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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

The sowing season

Fall is the real beginning of our growing cycle. It's when seeds, bulbs and trees all rapidly take hold -- and planting now can be the secret to a beautiful spring.

October 23, 2003|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

I started thinking about the fall and winter planting season back in August, when it was way too hot to garden. I could barely manage to sit in the shade and hurl epithets at purslane and other summer weeds, but I made lists and sketched plans of what I could do when it cooled a little.

By September, I was pulling on my leash, so to speak, impatient for the new season to arrive. I tucked a couple of plants into the ground during the first weeks of October, even though that can be a risky time to plant because the weather is apt to be what they call "unseasonably" hot. But I could wait no longer, and now I am planting with a passion.

Fall through early winter has been my favorite time to plant since I first put shovel to soil. I'm such a fan that I began a book about the gardener's year in California with the fall months, not the traditional spring. In it, the fall and winter planting season begins about mid-October and runs into early March, a time that also could be called the "cool season."

During this magic period, everything I plant turns to gold, or at least it rapidly takes hold; I can honestly say that nothing I've planted in this cooler season has died. I have planted things at other times of the year, but many of them have been killed with kindness and too much water.

Fall and winter are so much easier on plants than spring and summer. There is less need to water, so one is unlikely to overdo it, which -- as most gardeners have learned the hard way -- is the quickest way to do in a plant. In winter, plants seem to shrug off the over-watering perhaps because it is the rainy season, when soils are naturally moist or even soaked. In many ways, fall and winter are the most natural times in Southern California to plant.

The sun is much lower on the horizon, barely glancing off the ground, not beating down from overhead, so it is cooler and soils stay wet longer. If it rains or you irrigate, the soil remains damp for a week or more. Early in the fall, the ground is surprisingly warm, which really helps if you are trying to germinate seed or get small plants off to a fast start.

Planted now, bulbs, bedding flowers and vegetables will grow quickly, but perennials, shrubs and trees might seem to simply sit there. Not to worry: Roots are slowly spreading into the surrounding soil and, when spring arrives, the plants will explode with leafy growth.

For instance, a tree planted in fall or early winter immediately begins growing roots even if no growth is visible up top. By spring it has a healthy network that reaches well into your garden soil. It's got the roots to support lots of new spring growth.

Now picture the unfortunate fellow planted in spring. There's no time to grow roots; it's programmed by nature to grow leaves in spring and starts right in. But there are not yet enough roots to quench its thirst, and all those new leaves need lots of water. So the gardener must irrigate often, and you know what happens if he waters a little too often.

The rapidly growing tree may even become top heavy, and with no roots to support it, it may fall over. That's why you see so many persecuted trees tied like witches to their wooden stakes. Plant that tree at the proper time of year, and you soon can free it from its shackles.

If you think about it, the cool season would be the only time to plant in California if it weren't for sprinklers. It's our ability to fake rain that allows us to plant at other times of the year (which is perhaps why I am such a fan of fall; I still haven't gotten around to installing sprinklers).

Not all things do well planted in fall. Subtropical plants, including citrus and bougainvillea, are on a different, exotic timetable. They love warmth and do their growing in summer, so they might actually rot and die if planted when it is too cool. Wait until early March. And roses are such a good deal when sold in January and February that I wait until then to plant.

But because so many things can go in now, some kind of ordering is needed:

Winter vegetables: Scatter seed of winter veggies -- favorites such as lettuce and mesclun mixes, broccoli, carrots or peas -- as soon as possible to take advantage of warm soils. They will sprout much faster now than in late November or December. In fact, rather than let the tomatoes and squash linger into autumn, I take them out and begin sowing winter veggies in September because they come up so fast, almost overnight. Later, it makes sense to begin with greenhouse-raised plants bought at a nursery.

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