If April is the cruelest month (or so says poet T.S. Eliot), September is certainly the most confusing. And what of the month following? Surely, Steely Dan had October in mind for the lyric, “Here come those Santa Ana winds again” (from the song “Babylon Sisters”).
Okay, enough with the literary references. Fall is the California gardener’s spring– it’s the best time to plant because at some point the weather grows temperate, and the bugs become less abundant. Yet the beginning of the season is a peculiar time for southern California gardeners because we don’t know if we’re coming or going. Temperatures (104 degrees in Long Beach!) tell us it’s too hot to plant. The calendar tells us it’s time to start our winter vegetables and set out spring-blooming bulbs.
So, when people ask, “What should I plant now?” the answer isn’t simple. Fortunately, you have this handy-dandy column to use as a reference.
First, if your existing vegetable plants look ratty, yank them out and make room for something else. But if your cukes, tomatoes and squash are still productive, let them do their thing until they slow down– usually by the beginning of November.
Cool-season vegetables to plant now include lettuce, Asian vegetables like bok choi, Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, beets, mustard greens, peas, potatoes, and parsley. Wondering how to fit all those in? Remember that leafy veg like lettuce, Swiss chard, kale and Asian greens can get by with less sun. Those that form flowers– broccoli, cauliflower, and so on– should go in your sunniest spots.
Did the recent high temps fry your flowers? For a quick pop of color, put in some vinca. They look a lot like impatiens but can take the heat. Find them in nurseries and big-box stores in shades of pink, orange and white. Your containers and garden beds will thank you.
This is also the time to plant certain spring-blooming bulbs. Drought-tolerant South African bulbs do especially well here and offer a chance to try something new. They include babiana, croscosmia, freesia, watsonia and many others. Oriental lilies can also be planted now for spring.
While I like the idea of bulbs, I usually forget where I put them and am surprised when they pop up. And sometimes I plant things on top of them. Oops. So this year, I’m planting them in containers. When they come up, I’ll whisk the container into the garden and voila– instant beauty!
Jennifer E. Beaver, a Wrigley resident, is a master gardener and author of Container Gardening for California and Edible Gardening for California.