September Checklist for Northern California
Fall really is a better season than spring. No long lines at the garden center. No B-list celebrities hawking miraculous fertilizers on TV. Meaningful football games and major league pennant races at the same time. And California’s best planting time is, arguably I'll grant, September 15 to October 15. If you plant now, daytime temperatures and soil are still warm enough to encourage growth – without the occasional brutally hot spells of summer that can torch young plants. Roots can become established before the cool rainy season, and top growth will be ready to take off next spring.
Except for tender tropicals not equipped to handle frosts that come in a couple of months, these conditions suit almost anything you might want to plant now: cool-season flowers and vegetables, perennials, wildflowers, natives, some bulbs. It's the best time of year to tackle major landscaping — including a lawn, ground covers, a tree for your patio, whatever.
Flowers by ChristmasTake advantage of one of the great payoffs of our region: Plant cool-season annuals (Iceland poppies, pansies, calendulas, and more) this month or early next month, and you should have blooms by late November or early December. Blooming slows down a bit over winter, then flourishes even more in early spring. Make sure you provide a sunny spot and a bed of bed of loose, well drained soil (fortified with compost). Even a few pots of cool-season annuals will make a splash. It’s amazing how eyecatching just a few Iceland poppies -- their crepe-like flowers fluttering on improbably slender stems -- appear when little else is blooming. 'Champagne Bubbles' is a colorful, dependable strain. The "Iceland" in the name is not poetic license; the plants are hardy and perennial in cold climates, but in mild California, they shine in fall, winter, and spring, then burn out in summer.
Big-time Planting This is the time to look for garden center bargains and put in plants that make a difference in your garden. If you want a shrub that performs right now, consider Sasanqua camellias. They are not the producers of humongous flowers like Japonica camellias, but they bloom delicately (red, pink, white) in early fall through late fall. Unlike the one-trick-pony Japonicas (basically a thick shrub), Sasanquas make great landscape plants: low and horizontal as a tall ground cover or foundation plant ('Shishi Gashira', shown here); upright and tall for background or even a hedge ('Jean May' and 'Setsugekka').
Have a Little Faith in NativesCalifornia native plants hardly ever look good in small nursery cans, and in fall they look pretty drab or dry – or maybe “dead” is the word I’m looking for. But that’s just their way. Natives tend to shine in spring, go almost dormant in the dry summer months when they shut down in self defense. Despite their current looks, this is a good time to plant California natives. Depending on species, Ceanothus (California lilac) can make a quick screen, hedge, ground cover,stand-alone shrub, or small tree. For a big, fast evergreen shrub, try 'Ray Hartman' ceanothus. Planted now, it will need regular watering until the rains come, establish itself during the rainy season, then surge with growth next spring. By next March or April, don’t be surprised to see a foot or two of new growth and clusters of vivid blue flowers.
A Tree for Your PatioWhat makes an ideal tree for a patio or other moderate size outdoor living area? Generally you’ll want a tree that’s on the small side, good looking when you sit near or under it, well groomed without need for frequent pruning or litter sweep-up, not requiring frequent pruning or other care. The criteria sound so demanding that you may feel you’re better off with a big umbrella. But don’t give up. In California, particularly, there are a number of good choices. Here are My Top 5 Patio Trees. They're all well behaved, big enough to offer some shade but not so big that they outgrow their space. Two are deciduous, but they look nice even when bare of leaves. For more on patio trees, see xxxxxxx. Even in the hottest climates, crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) will do something pretty every day of the year. In the heat of summer, its flowers bloom in bouquet-sized clusters of rich shades of red, pink, purple, and white. The leaves turn yellow, orange, and red in fall. Leafless trees in winter reveal brown and pink bark that is sometimes so smooth it gleams. Crepe myrtle is versatile in the landscape; it can be trained as small tree or even as a container plant. F...
Tips for the SeasonWhat Else To Do Now? There are many other planting choices, along with some essential projects to keep your garden going strong. Don’t worry about planting spring-blooming bulbs just yet. No need to plant until mid October at the earliest, early December at the latest. But you might want to order or shop for tulips, daffodils, freesias, and other bulbs now while supplies are abundant. Remember, in mild Northern California, tulips need chilling in your refrigerator’s vegetable crisper for 4 to 6 weeks before planting.Prep your planting beds. The best thing you can do now is to get planting beds and planting holes ready for fall planting. As a rule, for beds of annuals and perennials, add 2 or 3 inches of organic matter, and work it in to a depth of a foot or so. If you’re planting good-sized shrubs and trees, digging the planting hole won’t be easy after such a long dry season. Moisten the area a day or two ahead: dig down at least several inches and as wide as needed for the intended plant, and fill the starter hole with water several times that day. Let it soak in for a couple of days and dig again to the full depth.Give existing shrubs and trees a long drink. ...
#5 Fern Pine – A Gumby Plant Here’s a plant (Podocarpus gracilior) so malleable, so Gumby-like that you can shape it into all sorts of things – shrub, hedge, espalier, small tree. As a patio tree, trained with a single trunk and roundish top, it’s delicate, weepy, graceful, deep green, very easy to grow. Not a fern or a pine, the name comes from the lacy leaves that are so slim they look like needles. Maintain a tree shape by pruning off side branches from the lower trunk, , and let the top grow bushy (snip off the top to increase bushiness).
#4 Sweet Bay – For an Outdoor Kitchen This is the tree (Laurus nobilis, also called Grecian laurel) that gives us bay leaves for cooking and supplied the ancient Greeks with leaves for their heroic wreaths. It’s the perfect choice for a spot near the grill or kitchen; leaves for cooking will be handy, although they’re usually used dried not fresh. If left alone, sweet bay can become a good-sized tree, but trimming and shearing (and clipping leaves for the kitchen) can control size as well as encourage bushiness and a round top.
# 3 Arbutus ‘Marina’ – For Sentimental Reasons Grow this if you’ve loved the beautiful native madrone tree but know that it’s a beast to grow in a home garden. ‘Marina’ is a closely related hybrid that tolerates garden watering and domestic life but retains some of the madrone’s wild beauty – twisted, peely-barked, glossy reddish trunks, little pink flowers, big leathery leaves. Not a perfectly utilitarian tree (a bit messy, some dieback), but sometimes sentimental reasons trump everything else. My daughter just planted ‘Marina' in her courtyard because it reminds her of madrone trees at summer camp. Every time I see her tree, I think of carving a 7th-grade girl’s initials on a madrone trunk while on a Boy Scout camping trip in another time and place.
#2 Japanese Maple – Pure beauty. There’s no question that Japanese maples are beautiful at any time of year –colorful leaves in spring and fall, graceful bare trunks in winter (some even have colorful trunks). With so many different varieties available, the secret is choosing the right one as a tree for your patio. As a rule, the common species (Acer palmatum) tolerates more sun and heat (which can accumulate on a paved patio) better than those with fancy frilly leaves; the common green one also tends to grow faster and taller.
#1 Crepe myrtle – Can Do No Wrong Even in the hottest climates, crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) will do something pretty every day of the year. In the heat of summer, its flowers bloom in bouquet-sized clusters of rich shades of red, pink, purple, and white. The leaves turn yellow, orange, and red in fall. Leafless trees in winter reveal brown and pink bark that is sometimes so smooth it gleams. Crepe myrtle is versatile in the landscape; it can be trained as small tree or even as a container plant. For a patio tree, depending on your space, you can choose a plant with a single trunk or multiple trunks. Beware if you live in a cool coastal climate, where mildew often strikes the foliage and flowers.