Any actions might well be the wrong one if you do not understand your own soil and the microclimate of your garden. The first information you must gather on your garden is your soil composition and your Sunset Zone, then adjust these recommendations accordingly. This mostly addresses the needs of a vegetable garden. Ornamental and herb gardeners may use it as a guideline if they understand the nature of plants. Container Gardeners may also use it for Southern California, being especially vigilant about watering when we have warm and windy weather. The Santa Ana winds we experience here are tough on plants – particularly in the canyons. These actions that follow are predicated on the fact that I have a sandy soil, practically devoid of nutrition, on the coast in Sunset’s Zone 24.
As the Summer crops begin to decline, I clear them away and toss them onto the compost pile where they can break down and become organic matter (OM) for future crops. In areas where heavy feeders have been planted, I hope for the luxury of sowing a cover crop. At this time of the year, I use the cover crop mix from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, sown with a little rock dust for future mineralization.
About half-way into the month it hopefully becomes cool enough to sow arugula, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas and turnips. Leek and fennel seedlings ought to be ready to transplant outdoors, as should broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard and endive. As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager ensue, some summer crops are still producing (tomatoes) and the fall/winter crops in the ground promise more bounty as they poke their little heads skyward.
Don’t overlook fava beans which grow best in our cooler winters. Fava beans were the only bean in the Old World before the Americas were discovered; all the other beans are American in origin--as are tomatoes, most peppers, potatoes and peanuts. One wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough before their discovery of the “New World” to arrive at a culinary tradition! Favas make a marvelous addition to any soil building program and the beans, when combined with artichokes, make a Mediterranean stew so delicious that my taste buds flutter at the memory.
To have sweet pea flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. And even then, you’ll need ‘just right’ weather to get them to flower on cue; just enough heat to make them grow, just enough cool to keep them happy and enough moisture to accelerate growth, but not too much to cause excessive mildew. I really hope for red sweet peas around Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, but it’s really a challenge I have yet to master.
Things for the winter garden are in full swing. Later this month, if I have planted a green manure crop (a ‘green manure crop’ is a plant I’m growing to turn back into the soil – I’m using the plant’s themselves as one uses manure to increase the fertility of the soil), I might spade that under or wait until later if I don’t need that space just yet. I want to allow the overturned plants to “mellow” (meaning to break down into nutrients the next crops can use) for about 2 weeks before planting. This area could well become home to my heirloom garlic crop, or to onions, leeks, later broccoli or cabbage. The one chard plant set out last month will provide me with enough chard to regret if I keep it picked, so there is no succession sowing lined up for that. But everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals.
One of the good points about putting in many little plantings of veggies is the ability to harvest your vegetables at a smaller size. Besides, it’s just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t fall for “bigger is better.” A huge cauliflower might serve as a great subject in a “look what I grew” contest photo, but the cauliflower you pick at half the size will be the one your taste buds remember.
A mark of the good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to the science that places fresh vegetables on the table without lag time, avoiding a concentration of over-abundance fluctuating wildly with nothing to eat for intervening weeks. I’m still shooting for it; it’s the kind of goal that can take a lifetime of refinement. Sometimes it’s a moving target because you can’t control the weather and that has a big impact on all that a gardener does.
If I have not done so already, I will make certain I have a good stock of alliums laid in – my garlic, onions, leeks and shallots all have a place in my heart – and stomach – so I plant a lot of them. I put shallots and garlic in pots (in addition to the ground!) and I crowd all my roses with garlic. Garlic is a good companion plant because, according to folklore at least, it is good at discouraging insects. I’m not sure that’s proven yet, but I think the garlic plant itself is worthy of note and I love having that upright element in pots as well as in ornamental beds.
Water might become less of a challenge, although Santa Ana winds often come flying through and send me scrambling to keep the soil moist around my plants. Mulch. The more the mulch, the less the work. You can mulch pots too – in permanent (more or less) plantings like roses, a caper bush, bay leaf tree or citrus (some of our favorites in Southern California), the mulch might be some small decorative stones, but usually, planters mix, fallen leaves, shredded bark, or something along that line is the mulch you’ll want to use because it feeds the ecology of a productive soil.
