October in the Natural Garden
October just feels right. California’s natural plants and animals stand ready to have all the dust rinsed off so they can go about their favorite carefree activities. With no more hunkering down to endure extreme heat, this month they breathe a sigh of relief. And so do California’s natural gardeners.
California black oak showing a first hint of fall color. Laguna Mountains, San Diego County.
Current events, history, review, and notes
As we look at our gardening calendar, we see that today we are solidly planted in a New Year!
Let’s review our Six Seasons in the Natural Garden
Fall – October, November – rains commence, many garden tasks, fall flowers.
Winter – December, January – rain, short cool days, calming dormancy, winter flowers.
Spring – February, March, April – more rain, birds, butterflies, life abounds, abundant flowers.
Pre-Summer – May – farewell cool and moist, hello hot and dry, transition month.
Summer – June, July, August – judicious watering, long hot days, seeds, summer blooms.
Post-Summer – September – farewell hot and dry, hello cool and moist, transition month.
Now let’s talk about those “many garden tasks” for fall. Gardening, like farming, is all about performing tasks today that will pay dividends in 3-6 months. Garden ahead. Try not to play “catch-up” on the routine stuff. Surprise problems throughout the year, like heat waves, cold spells, excess rain, or insect infestations will demand immediate attention, but most common problems can be avoided by employing preventative measures 3-6 months ahead.
Yes. Until the rains come, do not let your soil dry out. In fact, if your soil is consistently moist to a depth of 14” or more, when the rains do come in the next few weeks, the water will find its way into the slick, moist pore spaces, and penetrate the full depth, giving your plants their first taste in months of fresh water from the clouds. Continue with perhaps (we hope) the final Deep Soak of the year. The afternoon Refreshing Sprinkles can be reserved for only the hottest fall afternoons until the rains come. If these terms are new to you, here’s what they mean: see the WATERING section in AUGUST 2019, MAY 2021, or AUGUST 2021
Related to Watering
A long time ago, an old old-timer told me that right after the fall equinox, the groundwater table moves closer to the soil surface. I have not investigated this nor googled it to determine its veracity, fact or fiction. I don’t want to. Please do not feel the need to confirm or refute this belief for me. I have, for over 50 years, noticed that willows and other creek bed plants in bone-dry watercourses appear more verdant after September 21, and I am content to imagine I know why. With this, I remain satisfied… and I have fond memories of my old friend.
Here’s where you can improve the look of your garden, allow little birds to flit in and through your larger shrubs, prepare for new growth in spring, and spend a little quality time in your garden. Feel free to open up those tangled dense shrubs like manzanita, sugar bush, ceanothus, lemonade berry and toyon. In many cases, you would prefer a somewhat miniaturized version anyway, something more in scale to your space. By thinning (removing entire branches from near the center of the plant) and heading back (clipping the tips to manipulate the overall shape of the plant) you can artfully prune your plant so it looks like an old, wild specimen.
For heading back many native shrub species, if necessary at all, don’t delay, or you’ll be cutting off next year’s flower buds. For example, manzanitas bloom in January. Avoid tip pruning or heading back on manzanitas at this time. In attempting to shape the plants by clipping the tips, you will lose the spring flowers. Ceanothus bloom in March/April, and most can still be tip pruned now, though they should have been headed back last May as well, immediately after their blooms faded. You can trim the outer tips of lemonade berry, sugar bush, toyon, salvia and other shrubs with rampant long (not blooming) branches as necessary. Overall thinning will not affect flower production on winter/spring flowering plants, except to slightly improve it, because more uniform sunlight will reach the branches you leave on the plant.
As a precaution, always have a jar of 10% bleach solution, rubbing alcohol, or Lysol spray at hand to clean your shears as you prune. This will prevent spread of disease, if any. If you are cutting diseased or questionable branches, dip or spray between each cut. If you are cutting healthy wood, simply clean occasionally. Rinse your tools thoroughly at the end.
A nicely pruned manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Dr. Hurd’) specimen. The tangled twigs and overlapping branches have been removed from the center of the plant in order to “open it up.” Tree of Life Nursery.
Ok. Eliminate the last of the summer weeds to make room for the first of the winter weeds. Just kidding. If you keep up on weeding, especially in a new garden, this little chore becomes a non-issue because in an older garden you will have achieved a stable, sustainable soil surface where weeds can neither make an assault nor get a stronghold.
