quickly starts growing and flowering."

Fruit trees planted in fall and early winter tend to flower better and have more fruit the following season than those planted in the spring, says Hakes.

Fall weather is also a lot easier on plants and makes transplant shock less likely, says Julie Hunt, a Laguna Hills certified arborist and landscape consultant.

"In the cool days of autumn, plants don't lose a lot of water through their leaves, which makes it easier for them to develop a sturdy root system and store energy for healthy spring growth and blooming," she says.

By planting in fall and early winter, you also extend the bloom season of some annual plants.

"Plants that grow throughout our cooler season, such as sweet pea, Iceland poppy, pansy, calendula, cyclamen, cineraria and primrose, can be planted in fall and will not only give you Christmas color, they'll last throughout the winter and spring," says Hakes.

Camellias and azaleas bloom in the late fall and winter months, which makes it a perfect time to choose and plant them as well.

Now is also a good time to plant many cool-season vegetables that will bear throughout the winter and spring, such as lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, carrots, beets, turnips, spinach and Swiss Chard.

You will also find plants at the nursery through early winter that usually aren't available at other times of the year, such as rhubarb, artichoke, horseradish, asparagus, raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry and many bulbs, says Hollister.

It is even a good time to plant sod lawns, says Hollister. "As long as it's not rainy or muddy, you can plant sod, including warm season grasses like Bermuda," he says. "Plant warm season grasses now and they will establish a strong root system and be ready to take off in spring when the weather warms up.".

When doing your fall planting, keep the following tips in mind:

* Consider year-round sun exposure. A planting location may look good for an azalea or camellia now, but determine just how much sun the area gets during other months of the year. If the location is very sunny in the spring and summer, an azalea may yellow and even die.

On the other hand, make sure that plants requiring sun will get enough during warm months. For instance, if a plant needs sun and you're considering putting it next to a deciduous tree, you might want to change the location, because the site could become too shady when the tree is full of leaves.

* Amend or mulch. Some experts still suggest amending the soil by 50% when planting, while others say not to add anything into the planting hole, but mulch with the amendments after planting.

"We don't till the soil anymore, because it disturbs root systems and disrupts bio-organisms in the soil," says Hunt. "By putting a thick layer of mulch on the soil surface after planting instead, you don't disturb things. Mulch keeps the soil surface soft and water penetrable and creates a good environment for earthworms. It also chokes out weeds, which can't find a foothold to germinate."

Hunt suggests putting mulch down at a 3- to 6-inch depth and keeping it away from the base of plants. If possible, choose a mulch, such as compost, which contains humic acid or humate.

* Plant trees high. Position trees a couple of inches above the soil line so that the base of the tree stays dry, says Hunt. "If a tree gets buried too low during planting, it can easily rot at the base and die," she says. "It's best to plant a little high and mulch any exposed roots. The tree will gradually sink over time, but won't go too deep."

* Fertilize when planting. Hollister suggests using a preplant fertilizer because they are designed for transplants and won't burn roots.

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