I’ll be planting more winter crops, it’s more of the succession game. Whatever fertilizing I do, I will do it more lightly than is done in the summer. Plants that look desperate for nutrients will get fish emulsion, making certain to get liberal amounts of the smelly stuff over the leaves as plants can absorb nutrients that way as well. In fact, in colder conditions, this can be the only way to get essential elements into the plant quickly.
But I’m not really in love with fertilizers at all. I think they might well be more destructive in the long run than we’ve realized. A little fertilizer, and not nearly to the strength suggested on fertilizer packaging, might not be an awful thing, but a lot of fertilizer cannot be a good thing. The real object is to cultivate the soil’s flora and fauna that is the essence of a lasting and sustainable fertility that doesn’t need constant inputs of fertilizer. Mulch and compost are the tickets for a soil fertility that doesn’t require purchased inputs of fertilizer.
Who has time to garden? The days are so short, it’s hard to get out to the garden (although I admit, I have done more gardening by flashlight than I want my mental health provider to know) and the cooler temperatures (we hope), keep plants from growing too fast. I try to keep up with successive sowings, especially of salad greens, beets and carrots. I sow short rows frequently rather than long rows less frequently, unless I am planning on “putting a crop up.” Pickled beets and pickled beans are among some of my favorite home canned vegetables and you don’t readily find them in a super market – well, at least not as good as the ones you can preserve at home.
Besides, there are holiday parties to attend to and a fireplace with a good book is calling my name. Watch for Santa Ana winds and continue to sow carrots, beets and other root crops, if you need them, and set out cabbage family members (cabbage, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts). Don’t work the soil when it’s wet – should we actually get some rain, especially if it’s a clay soil. You’ll be squashing the air pockets out of the soil and creating something close to adobe that you (and your plants) will need to contend with down the road. In southern California, we have enough days of only blue skies and sunshine to get things done – save the wet gray days for something else. You say there is nothing but gardening? Even I, have other things to do that I love and when the soil is wet, now’s the time to do them.
If you have fruit trees, you need to begin to contemplate their pruning needs. Order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (ANR) or purchase a pruning book from a reputable source. Prune them now when the sap flow is at the lowest – at least, if it’s as cool as it should be, that will be the case. Yes, if it’s warmer than usual, there will be more sap flowing than not, but it won’t be so awful as to hurt the tree – this is just the best time, usually.
The deciduous stone fruit trees, including peaches, apricots, plums and apples, are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat. (On the other hand, citrus, which are evergreen, can be pruned at any time of the year.)
I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. Of all the pesticides, dormant oil (and it’s summer counterpart, ‘summer oil’), with a low toxicity to mammals and 100% effectiveness on pests, is accepted in organic certification. There is no reason to miss the opportunity to use it while the tree is dormant. It is a valuable addition to controlling many pests. You can even search out an oil made for this purpose that is not a petroleum product. Though distilled from vegetable oil, it’s just as effective as its crude counterpart. Lighter oils, called “summer oil” or “horticultural oil” can be used on evergreen trees – like citrus – and plants with softer tissue (like perennials) with the same benefits. They are your best bet for insect control on trees and many shrubs, food plants and ornamentals anytime you feel you must use a pesticide. They will kill ALL insects, so please be really careful around beneficial insects – especially bees which are having a tough time (I suggest spraying in the evening hours when bees will not be around until the next day and by then the pesticide has dried and is no longer effective on our buzzing buddies).
In this, the dormant season, now we purchase deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses and wisteria, to name a couple of my favorites. Buy them from a good local nursery (if you can still find one!) to insure you are getting quality plants that will produce in your neighborhood, or find an online provider that specializes in the fruit trees or other plants you are buying. Most of these companies have knowledgeable staff that can help you find the varieties that will perform the best. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground--sage, rosemary and thyme (parsley is a biennial, sorry to say), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them here year round.
We have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to garden plants. Plants in pots suffer all the more. If your skin is crawling, it’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.
Are you ready to think about summer yet? You say you never stopped thinking about summer? Broccoli and cabbage aren’t your thrill a minute? Now is the time the new seed catalogs come rolling in by the truckload and they all have wonderful photos and mouth-watering, irresistible new varieties that I must try… all in a 10’ square bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, a quick jaunt through any gardening magazine will net you half a dozen 800 numbers or you can find web addresses from which to order.
What will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about the dozen different violas from Thompson and Morgan? And if I knock down the neighbor’s garage (they don’t use it much, in my opinion), I think I could make room for some squash and pumpkins….
Valentines Day is my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. One method is to use fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes – I have also started them outside with a heating mat to keep the soil warm; with enough sun that works well enough. Peppers and eggplant are started about 2 weeks later.
Basil. We must plant more basil. Is there such a thing as enough basil?
And then I think “baseball”. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere.) Spring training starts next month. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism that dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. You don’t have to “think baseball”, but I do and it lifts my spirit from the gloom of too many short days and long nights. I’m ready for summer sunshine and ripe tomatoes by now!
With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. Hopefully, that means we won’t need to be watering too much. I have permanent beds built up with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through your garden when it’s thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.
February is positively the last month to dormant-prune fruit trees and even then might be too late. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? That’s “broken dormancy;” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after that literally drains more of the vitality of the tree – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run which translates into January in this climate.
Don’t forget to snail bait. If you have vegetables, make certain you buy only snail bait rated for food plants – a new product called Escar-go is on the market and is really a safe product to rid us of snails and slugs. Never underestimate the power of a gardener to be corny beyond all measure and to buy products with names cornier than anything a sane or normal person can come up with. For many years, Corey’s Slug and Snail Death (a little harsh, don’t you think) was the only product available for vegetable gardens, but it was never safe with children or pets (which makes you wonder how ‘safe’ it really is), whereas the Escar-go stuff is totally non-toxic. The primary ingredient in Escar-go is a naturally occurring mineral that is, better than just ‘not harmful,’ actually beneficial to most soils.
This is the last reliable month to get winter vegetables (see my carefully prepared list for which ones are “winter” and which veggies are “summer”) in. Although leeks are usually considered a winter vegetable, I have had good luck with them year round – as I have had with fennel. And, for me, those are two vegetables that deserve to be year round. Kale and Swiss chard will also perform year round, but at this point, I’ve had so much kale and Swiss chard that I’ve hit a wall. I’ll give you all you want.
If I can’t wait for a taste of summer, I can plant a couple of my famous “short rows” of Royal Purple Pod beans – this is the only bean variety that will germinate in cooler weather and >>poof<< just like that, the summer potager is started. Already! Most of what I’m doing is moving the seeds I’ve started in a sheltered location in little pots (I re-use the six-packs that come from the nursery over and over again for my seed starting) into bigger pots and tending them. Harvesting the last of the Winter crop is also on my agenda. I spend the most of my garden time in this month, actually counting the buds on my rose bushes and trying to guess which one will provide me with blooms first. It’s a big deal for me; better than a soap opera and, better yet, no commercials!
I have been known to set out tomatoes and basil and other summer heat lovers into the garden as early as March. It is, at best, a crap shoot. Some years, luck will side with a gardener and a heat wave will hit settling these plants in nicely – other years it isn’t so. Do you feel lucky today?
Or do you have an insider report from the Weather maker, Himself? Herself? If yes, give me a call!
One gets the real sense of how difficult it must have been in those days where a failure of a crop to produce as predicted could mean disaster – if not starvation. Not only do you have to outsmart the critters and understand the life cycle of everything you grow, you have to have a certain amount of weather cooperation. Growing food is a dicey business, so when you see a good harvest coming in, it’s no wonder that we have a national holiday called Thanksgiving!
The summer garden is in the little starter pots right now (vaguely reminiscent of training wheels on a bicycle) really begging to be transplanted up to larger pots. The main bean crop can be sown about now and ambitious gardeners – especially those inland from me – will want to get their tomatoes and cucumbers in. Better time for cucumbers in my book than tomatoes, but, some lucky gardener will seem to beat Mother Nature. After all, isn’t that a big part of what it’s all about?
If you have any fallow beds (any spot where you are not growing an actual crop or plants you want – fallow means “left unplanted”) from now until warmer weather, put in a stand of buckwheat for a couple of weeks. Buckwheat grows quickly and adds lots of good organic matter to your soil when you spade it back into the ground. Sown thickly enough, it smothers weeds. It’s cheap and adds a good deal in the way of tilth (“state of suitability of land to grow crops” – straight from Webster to you) to your garden. It is important to keep a high rate of biological activity in the soil. The very critters breaking down this buckwheat will die and their bodies become part of the nutrition your plants will use for their growth. The decomposition of the buckwheat also helps loosen compacted soil by putting larger pieces of material between the minute particles of clay that compose a compacted soil.
How about growing buckwheat or any of the grains in pots? You can get conversations like this: “What’s that?” “Oh, a pot of Durham wheat – when I harvest it, I’m going to make a macaroni…” If someone actually did that – one would have a whole new appreciation for life before Kraft and automation brought this stuff to our tables by the wheelbarrow full. I have threshed wheat. It’s work of the most grueling order, but, boy, what an experience! Threshing wheat is a good task for hyperactive children. Or teenage boys with overactive hormones. At this point in my life, I don’t qualify for either group.
From seed sown in the garden directly, I am planting corn, cucumbers (you can set out cucumber plants, but I have learned they dislike being transplanted so much it is faster and more certain to direct sow, just keep the snails at bay), squash of all kinds – summer, winter, zucchini, acorn, all of them! - (in fact, you could have planted most of them last month, but you are reading ahead aren’t you?) and beans, and setting out plants of basil, tomatoes, and peppers. I am setting out the tail end of my lettuce seedlings and sowing short rows of carrots, beets, radishes and spinach, with an old window screen waiting in storage that I will use to shield these little cool weather fellows from too much sun. (It is easier to grow cool season crops in the Summer on the coast than it is to do the reverse and my major goal in life is to grow a complete salad – tomatoes with my lettuce and vice versa! I have an annual tradition of the First BLT of the season, wherein, I’ve grown the T and the L and usually baked my own bread.) It is also effective to plant them in a shadier part of the garden or on the shade side of taller vegetables – you don’t have to have an old screen lying around.
Grow any of these in pots as long as you get smaller versions – most nurseries and all the seed companies will help you find plants that will grow in pots – you can even buy tomatoes and cucumbers bred to live in a hanging basket. And while you can grow smaller varieties of sweet corn, it is a wind pollinated crop and it is usually considered important for a gardener to grow a substantial number of plants to get a viable crop. Still, it sure makes a statement – even a small corn stalk is pretty impressive – one could do a Native American theme pot with a couple stalks of corn, a sunflower and pole beans climbing up them. But don’t plan on it for a dinner party! If you have enough spare time on your hands, corn can be hand pollinated, but you’re doing this for show and not to eat. Right?
In addition, you might want to try melons, eggplant and okra, if you have room for melons; and actually like okra and eggplant. Okra needs the most heat of any vegetable under discussion here, put it the hottest corner of your garden. In addition, if your eating plans include borage, chervil, chives, lavender, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, mint (be certain to get a good culinary one, there are several that are not) Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum NOT O. vulgare, big difference in taste and snob appeal), parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon, you could set these plants out into a border convenient to your kitchen. Or in pots.
This is the 2nd big season for planting perennial crops. And while Fall is better, many people with East Coast or Midwest “roots” simply cannot prune from themselves from the “Spring = planting time” mentality. It can be so pervasive that even nurseries themselves often evidence a better selection of transplants at this time of year, especially the chain stores which will gladly sell you things you neither need nor can use. We live in a part of the country so divorced from manual labor and the soil that plants for sale in the wrong season are not the strangest horticultural occurrences happening here.
You may also put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall and Winter (in fact, look there for planting instructions). This however is a good time for citrus to go in as well as kiwi and sapote because they are more tropical and will love the coming heat while they get established.
If you are on the Coast, the weather will forgive most of your transgressions, if you are more inland, you are cutting your production seriously if you do not have the bulk of your summer plants in the ground. On the coast, if we have a typical summer, you have until the end of the month to get any of the cool season items out of the soil. You should wait until September before you take another crack at cool season. This is the warm season vegetable’s finest hour.
