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Special Issue: Fall Gardens | The Monthly Gardener

The season to set down new roots

October's nurturing rains set the stage for spectacular growth.

October 06, 2005|Robert Smaus

ONCE A YEAR THERE IS AN opportunity to plant almost anything -- with success nearly guaranteed. In much of the country this occurs in spring. Here it happens about mid-October because nourishing rains come in fall, winter and early spring.

If your planting is completed by mid-November, plants also have the advantage of a soil still warm from summer, so roots grow quickly. And, because the sun is lower on the horizon and the days short, new plants are under little stress.

If rains cooperate (and they often don't), it is possible to plant a landscape in October, irrigate it thoroughly and then not water again until summer. When that happens, gardening can't get much easier.

Ah, there must be a catch, you say. Well, yes there is. In the fall, plants grow slowly, even imperceptibly, at least above ground. But in spring (which for some plants comes as early as February), they grow furiously because they have been making roots all winter and they can support lots of leafy growth.

So, just what can you plant this month?

Spring bedding plants

For spectacular spring blooms, here are some annuals and bedding plants to consider: Annual African daisy, sweet alyssum, calendula, Canterbury bell, ornamental cabbage and kale, English daisy, Iceland poppy, larkspur, lobelia, pansy, annual phlox, ranunculus, stock, sweet pea, sweet William, and viola. Sow from seed or plant the youngest nursery plants you can find. Several are so easy from seed they act like wildflowers, though they are not native to California, including bright red Flander's Field or corn poppies, larkspur, red flax and Johnny-jump-up. In shady spots, try the several kinds of primroses and florists' cyclamen.

Winter vegetables

Many vegetables only grow, or grow best, during the cool fall, winter and early spring months. These include beet, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrot, cauliflower, celery, endive, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, leek, head and leaf lettuce, mesclun mixes, onion, pea, radish, spinach, snow peas, Swiss chard and turnip. Most are easy from seed but cabbage, broccoli and other cole crops are best transplanted into the garden so they can be planted deep enough to cover and support the bends typically found in young stems.

Wildflowers and natives

From now into January is the best and most natural time to plant California natives in complete consonance with the seasons. Sow seed of such spring-blooming native wildflowers as poppies, godetia and baby blue eyes, or plant trees, shrubs and perennials from nursery containers. Every garden should have at least a few native plants, which bring the beauty and heady scents of the wild.


Cool-season lawns, such as the common tall fescues (Marathon, Medallion), can be put in from seed or sod. For winter green, scatter seed of fescue or annual rye on soon-to-be-dormant Bermuda grass lawns. Barely cover seed with an organic mulch or amendment but you might want to avoid stinky (and salty) steer manure for the neighborhood's sake.


Nurseries should be full of spring-blooming bulbs. Many are best treated as annual flowers in our climate. Tulips, for instance, will not bloom the following year (and require refrigeration for four to six weeks if they are to bloom at all). But there are lesser known bulbs that will go dormant in summer after flowering but return each fall, flowering in spring. These tough bulbs include amaryllis (Hippeastrum), babiana, calla lily, many of the small-flowered daffodils and narcissus, Dutch iris, freesia, homeria, ipheon, ixia, ixiolirion, lachenalia, Leucojum aestivum, moraea, nerine, oxalis, ranunculus, Scilla campanulata, sparaxis and watsonia.

Landscape plants

Most trees, shrubs and groundcovers planted now will have all winter to become established before the stressful summer months. Now is the time to redo a garden.

A few exceptions

You might want to hold off on roses or deciduous fruit trees because they are typically less expensive and more widely available during the January bare root season. And some young tropical plants might freeze in winter in marginal areas, so they might be better off planted in early spring.

Some October chores

This month is not all fun and planting. Divide daylilies or prune oleanders and coyote brush. Many perennials are done flowering and can be cut back. Some dried flowering stems can be decorative in winter so you might leave them. But gingers and cannas should be cut right to the ground. It's generally a good idea to force roses to rest by letting autumn's fading blooms turn to colorful rose hips for winter, so don't prune them off.

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