Northern California Gardener's October Checklist

If you’d like further evidence of how different California is, see a Notre Dame football game on TV this month. I am not discussing the more exciting manner California teams play the sport but about the fall scenes on Notre Dame’s Indiana campus — gorgeous with brilliant autumn color early in the month, then leafless and bare by Halloween (and also for the subsequent five months).

Perhaps I am being provincial? October in Northern California instead provides us with roses flowering, tomatoes and summer flowers such as zinnias still going strong, touches of fall color and enough hot weather to make this one of those season’s best times for planting.

You will notice that our fall color looks early this year. I am not a botanist (unless you count sleeping during Botany 10 in Berkeley decades past) but I believe the change in time has to do with a dry 2012, not chilly temperatures or other things. That is a fantastic reminder for the future: Encourage fall-color trees by holding back a little on watering them in summer time.

Plant something different pots of chrysanthemums. Nothing wrong using festooning a backyard with pots of blooming chrysanthemums, however they lost a lot of the strong seasonal individuality when Safeway started selling them every day of the year. Instead, why don’t you marijuana a couple plants that suggest the season in their own manner — and could become lasting showpieces in your own garden? I am considering some permanent trees and shrubs which are modest enough to flourish in a kettle for a couple of years.

Pomegranates symbolize fall in Mediterannean climates. Like ancient Christmas decorations, the fat, round red fruits hang heavy on spindly branches along with little leaves turning an autumn yellow. For a container, look for a dwarf variety such as ‘Nana’, showing fall foliage and tiny red fruits if you are lucky.

Photo courtesy of Frank Chan

Donna Lynn – Landscape Designer

Choose a container climbed. Many roses possess a solid autumn. ‘Iceberg’, shown here, is strong all year and does well in a pot. Other good options for containers incorporate low, compact kinds, for example as ‘Flower Carpet Appleblossom’ (pink) and ‘Caramba’ (red).

Additionally, see what’s flowering or showing fall color in the local nursery. Among the container candidates are kumquat, dwarf nandina, Japanese walnut and sasanqua camellias. You’ll need a pot measuring two inches taller and broader than the plant’s root ball. Use nursery potting mix unless you’ve got your own.

The New York Botanical Garden

Prepare soil for planting. Once I started working in Sunset magazine, 1 fall years back, my first task was pushing wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of composted ground bark and dumping it on beds being ready for planting.

Not really understanding why, I just did exactly what the head gardener told me. He was a rough-hewn, cigar-chomping, plain-talking, lovely guy who’d learned his trade country estates in Woodside, California, for elite San Francisco coffee-making families.

His precise and quantified techniques were based on traditional English procedures, and they worked, judging by Sunset’s luxurious spring beds in these days. I am guessing that the folks at Filoli Mansion and Gardens in Woodside prepare their magnificent beds the exact same manner.

The lost art of digging out a planting bed:

Pull or dig out flowers and weeds.
Make certain that the soil’s moisture level is right; the soil ought to be moist but not drippy with water when squeezed.
Use a spade, spading fork or tiller to flip over the entire bed to the depth of a spade. Split clods as you move.
Smooth the face with an iron rake. Then pile on the organic matter (soil bark, compost etc.) to a depth of at least two or three inches — the amount required still surprises me.
Sprinkle on slow-release food or whatever fertilizer the local nursery urges.
Work this all in with a spade or another tool to a depth of 6 or 8 inches. Rake the entire bed smooth. It is prepared for planting!

The Todd Group

Bulbs for California. If you’ve seen the spring show in Daffodil Hill in the Gold Country, you know that fall-planted bulbs make themselves right at home in California. Some bulbs, which is. Others struggle with our mild winters or alternative climate quirks, and they need special care to perform well.

Daffodils are simple and will naturalize, coming back year after year if left in the ground, as long as you let them go dry in the summer. But conventional tulips and hyacinths are challenging. They are great one-season actors, especially in baskets; simply plan to throw away the bulbs after one bloom. Bulbs indigenous to South Africa, that has a climate much like California’s, flourish here: freesia, montbretia, watsonia. Muscari andgalanthus are also winners.

