October is a month of contrasts!
Written for the Davis Enterprise, October 2001
There's always an edge in the air in this month of dramatic contrasts. More so this year, of course, because of anxiety, but even in "normal" years it can be a month of extremes. It's normal for us to have a strong, dry north wind sometime in early October, and it isn't at all unusual for us to have a 100F day sometime early in the month. But the night temperatures drop steadily and the days grow shorter, so it "feels" like fall even though the leaves don't turn color and the rains don't come until later in the month. October is usually a dry month here, but we often get one cold, thorough rain around Hallowe'en.
Looking ahead to winter, what can we expect?
Now that we know about the effects of what researchers call the Southern Oscillation, which is the swing in ocean temperatures from El Niño to La Niña and back, researchers can predict general rainfall patterns in Northern California. We are trending away from La Niña towards El Niño (some scientists are calling it "La Nada"), so we can expect wet winters in the next year or so if El Niño is strong (remember 1995?). However, some research has correlated the years before El Niño (like this year) with more likely episodes of the "Pineapple Express" where warm, wet air crosses the Pacific Ocean and unloads its water on us. Some of theworst flood episodes on the American River watershed have occurred during "La Nada" years. So we can expect average rainfall (about 17") with the possibility of a couple of real doozies. Don't throw out the sandbags yet.
There are lots of things you can do in the garden now
to make it prettier this winter and beautiful next spring. These aren't chores, they're opportunities ("son, I've got a few opportunities for you this weekend..."). Most of these activities focus on soil building, grooming, pruning, and renewal.
Your lawn could use a little attention after the long, hot summer.
If there are significant thin areas or brown patches you might consider a renovation: dethatch, aerate, fertilize, overseed, and topdress with compost. It sounds simple, but it does involve some machinery. A dethatcher or power rake rips out the thatch (the layer of dead leaves and stems that builds up and makes the lawn "spongy" when you walk on it). An aerator pulls little plugs of soil out, allowing air and water to penetrate better. Starter fertilizer should be high in Phosphorus (e.g., 16-16-16). Get your existing grass identified and describe your sun or shade conditions so you'll buy the right type of grass seed. Peat moss or any kind of compost can be used to make a light topdressing to keep the seed moist. Water daily for the next 3 - 4 weeks while the grass is germinating.
Plant annual flowers for winter and spring bloom:
Pansies, Violas, Snapdragons, Calendulas, Stock, Sweet peas, Sweet alyssum, Cyclamen, and Primrose (especially the delicate-looking Fairy primroses). Most of these make great container flowers, especially mixed with ivies. Or plant some of the edible flowers (pansies, calendulas) with red-leaved leaf lettuce or parsley for an edible winter bouquet!
Plant perennials now to bloom for years to come.
That's a whole 'nother article, but there are lots of plants you can grow from seed or buy to transplant into the garden now. Groom your existing perennials: cut back herbaceous (soft) plants to a few inches from the ground. Trim woody ones lightly to remove dead flowers and encourage bushiness.
Give your roses some special care.
Cut off dead blossoms and hips (seedheads), wash off the foliage, fertilize, and give them a good thorough soaking. They'll reward you with a great fall bloom.
Daffodils and other Narcissus increase freely here. Freesias are sweetly fragrant. Tulips and Hyacinths come in vibrant colors and some can be encouraged to repeat bloom. There are many other bulbs that do exceptionally well in this area: Grape hyacinths, Wood hyacinths, Snowflakes, Alliums, Scillas, and many more.
Plant native plants.
This is the best time to plant native shrubs, trees, and perennials so their roots establish in the rainy season. Get to the annual UC Davis Arboretum Plant Faire on October 6. Arrive early and bring a wagon! Watch for the plant sale by the Sacramento chapter of the California Native Plant Society, which is also held in October.
Bare dirt is an invitation to weeds. Fill those spaces with other plants!
Sow wildflower seeds in open areas, and plant cover crops in your vegetable garden. Wildflowers can be scattered on bare dirt, but they will establish more quickly if it is loosened by tilling or cultivating first. Water every day or so until the winter rains come. It's important to recognize the seedlings of the wildflowers vs. those of our common weeds. Nursery professionals and master gardeners can help you identify them as they germinate.
are plants that grow quickly in the fall and winter, choking out weeds and helping to build the soil by providing organic matter. Annual ryegrass germinates quickly and grows fast, so it is one of the most effective at reducing weeds. Legumes (members of the pea family) will create nitrogen in the soil, enriching it as well as making it healthier. Two of my favorites are vetch, which produces lots of foliage, and Crimson clover with its pretty red flowers in spring. Annual rye and vetch combined are particularly effective, and can simply be mowed off in the spring and then rototilled in. White clover makes an effective cover crop in orchards, but is nearly ineradicable. Planting it is a kind of permanent decision!
Start a compost pile
so you're ready for all the fall leaves. Or, if you're lazier (like me) just rake up those leaves and then spread them out in the vegetable garden or under shrubs. They'll increase the humus and encourage the earthworms in the soil as they decompose during the winter. Leaf piles also provide overwintering habitat for many beneficial insects.
I was surprised when several people in the nursery on the first weekend after the 9/11 bombings commented that they "had to get out of the house and do something" or they "just wanted to buy some flowers." I shouldn't have been surprised: that's what we do--we continue to do the things that are normal to us, and planting something means we're still looking and planning ahead. Plants can be used for remembrance and renewal, to brighten a day in the act of planting and then brighten a whole season--especially this winter.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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