Photo: Mike Evans, Tree of Life Nursery ©

November a month of firsts. Nights noticeably colder now, first time in a long time.  In some areas the first frosty mornings, everywhere (hopefully) the first rains and, of course, the first arrival of several winter bird species. If you walk through your garden during or after that first rain, the scents and smells will stay with you all winter long.

October 2017 did not produce any rain, but man, we sure did cook under a hot sun for a few days. Many high temperature records for some dates were broken as most of southern California sweltered a few days in the triple digits. October heat waves are generally less harmful to garden plants than summer heat waves. Here’s why: The sun is lower in the sky. The nights are much cooler, sometimes 40-50 degrees cooler than the days. The soil temps are lower.

In lieu of rain, feel free to water your garden as necessary. With cooler soils and shorter days, there is practically no danger from root rot from overwatering. By now you should be very familiar with our WATERING GUIDE, which explains every detail.

Related to Watering
Before we do get our winter rains, assess your finished grade; that is, the microtopography of your garden. You should have swales, and basins, mounds and rivulets, all in place to cause water to trickle and meander through the garden, soaking into the ground rather than quickly running off. Also check that no soil is piled up around the plants’ crowns, the spot where the main stem comes out of the ground.

You can safely do any pruning you desire. If you want to control an unruly Ceanothus which has sent summer growth out in all directions, head it back as if a you were a deer browsing on tender shoots. It will make new growth now and get set up for more flowers next spring than you can imagine. If an older buckwheat, sage, or sunflower is looking ratty, you can cut it back hard, into old wood, as if a ground fire had scorched the branches. New growth will follow within a week or so. Older manzanitas can be artfully thinned to expose their beautiful branching habits. There is no danger of sun scorch on the branches.

In general, shaping, heading back, thinning, and all manner of pruning should be done this month to tidy up the place and reestablish a little law and order… not too much though… don’t take all the “wild” out of your natural garden. The best pruning leaves the place looking better, and should be hard to detect that it happened. You can cut approximately 25-30% of the branch tips to leave the plant in a nice shape. Practical tip: Always sanitize your pruning tools by periodically dipping them in a 10% bleach solution (9 parts water, 1 part bleach). If you would rather use rubbing alcohol or Lysol spray, that’s OK. The point is to not spread disease. If you cut branches that are dead or dying, be sure to sanitize between every cut.

If you have been working on weeds through summer and fall, your garden is now weed free. It’s probably a bit early for the first winter weeds to sprout, but do keep an eye out for them.

Mulching/Top dress
See our October post. On your properly graded site, you should have 2-3” of natural (your plants are now making their own) or imported (high quality bark product) mulch… or mineral topdress of decomposed granite/pebbles/rock. Always leave a few patches of bare dirt where native bees can dig their nesting holes.

If you did not apply a dry, organic fertilizer in October, feel free to do so now. There is something altogether right about trimming, pruning, grading to contour, applying topdress and feeding just before the rains arrive. Most organic fertilizers have relatively low levels of the basic plant nutrients, nitrogen – phosphorus – potassium, (N-P-K), the three numbers on the bag. Organics also add humic acid, and other beneficials to promote healthy biological activity in the soil. Best if you scratch it in just under the surface with your little three prong scratch… an incredibly useful tool in any garden.

Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases
The busy season for insect pests is passing. Keep an eye out for scale though.

Gophers, ground squirrels, rabbits and sometimes wood rats, or even the ugly roof rats will make us gardeners wring our hands in anger. Deal with it. Try to build habitat suitable for hawks and owls to do their job.

Our favorite gopher trap is called Maccabees. You have to use two in each tunnel. To exclude squirrels and rabbits, you might have to use temporary caging around individual plants.

Woodrats however are hard to catch. If your plants look like they have been mysteriously pruned with a perfect 45° slice cut, you have a wood rat (native species) nearby. They carry the cuttings off to make their nests. Since they only occur where there is plenty of good habitat, you will not have woodrats in your garden unless you live at the urban/wildland interface. If they are really causing a lot of harm, you will have to find their nest and ask the little tramps to please move on elsewhere (destroy their nest). Or you can just coexist with them and consider yourself lucky to live in such a nice environment. Regarding roof rats (imported, non-native species) we like Victor snap traps. No mercy on those little devils.

Annual Wildflowers
You can scatter some wildflower seeds anytime between November and February. Combine this activity with other grading, top-dressing and feeding activities.

Adding New Plants
November… the ideal time to plant natives.


Photo: Mike Evans, Tree of Life Nursery ©

Spend as much time outdoors as you possibly can. Your garden is going through some really cool changes this month and you want to not miss a thing. And don’t forget to bring some of the outdoors inside. As you trim old seed heads of buckwheat or sage, bring them in for a dry flower arrangement. When you find a neat rock or an attractive old stick, bring them in to become part of a natural diorama on your hearth or on some table. You can replace these simple decorations with pine cones and evergreens at Christmas, and spring flowers in due season.

From the Garden,

Mike Evans

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