In a mature natural garden, you will notice a nice layer of dried leaves building up. These leaves fall steadily from shrubs all summer long. In their first life, they provided food for the plant through photosynthesis. Now they provide food for the plant in the root zone, covering the ground to keep it cool and moist, then decomposing to give life to the soil and nutrients for the plants. Don’t rake them or (perish the thought) blow them away. They are precious.
On a recent trip to Tucson, my friend Bill Broyles proudly led me on a path in his garden where he has allowed leaves from his desert tree species to accumulate over many years, providing a soft, quiet, cushioned feel underfoot. Most trails in the Sonoran Desert are harsh and rocky, gravelly and thorny. His shady spot, though dry, was refreshing, his trees luxuriant, the gentle ground texture helping the shadows make sense.
Remember, if you want to bring in “mulch” from an outside source, first watch our YouTube workshop, “THE LOW DOWN DIRT ON MULCH.” If you want to apply an imported top dress material you can do it now through November. Bottom line advice: clean chunky mulch, i.e.; redwood 1/2” walk-on bark is best. Any organic mulch that will lock in on itself, forming an impenetrable mat should be avoided. If the product is made up of a combination of all of these particles, do not use it: “sticks, strings, flakes, and dust.” Not good.
Here’s another October garden task that will make both you and your plants happy. Apply fertilizer. Use a dry, all purpose, organic plant food and scatter it on your soil surface like you’re feeding chickens. Never fed chickens? It’s kinda like spreading fertilizer. Follow the directions on the bag or use slightly less. If possible, scratch up the top 1/2” of soil with a 3-prong cultivator, and water it in, meaning, soak the ground enough to get the fertilizer to sink in a bit. Hopefully, the rains will take over from there, transporting the nutrients deep into the root zone.
Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases
Fungal root rot and branch dieback are warm season problems on certain native species in the garden. We’re past that time, so clean up any residual diseased plants, sanitize your shears, discard the prunings (not in your mulch) and look forward to good times ahead. Watch for late season Argentine ants tending their “herds” of mealy bug, scale, and aphid. Our fall is like a second spring for many insects, and they can do considerable damage before winter sets in.
As a general rule, the California natural garden is one where a balance of beneficial insects and other predators keeps harmful or injurious insect pests at bay. If you see undiagnosed problems, please send a note with pictures to our GardenHelp email address shown at the end of this newsletter.
This is the month you have been waiting for. October is the perfect time to broadcast annual wildflower seed in specific areas or over your entire garden. Simply scratch up the soil 1/2” deep and scatter the seed kinda like feeding chickens. Again? Again. See section on Feeding above. Come to Tree of Life, we have several seed mixes to choose from.
Adding New Plants
Oh man, it doesn’t get any better than October. Come on over. You’ve been waiting a long time and now is the perfect time to plant. We have a huge and diverse selection of plants ready to be added into your garden. And don’t forget pollinators. Plant fall flowering beauties such as Solidago, Baccharis, Ericameria, Isocoma and Epilobium.
Every day is a good day in the natural garden. We can learn so much in the heat of summer or the cold of winter… but fall and spring are the seasons when we review lessons on new life. In the natural garden, October is the month you can do just about anything and everything. In fact, it’s best to get out there and do at least something, because aside from indiscriminate pruning or violating some basic common-sense horticultural rule, you can do almost no harm this month. The plants are very resilient and they are calling for you to touch them and interact with them.
I have actually witnessed a garden go into mourning at the death of its caregiver. We should enjoy the unique reciprocal relationship we have with our own outdoor spaces, no matter how large or small. While we can. Also, let’s get out there to the natural spaces that belong to nobody, belong to us all, and breathe in that rich cool fall air. Bring some home and exhale it onto your own garden, gaining inspiration from, and giving life to every plant and every creature great and small.
Hey, let’s keep making it!
From the OCTOBER Garden,
P.S. September 2021 Equinox Full Moon
The desert woodrat
Has been resting all season
Sleeping fast by day
His night’s work cut short
The summer’s incessant heat
And hours of bright sun
The full moon tonight
With hours equaling the sun’s
And change in the air
The rat knows what’s next
Long nights allowing more toil
The owl knows as well
Extended hours for hunting
As the fall comes in
Questions? Help is just one call or one email away. Call (949) 728-0685 or email (with pictures if you like) our special helpline: firstname.lastname@example.org