Skip to content

October in the Natural Garden 2019


It’s official. Fall is here. 

For many years we have celebrated October 15 as the official start of the planting season. All things about the equinox being equal, the nights will continue to beat out the days for the next three months, as day length decreases about one minute a day until we hit winter solstice. But we shouldn’t jump ahead to fast. Winter is coming, but fall is here, and that means plant, plant, plant! Also, a perfect time to get out and see nature, up close in your garden and out yonder over hill and dale where you find inspiration for your own place. The main point, go explore the outdoors, near and far, for your own well being.

The brief rainfall we got at the end of September made everything smell nice, and washed off most of the leaves, but did not penetrate into the root zone at all. It was a nice reminder of what rain is like, and we’ll take it as a herald of good times ahead, but from the standpoint of supplying late-season moisture to your soil, it did nothing. Our soils are still warm but getting cooler fast, and native plants will experience a “second spring” or a sort of “bonus” off-season growing period if their roots can find adequate moisture now. So you need to continue your normal summer season watering routine until we see how (if) this year’s rains materialize.


Please see WATERING GUIDE if you are not familiar with our tried and true method for watering natives in summer. Basically, your goal is to provide water so that the soil remains consistently moist at a depth of around 14-18” Of course the shallower soils will dry out from the top down, and when the soil is dry to the touch at a level of 4” or so, it is time for a Deep Soak.

A Deep Soak is the simulation of a rain event providing 1-1.5” precipitation. With most sprinkler systems, you will have to run the sprinklers for over 2 hours, which is impractical and can cause problems with run-off, wind drift, or plant disease. In order to water for such a prolonged period, it is best to divide the total time into 3 consecutive days, watering 30-40 minutes each day, similar to a rainstorm that delivers showers of a 3 day period. You only have to do Deep Soaks every 3-4 weeks, and if one is due in October, it may be the last of the season… if the rains show up. Deep soak irrigations should be done in the early morning.

Between Deep Soaks, you can conduct Refreshing Sprinkles, which you do in the late afternoon. These waterings do not provide enough moisture to penetrate into the soil for the benefit of the roots. In the early evening, you can run your sprinklers a couple of times a week, or even better, use a garden hose with a spray nozzle to wash off the plants, cool the leaves and wet the top of the soil. It only takes about 5 minutes and your plants will really love it, especially at the end of a hot day. You’ll love it too.

Related to Watering

As we move into cooler times, the Refreshing Sprinkle at the end of the day will not be so important, because the nights are much cooler. But, during periods of dry Santa Ana winds, often prevalent in October and November, you can give your garden a little boost by wetting the leaves at the end of the day. And monitor soil moisture carefully. With shorter days and cooler nights, the soil will not dry out as fast as it does in summer.


October is a good time to conduct all manner of garden clean-up, including pruning, grooming, and heading back. Now it’s time for you demonstrate horticultural skill and an artful eye with your pruning shears in hand. First, stand back and visualize the end result. Whether you are opening up a manzanita to expose the lovely branching habit, heading back a buckwheat so it does not completely smother the sage next to it, or shaping a coffeeberry that has grown wayward branches and become a little too rowdy for the space, the key to pruning is to do a little all around, then pause and stand back again and again, evaluate, and do a little more (or less) as necessary until you are finished.

Note on plant care… hygiene is important. You’ll need to keep your pruning equipment clean and avoid potentially spreading plant disease from branch to branch or plant to plant. Use a 10% bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach), Lysol spray, or rubbing alcohol to sanitize your tools.  When pruning diseased branches dip or spray between cuts. When pruning healthy plants, it’s still a good idea to dip or spray your shears periodically. Rinse thoroughly when you are finished as bleach is caustic and will damage your shears in storage.


If you have been watering properly all summer long, you should have no weeds at this time. In general, weed control all year in the natural garden is achieved 1) by competition – garden plants outcompete weeds for light, water, space, resources, 2) by hand – pulling, hoeing, and cutting, 3) by herbicide, reserved only for the rare application on perennial weeds such as bermudagrass, St. Augustine grass, or nutsedge.


Here’s what roots want: dark (duh, but yes this is a requirement), plus moisture, oxygen, nutrients in the right amounts. Here are the basic horticultural principles about mulch: Cover and shade the surface of the soil to preserve moisture, discourage weeds, and look tidy.  Here’s how plants make their own top dress: by growing low branches that shade the root zone and drop leaves, twigs and organic material that accumulates on the surface. Your mature, established natural garden should never require repeated applications of new top-dress, except to perhaps tidy things up a bit, especially in bare areas. But don’t forget to leave some bare dirt native bee species to make their little nesting sites.

If you apply organic top dress to bare areas in a new planting, avoid any material that smells bad, and also avoid material made of “sticks, strings, flakes and dust,” that usually forms an impenetrable mat, prohibiting water and air (see above) from entering the soil. 

If you apply a mineral top-dress, (i.e.; DG, decorative gravel, pebbles, stones, etc.) do so by creating naturalistic drifts and patterns under the plants. Your model can be found in nature.

Stay tuned for our soon to be published brochure “The Low Down Dirt of Mulch.”


Yes, October is a great month to give your garden a little TLC with a light application of any all-purpose, full spectrum organic fertilizer. Follow the instructions on the bag, or cut the rates down a little. Natives are super efficient at finding and using plant nutrients.

Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests, and Diseases

Just before the rainy season, it seems the Argentine ants decide to make life difficult for us. Drown those colonies, research the judicious use of growth regulators, improve cultural habits, eliminate their favorite nesting sites, and avoid chemical poisons.

Annual Wildflowers

If you want flowers in March, you need to sow flowers this fall. But so far this year, with sunny dry days, it is a bit early. Ideally, you have your seed in hand and you can sow after the first rain and before the second rain. And for an extended bloom time, and some assurance for overall success, plan on doing 3 or 4 sowings, starting at the beginning of the rainy season and ending in late January.

Adding New Plants

Yes, yes, and yes. As stated above, October 15 marks the beginning of the perfect planting season.


Feeling a crisp chill in early morning, hearing the familiar calls of our visiting winter birds, and watching our native plants come out of their summer holding pattern, we are inspired with thoughts of renewal. The cycle is repeated every year. Fall is the first season for California’s natural gardens, and summer the last. In between, winter is generally dark and quiet and spring screams abundance. But it all starts in fall.

From the Garden,

Mike Evans

Questions? Help is just one call or one email away. Call (949) 728-0685 or email (with pictures if you like) our special helpline:

To get our monthly updates sign up for our eNewsletter at this link here.