Here are a couple bulb planting guidelines to keep in mind: Order or buy ancient but plant overdue — following month is OK for planting. Compensate for our lack of winter chill by keeping tulip and hyacinth bulbs in a paper bag in the refrigerator for six months or so. Because of our warm fall weather and hot dirt, planting too deep is much better than too shallow — 6 inches for daffodil bulbs is nice. Bulbs appear best in multitudes — either 50 or perhaps 100 in the ground, if your budget allows, or a few dozen in containers.


Peas, sweet and other. Few plants are as satisfying to mature as sweet peas (for their fragrant blooms) and their cousins the edible peas (for their garden-fresh sweetness).

I don’t consider any of them simple to grow, and they are as persnickety as any plant about their appropriate planting time — they need to bloom or ripen in the cool weather of spring, if you don’t reside in a eternally, delightfully cool place llke Half Moon Bay, where it’s always pea-picking time.

One grower in the Santa Clara Valley told me that the best planting date is October 26, which contributes to picking time on St. Patrick’s Day along with an end of the season around Mother’s Day.

In the majority of Northern California, anytime this season ought to be fine for sowing seeds or setting out little seedlings. Make sure you plant in sunlight, or else you encourage mould.

The New York Botanical Garden

For both flowering and edible peas, you will find climbing and bushy forms. Dwarf types require minimum staking or clinging devices and are easier to deal with than climbers.

Dwarf sweet peas include Bijou, Knee-Hi and many others, growing from 8 inches to 3 feet tall; these do especially well in containers — move them where it is possible to sniff the fragrance. There are lots of edible peas from which to pick, either shelling (English) or edible-pod forms, for example sugar peas. One almost-sure way to get kids interested in eating vegetables: Let them select ‘Sugar Snap’ peas crunchy fresh from the vine.

More on growing peas

When did monkey flowers clean their act up? Before a recent trip to Home Depot, the previous time I’d seen monkey blossom (Mimulus aurantiacus), it was kind of a scruffy, sprawly low shrub determined to bloom virtually all year in the driest foothills around California.

The Home Depot mimulus, named ‘Georgie Yellow’, was streamlined, with glossy green leaves and bright yellow blossoms. It is a hybrid, the result of decades of dedicated breeding in UCLA, UC Davis and elsewhere — including England, where botanists, enchanted with California’s native flora, took home several species of mimulus in the 18th century.

Check out garden centers for lots of mimulus hybrids, likely still blooming this month. You will find other Georgies available in orange, red and white, in addition to another series called Curious — such as the Curious Orange, revealed.

About the naming: The “fighter” comes from the resemblance of the flower to a widely smiling monkey (maybe you had to be there), that must have led to variations around the theme of Curious George.

The hybrids make excellent garden plants and are simple to grow, flowering much of the year. Most mature compactly, about two feet tall. Use them in boundaries or on a hillside, blended in for spots of color among rosemary, lavender and other plants which need sunlight and little water. Planted today, they ought to bloom more profusely beginning next spring.

Robin Amorello, CKD CAPS – Atmoscaper Design

What to do in October? It’s easy to become obsessed with foliage and other fall chores directly in front of you. But recall what a fantastic planting period this is.

Plant cool-season vegetables. Most collapse–spring crops need well-prepared soil in full sun. These are easy to grow from seeds sown directly in the ground: chard, carrots and radishes. These are easier to begin from toddlers: broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Watch for snails and slugs since the weather dampens.

Plant cool-season flowers. It is ideal to get them in the ground soon — that may provide you blossoms by Christmas. Almost all cool-season annuals prefer full sunlight; you might need to shield them from late hot spells. Most reliable are calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and violas.

Plant natives. This is the ideal season for planting California natives. To locate hard-to-find species, take a look at a sale put on by a local branch of the California Native Plant Society. Volunteers have grown the plants and help them. Check here for locations

More to plant: Lawns (sod or seeds), perennials for spring blossoms, and most trees and shrubs except frost-tender tropicals.

Boost roses. You may be able to squeeze out one more bloom from roses this year. Cut off faded flowers, fertilize the soil with increased water and food deeply. Hold off the main pruning until after New Year’s.

Keep watering. Unless ancient rains surprise us, just about what will continue to need irrigation. Check for moisture to be certain. Use a trowel or scoop to see what the top two or three inches of soil are like. Don’t forget your yard.

Fertilize. Give lawns a fall feeding if you have not already. Search for yellow indications of iron deficiency on citrus leaves; supply a shot of citrus food containing iron if needed.

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