Do all that is listed for May if you haven’t done so yet, but do so with the thought that you’ll need to be more attentive to your plants’ water needs, and if you are inland, the later in the month it gets, the more stress your plants will be under to get their roots established in the ground before really hot weather hits. If you haven’t gotten your slower growing heat lovers in by now, it would serve you better to wait until next year. I’m thinking of some squashes and pumpkins – the big ones. The bigger the squash or pumpkin the longer it takes for them to get ripe; some of these take 100 days to harvest time: Check it out, that’s over three whole months!, And they will not ripen under anything but the hottest of conditions.
And speaking of hot weather, now is the time to welcome it to our Southern California gardens. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants and water is what you should be giving it. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin though! Monitor your soil moisture and apply water as needed – but before plants begin to wilt. Try to water when less will be lost to evaporation – early in the day or late in the day… At night under the full moon… I like that idea, but you know how I like to garden at night anyway…
Check the mulch level this month – making certain it is deep enough to keep roots cool. I might also sow beans and, I might also sow another planting of summer squash if my initial plants have succumbed to mildew, which they often do. I might also set out more pepper or tomato plants. If you desire that foul taste of eggplant, one might set out another plant at this time. But these guys will need extra water (try to plant them in the late afternoon – and try very hard to minimize root damage). The problem with planting now is that the leaves can easily transpirate much more water than the small root system can take up. If these plants have been growing in the same amount of sunlight that they will get in the ground into which they have been transplanted, they stand a much better chance of survival. But wilted leaves the following afternoon suggest the root system is not keeping pace with the lost moisture and unless your little darlings put on enough roots quickly, or you can do some judicious, temporary shading, your crop might not make it to a thriving adulthood.
Be cognizant that the days are getting shorter now that the solstice is over. Some plants simply will not grow according to Hoyle when the days are getting shorter. Not all, but some varieties of corn will begin to flower the instant they are stressed if they begin to grow now and there is little chance of a good crop.
Isn’t it nap time? Yes, I’m sure of it…
Anything sown in August is an act of desperation. Those who didn’t get their plants in the ground back in June, are now the frantic gardeners with the hardest, hottest work.
If I am caught up August for me is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; I’m in my catalogs already dreaming of the next great adventure in the garden. Under lights – out of the heat– I’ll be starting seeds of broccoli, cabbage, kale, leeks and onions. I’ll plant several different heirloom varieties of sweet peas – maybe some blends of antique varieties, two seeds per pot. I’ll pour boiling water over the seeds the night before and leave them to soak for 24 hours before I stick them in their pots. It is amazing to see how much they have swollen from absorbing water because of that treatment. Don’t worry, pouring boiling water on them won’t kill them, the seed coat is too hard. In fact, the seed coat is so impermeable, that’s makes the boiling water useful. Perhaps I’ll plant seeds to grow some new artichoke plants for the coming year if I don’t think I have enough baby plants from last year’s plants.
This is the time to harvest your summer produce in spades – so to speak. Keep the beans picked or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil and tomatoes; just keeping up with the production side of the garden at this point is the big challenge. Pinch the basil’s flowers to keep the plants producing. Try drying some of your produce as well. This can be the hardest work of gardening: finding a home for all the produce before it goes to waste. Share the abundance with friends, relatives or a food bank. Nature isn’t stingy, carry on that grand tradition and share too. We all need a fresh homegrown tomato now and then to remind us how blessed we can really be.
And learn about putting food up for later. Food can be frozen, canned, pickled or dried and so be stored for the days when it’s “kale or Swiss chard” on an endless basis. Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE them, I just don’t want them every day for weeks on end.
This is all just to get a person started. Gardening is local and personal. If you don’t like carrots, don’t plant them. You will notice a complete lack of mention of radishes. Although they are a popular enough root vegetable, fast growing and very satisfying to the short attention span, I decided a long time ago that radishes were a waste of my time; they remained uneaten in the garden.
Grow what you want, but I think there are some guidelines about what to grow. I wouldn’t grow things that are exclusively used dried: lentils or drying beans. To arrive at a decent crop takes more land than I have. I won’t grow items that easily available in markets. To me, this means tomatoes because a store-bought tomato is sawdust to a home-grown tomato. There are European varieties of plants one can grow at home that are never found in the market – or if they are in Whole Foods nowadays, the sticker price is shocking.
So grow your own. Indulge your culinary fantasies by growing what you want, cleanly, without pesticides and environmental degradation.