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Lonicera subspicata var. denudata photo by Emily Sluiman

Fall. Autumn. Second Summer. The much anticipated season following summer, preceding winter. A greatly appreciated relief from the hot dry months behind us, a wonderfully savored time of holidays, memories, family gatherings, and changes; in weather, leaf color, day length and the night sky, as we anticipate winter and its promise of spring. A season of hope. A look to the skies for the start of our rains. New birds arriving from distant lands, long migrations while others have left, flown south. The beginning of the horticultural year in the California natural garden.

Current events, history, review, and notes

Every year this month we pose the great southern California question: Will we get good rains this season? The urgency seems to be absent; we had copious rains last year and nearly three inches in late August. Still, are we in for a dry, “normal,” or wet winter? Fortunately, we are starting the season with healthy plants, moist soils, and for the most part, a pretty decent attitude. Last year’s record rains relieved a lot of stress on our part.

Holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) clean and green in fall and all year.


Regardless of the forecasts, or any prognosis for a possibly dry, “normal” or wet winter, we need to preserve soil moisture until we get our first real rain. Employ your typical Deep Soak (DS) technique as necessary and pray for rain. Refreshing Sprinkles (RS) are not critical, or even necessary in fall, as the nights are cool and this year we are seeing nice moisture in the air. During periods of dry Santa Ana winds, your garden will appreciate an afternoon Refreshing Sprinkle (RS) to rehydrate the plants’ stressed leaves.

Related to Watering

Not familiar with DS and RS mentioned above? See 2023 July in the Natural Garden, and August as well. Since October is one of the best months to plant new plants, they will need special individual attention regarding hand watering.


In previous monthly Natural Garden newsletters you have read, “wait for October to do most pruning.” This is a good month for thinning, heading back, shaping and grooming. Be aware that manzanitas may have what are called nascent buds, tiny suggestions of future flowers already well formed on their branch tips. If you prune these off, the plant will not flower this year.

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) hedge, badly in need of trimming. Dakota could also use a bath.


The strange rain of late August did strange things to our vegetation. In our natural areas, especially the desert, plants leafed out, turned bright green, and even started blooming. One unexpected result in our gardens was a new crop of weeds. Hopefully they have been eliminated. You need to get the garden weed free, especially if you plan to sow wildflower seeds in a month or so.

Mulching / Top Dress

It is safe to bring new mulch or top dress onto your soil surface, now that temperatures are not extreme and the days are shorter. If you import organic material, make sure it is high quality. Inferior mulches can actually cause harm. Beware of any “mulch” that contains all four of these particle shapes/sizes: sticks, strings, flakes, and dust. This mulch will lock in on itself and form a mat, impenetrable by water, and limiting air circulation into the root zone. The best organic top dress for most established gardens is “chunky.” A walk- on bark, 1/2-5/8” is quite nice.

For mineral top dress, apply 1” thick aggregate or decomposed granite of your choice.

Keep all imported mulch away from the trunks, ground-hugging stems and low branches of your plants.

Something spooky living in the 4” Iris crop. A garden ally for sure. Rewild. Don’t move things around too much.


Advisable. Feeding in October gives the plants a boost for one good flush of growth to begin in fall. It also strengthens the roots and gets plants ready for spring. The next feeding will be March/April. Use a balanced organic granular(dry) fertilizer, spread evenly over the entire garden according to the directions on the label. You can use slightly less since native plants are super efficient at finding nutrients. If you choose not to feed, or have never done so and your garden is growing fine, that’s OK too. But every garden can use a little TLC.

Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases

Be on the lookout for an insect pest called scale, leftover from summer, especially on the bark of old branches, and even the main trunk of manzanita. You will see an unnatural abundance of little whitish/beige (or brownish/black) bumps. You may also see Argentine ants scurrying about throughout the shrub. The scale insects are immobile, sucking on plant juices to feed. The ants are “tending” and protecting the scale and they are feeding on the sweet excrement called “honeydew.” Scale can be controlled with two spray applications of Neem oil (an organic), approximately 2-3 apart. Follow the directions on the bottle.

You may also find another insect on manzanita that causes unsightly, curled, bright red new leaves on the branch tips. This is manzanita leaf gall aphid, and is also a leftover from spring and summer. Non-chemical control is achieved by trimming the damaged branch tips off. Discard the prunings in the trash or green waste, but away from the garden. Please see 2023 May in the Natural Garden for complete information on this injurious plant pest. Chemical control would require the use of a systemic insecticide, and we don’t recommend their use in the Natural Garden.

Use the email below to send questions (include photos if possible) troubleshooting any problems you see in your Natural Garden. 

Annual Wildflowers

Undoubtedly, you have been patiently waiting for fall to sow your wildflower seed. We have a great supply on hand. You can sow seed now, but if you wait just a couple more weeks, we’ll have a better chance for rain. Ideally, we sow our seed right before the rains, or just after the first good soaking rain. If you sow too early, the seeds will be fine waiting for the rains, but the birds may find them too, so… timing is everything.

Adding New Plants

Speaking of timing, October is the best month to plant native plants. They become partially established in fall weather, grow more roots through winter, and become fully established in the spring… ready for their first summer in the ground.

Symphyotrichum defoliatum, San Bernardino aster, a fall pollinator’s delight.


Abundance. In most years, the end of the dry season leaves us with parched, dusty landscapes. This year, our plants are clean and green, and our gardens are full… in some cases so full that some good pruning and grooming are in order. Even in the wild places, natural vegetation is showing abundant new growth, germination, fall season bloom, and overall exuberance. 

A residential natural garden in urban San Diego. Mesa oak, (Quercus engelmannii) Elymus ‘Canyon Prince’, golden currant (Ribes aureum). Rewild. Photo: Bobby Cressey

Important Review

Fall is fine

Keep the root zone moist, DS

All pruning is OK

Keep up on weeding

Mulching is OK

Feeding is advisable

Manzanita – Scale and leaf gall

Plant seeds soon

Plant plants now

Plants shouting “Abundance”

Fall skies, Torrey Pines State Reserve


The swallows are gone for the winter and it’s hard to imagine that the cheerful little birds that graced the eaves of our Casa ‘La Paz’ last spring and summer, are covering 200 miles a day heading south. Robins are coming in from the north, in lower numbers than the swallows who left. Our migratory bats have pretty much disappeared, but they always leave a few loners who make it through the winter and hold down the fort for all their compadres next spring. The winter constellations are starting to rule the night. Scorpio is gone. Orion is back, front and center, with Taurus, Gemini, and the Pleiades, all shining clear as a bell. The days are just about perfect, not cold, not hot, with only a slight chill in the nights.

Our gardens may seem perfectly stable and immutable, but in fact, they are in constant flux, with especially big shifts occurring during the times when the seasons are changing. We observe and engage.

It has been said that the most constant thing in the universe is change. What a great time of year! Southern California’s seasonal nuances may not be as famous as the fall color of New England or the aspens in the Rockies. But when we use all five senses to appreciate our seasonal changes, especially in fall, and we tune in to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste all of nature all around us, we win. And nobody loses. Now that’s a game worth playing.

An autumn event at Tree of Life Nursery:


Saturday 11-11-23, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm

Tree of Life Nursery


Plant natives, experience nature.

It’s that simple.

Plant sales, presentations, readings – excerpts from great writers, interactive discussions.

Details to follow.

Hey, it’s fall and the start of a new garden year. Let’s keep makin’ it!

From the OCTOBER in the Natural 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: