“Why are those leaves on the pistache tree yellow?” asked my three-year old son.
“Soon they’ll all be yellow — and orange and red — and then they’ll fall. That’s why they call this time of year Fall.”
Truth is, in Southern California it’s mostly the leaves of non-native trees like the Chinese pistache that turn colors and fall. We’re more of an evergreen climate, naturally speaking. Yes, sycamores and alders lose their leaves, but live oaks and sumacs and sages and buckwheat and ceanothus and toyons and most of the rest of the vegetation that cover our hills don’t.
The feeling that October has for me is warm afternoons and crisp mornings. Hour for hour, it’s among the most pleasant months to spend in the yard.
And in October is the arrival of our first precipitation after the long, dry summer. Often it’s a single, inconsequential sprinkle; sometimes it’s a real storm that dampens Halloween trick-or-treating. Last year, it was a weak shower on October 24; but in 2014 over a half-inch of rain fell on Halloween night.
Our first Santa Anas almost always arrive this month too. They go hand in hand with our rainy season, visiting us from time to time between storms through the winter. If you’re new to the area, Santa Anas are winds that blow from the northeast, from the desert out toward the ocean. Surfers here love them because they make the waves hollow and easy for barrel riding.
Gardeners, not so much. Santa Anas are dry winds, so they require that we keep a close eye on the water needs of our plants, and furthermore, Santa Anas can be strong enough to snap limbs off trees and knock fruit down. Just as with a summer heat wave, the best strategy for mitigating the effects of a Santa Ana spell, I’ve found, is a pre-emptive irrigation. Plants with a reservoir of moisture in the soil can best face the winds, low humidity, and warmth that come with Santa Anas.
And how else do we garden in October?
Among the vegetables, we:
– Sow seeds or plant seedlings of beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, garlic, greens (chard, collards, kale, mustard, spinach), kohlrabi, lettuce, onion, parsnips, peas, radish, turnips, parsley, cilantro
– Remove tomato plants? Remove cucumbers? There’s a balance now to be found between keeping the summer plants going and making room for fall plants. It can be an awkward time, especially if garden space is at a premium. The only summer plants I leave in the ground in October are healthy ones, first and foremost. So if that cucumber vine is covered in powdery mildew, it’s out. I also only leave plants that will continue to produce or mature before it really cools down next month.
Peppers definitely stay.
Watermelon vines that aren’t already maturing fruit definitely go.
– Add a cover to the soil; I add some compost or wood chips around now every year, around the time I plant fall vegetables. If you’re not growing vegetables this fall and winter, add some compost or manure or wood chips to the surface of your garden and let the winter rains help make the soil below into a magic medium for the spring’s crops
– Eat these vegetables in October (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, beets, peppers, eggplant, squash, basil, cucumber, melons, beans, corn, greens, sweet potatoes
Among the fruits and berries, we:
– Plant new trees? I’d wait for the bare-root season in January for deciduous fruit trees, but now is a fine time to plant citrus and avocados
Here’s a happy Fuerte avocado tree that I planted four Octobers ago.
– Eat these fruits and berries: passion fruit, raspberries, apples (Fuji and Pink Lady and Granny Smith), figs, and pomegranates
– Take some notes about summer before everything is forgotten. How did you water, and how would you like to water differently next summer? Which varieties of vegetables did you like or not like? When did you plant this or that, and how did those plants fare? Were plant spacings in the garden good? Was there a harvest gap where, for example, you had no fresh tomatoes?
October in our yard ends with an uncommon treat on Halloween. My sons do the costume and candy thing, but they also know that Halloween is the day they’re allowed to begin picking the Kishus. Kishu mandarins are their favorite among the fruit trees. The little snack fruit are just fading from green to orange here in early October. I secretly tasted one yesterday just to confirm that they’re not yet ready. Getting so tempting though.
Don’t touch until Halloween.
This is the first September in many years that I haven’t spent much of the month visiting friends and in-laws in Oregon. I love those trips. From a gardening perspective, they always put into focus how Southern California is different from most of the rest of the country.
In Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, in September of last year (2016) there were blackberries and raspberries to pick, tomato and pepper plants were in full production, apples and pears were ripe and falling from trees, and hops were being harvested.
Cass picking raspberries in yard of friends Gabe and Liz
Miles by favorite Momotaro tomatoes of Grandma Sandy
Bosc pears, just a couple on this tree
At Rogue Hop Farms, they were harvesting as we picnicked. The aroma was intoxicatingly fresh.
Most gardeners in Oregon, as elsewhere in the U.S., are in full harvest and preserve mode. They are no longer planting, except maybe some greens. They have a single concentrated growing season, and in September there is already a bite in the morning air as fall arrives to begin shutting things down.
One time a friend was visiting from Oregon, and as we walked around our Southern California yard he asked, “Do you guys ever take a break?” For better or worse, no.
Gardening never stops in Southern California. We merely split our year into a warm season (approximately April – August) and a cool season (September – March). Not that September is cool, but we plant things in September that like to grow in the cool weather of fall and winter.
If you tend to only grow vegetables in the spring and summer, I encourage you to take advantage of growing in the fall and winter this year. It’s comparatively relaxing and rewarding. Here I wrote why “Fall is my favorite vegetable growing season in Southern California.”
In the vegetable garden, in September, we sow and plant:
– Sow seeds of: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, lettuce, beets, carrots, parsnips, spinach, chard, peas, radish, turnips, parsley, cilantro, potatoes (early in the month)
– Plant seedlings of: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale and other greens (mustard, collards)
(The photo at the top shows broccoli and romanesco seedlings that I sowed in August and that I’ll plant at the end of this month.)
Have any potatoes in the pantry that are sprouting like this one?
Stick them in the ground.
Now you see them . . .
. . . now you don’t.
See my post on growing potatoes for details. By the way, if you have kids, harvesting potatoes is one of the funnest (yes, grammarians, funnest) things for them to do in the garden. If you plant in early September, you’ll probably harvest around Christmas.
Harvest and eat:
– Eat these vegetables in September (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, beets, peppers, eggplant, squash, basil, cucumber, melons, beans, corn
Corn variety called ‘Delectable.’ And yes it is.
I once encountered a helpful way to remember the different vegetables we grow and eat in the warm season versus the cool season. In the warm season we mostly eat the fruits of vegetables. Fruits? Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, melons — they are all fruit, botanically speaking (“a structure that holds seeds inside”).
In the cool season, on the other hand, we mostly eat the leaves, roots, and flowers of vegetables. Think of the leaves of lettuce, the roots of carrots, and the flowers of cauliflower and broccoli plants (if you don’t pick them on time, their heads become globes of little flowers).
Among the fruit trees, in September, we harvest and eat:
– Eat these fruits and berries (had you planted them): pomegranates, passion fruit, figs, avocados (Lamb, Reed), raspberries, apples (Fuji)
Fuji apples coloring up, ready later this month
At some point in August, I do grow tired of summer. There’s just always a day where I say, OK, enough of the heat, I look forward to the return of crisp nights and rainfall. Some plants start to look tired in August too. Look at this weary Honey Nut butternut squash vine that was planted way back in March:
On the other hand, citrus trees and avocados never want summer to end. They come from places where it never cools down as much as it does here in Southern California. Look how happy the foliage is on that Reed avocado tree at the top of the page. Bananas, cherimoyas, mangos, and macadamia nut trees love August too, as illustrated by these new leaves at the top of my young Linda macadamia:
While August may seem like a month that is thoroughly summer, for vegetable gardeners it is similar to March in that both are months of transition. In March, in Southern California, we move from plants that like to grow in cool weather to plants that like to grow in warm weather. Here in August, we eat from our plants that like to grow in warm weather — like butternut squash — while we begin sowing seeds of plants that like to grow in the cool weather that arrives in fits and spasms starting late in the month of September. These seeds are of plants like broccoli and potatoes.
So enjoy the changing of the seasons, even as it’s mid-summer.
Sow and plant
– Sow seeds of: (warm-season) basil, beans; (cool-season) broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, potatoes
*Note on sowing: it’s tough to keep the seeds of broccoli, etc. cool and moist enough in August if you sow them in the ground; I have better success sowing them in module trays that I keep in the relative cool and shade of my garage until the seeds have germinated (see photo below); but hey, don’t sweat it if you don’t feel like growing these plants from seed — just wait to buy seedlings at a nursery in September
– Plant seedlings of: basil and beans
– Plant subtropical fruit trees like citrus and avocado, as well as vines like passion fruit; they love settling into the warm soil of mid-summer; just be sure to water broadly and deeply at planting time, and then water frequently for the rest of the summer; see my post about how to water a newly planted avocado tree; this schedule for avocados can be used for citrus, macadamias, mangos, passion fruit and other subtropicals too
Harvest and eat
– Eat these vegetables (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, corn, greens, onion, beets, carrots, peppers, eggplant, squash, basil, cucumber, melons, beans
– Eat these berries and fruits (had you planted them): grapes, avocados (Hass, Lamb, Reed), Valencia oranges, peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots
– If you didn’t do it in July, then here in August is the next and last great time this year to give a deciduous fruit tree a trim, particularly on the top, if you want it to continue making its fruit on branches low enough for you to reach in the coming years; reducing the top growth lets more light onto lower branches, which induces them to form flower buds that will open next spring; the types of trees that I give summer trims to in my yard include peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, and pluots
– Ratchet up the frequency of watering; in August of every year in every garden I’ve had — or heard of — in Southern California, irrigation is needed more often than other months; for example, my vegetables are on drip irrigation and they need daily watering right now whereas in July they do fine with a day in between waterings
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Stay cool. Make shade. Have a drink. Go to the beach. Harvest in the morning. Harvest in the evening.
It’s summer for all of us now — inland it’s been summer for a month; but within a mile of the beach, summer just started heating up around the Fourth of July, as usual. Take it easy in the yard this time of year. You should have planted and set up irrigation already, when it was cool. Your only job now is to reap and eat.
Make yourself a “Garden on a Pizza” pizza, like the one I made in the photo above. You can’t go wrong, just pick and chop and place. I added basil, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes from my garden, plus nectarines that my mom brought me from her tree. Spicy and sweet.
While July is the zenith of summer harvest activity, it’s the nadir for planting. If you do plant — vegetables or fruit trees — the key is to thoroughly water the soil surrounding the planting hole. The moisture there from the winter rains is now all but dried up, and that dry soil will literally suck the water out of the hole where you put in a new plant. So, upon planting, water about six inches to either side of a new vegetable and two feet to either side of a new tree, and soak it so the water goes at least as deep as the plant’s roots. It’s vital. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, having lost plants in July in years past because of not doing this.
In addition . . .
Sow and plant
– Sow or plant these vegetables any time in July (these produce before it cools down in the fall): basil, beans, corn
– Sow seeds of these vegetables, especially later in July, or wait until August (these produce after it cools down in the fall): brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, seed potatoes; it takes just under two months for these crops (not potatoes) to go from seed to a plant of good transplanting size
– Plant seedlings of these vegetables, preferably no later than mid-July: tomatoes (small-fruited types like cherry are safest, but see note below on “fall tomatoes”), tomatillo, pepper, squash (“summer” types like zucchini and yellow crookneck are sure bets for a fall harvest), sweet potato (slips); if you plant later than mid-July there’s a good chance you’ll get little harvestable fruit before it cools in the fall
– Plant “fall tomatoes” by mid-July; I find that early planted tomatoes (March) tend to become less productive toward the end of summer and into fall, so I’ve gotten into the habit of planting a few new ones in early July in order to ensure fresh tomatoes off the vine into fall; I usually don’t get maximum production out of these plants unless we have an Indian Summer, but they’ll likely produce better than your older ones that you planted in spring; I planted a handful of varieties on July 8 last year and got decent production from most, but the best were ‘Champion’ (photo above); an ideal site for fall tomatoes is one that will get low-angle, southern sun in the fall so the fruit ripens well at that time
Harvest and eat
– Eat these vegetables (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, corn, greens, onion, garlic, lettuce, beets, carrots, peppers, eggplant, squash, basil, cucumber, melons, beans
– Eat these berries and fruits (had you planted them): blueberries, strawberries, grapes, avocados (Hass, Lamb, Reed), Valencia oranges, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, SpiceZee nectaplums
– Give deciduous fruit trees a pruning after harvesting their fruit if you want to keep them down in size; this lets more light onto lower branches throughout the rest of summer, which encourages those lower branches to be fruitful next year; see this post about why I keep my deciduous fruit trees pruned to about eight feet tall
Just pruned the Blenheim apricot here in July
– Protect avocados from sunburn; if a branch is exposed to hot summer sun it will burn and the branch will decline in health, so apply a sunscreen of diluted white latex paint (as I wrote about in this post)
– Water deeply just before a heat wave hits; this is particularly helpful for vegetables and avocado trees (see this post for more about watering through a heat wave)
– Stress not about powdery mildew on squash leaves, tomato foliage, melon, cucumber and pumpkin leaves because there’s nothing you can really do about it; there is no product you can buy that will eliminate it, and there is nothing you can do to your plants (such as changing your watering method or pruning out leaves) that will eliminate it; my experience with it in different gardens is that plants closer to the ocean suffer from it more often, plants in full sun suffer from it less often than plants in some shade, some years it’s worse than others, some varieties of certain plants (such as tomatoes) get it worse than others, and as some kinds of plants get old, such as squash, they almost always get it; see this webpage from the University of California for photos of powdery mildew and details about its growth and methods of control; the bottom line is: if powdery mildew wants to take down your vegetable plant, it will, so don’t waste your energy jumping through hoops to try to stop it — P.S. I’d be happy to hear if you have different experience with this
– Stress not about those squiggly tracks caused by leafminers on your citrus leaves; citrus trees usually flush new growth around this time and little insects called leafminers like this new growth, but fear not because they don’t do serious harm to a tree and they don’t do any harm to the fruit; the damage is basically cosmetic; see my post about leafminers on my lime tree a few years back
June is the lush month. June is the jungle month, particularly toward the end. The days are at their longest and they are warm, so the garden begins to look verdant and tangled in a most wonderful way. Squash vines overtake your walking paths. Corn stalks tower overhead. Cherry tomato plants drip with red fruit. Cucumber and beans climb up their cages and strings (pictured above).
I make sure to take pictures of my garden around the solstice in late June since it never looks more bountiful.
But there’s also a sense of urgency this month. It is your last chance to plant most of those warm-season vegetables. Put them in now or you’ll have to wait until next year because, planted in July, they won’t have enough time in the heat of summer to mature a crop. (The main exceptions are corn and beans, which can be successfully planted in July.)
Below are details on doings in the vegetable garden, some fruit tree thoughts, and a few other uniquely June opportunities:
Sow and plant
– Sow or plant these vegetables: basil, beans, corn, cucumber, sweet potato, tomatillo, celery, chard, chives
– Plant seedlings of these vegetables: eggplant, pepper, melon, pumpkin, squash, tomato; if seeds of these vegetables are sown in June, especially later in the month, there’s a real risk of only getting a small crop before it cools too much at the end of the year since they take a long time to grow from seed to harvestable fruit
– Don’t bother planting cilantro; sorry to rain on your salsa parade, but cilantro is not well-suited to growing in the summer in Southern California; you’d think it would grow well with other salsa ingredients like tomatoes and peppers, but it won’t; it will start to flower fast because of the warm weather and, in my opinion, it’s not worthwhile; cilantro naturally grows in the cooler weather of late summer through the winter and spring
– Sow or plant pole beans to be used as temporary, summer shade on east- or west-facing walls or windows by growing them up strings under an eave; you can also use grapes for the purpose of shading a house
– Consider growing your own Halloween pumpkins and decorative fall corn; now’s the time to plant those in order to harvest by late October; last year, I grew the colorful corn variety called Glass Gem, which I posted photos of here
– Plant avocado and citrus trees; they feel right at home in the warmth of early summer and soon prove it to you with a flush of new leaves, which gives you an immediate sense of success that you won’t get when planting in most of the rest of the year; if you plant one, see my post “How to water a new avocado tree”
Late June new growth on a baby Cara Cara navel orange. The new growth is lime green.
Harvest and eat
This Jubilee corn, photographed on June 7, is about two weeks from harvest.
– Eat these vegetables (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, corn, greens, onion, garlic, peas, lettuce, beets, carrots, peppers
– Don’t fret over tomatoes that have blossom end rot (rotten bottom of the fruit); it happens often to the first fruits of May and June but not to the later fruits of summer, and there’s nothing you can do about it despite what someone selling a product might claim (it’s just a symptom of the cooler weather of spring/early summer); incidentally, if you do apply a product for blossom end rot, you’ll find that — voila! — it worked: the placebo effect
– Eat these berries and fruits (had you planted them): blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, avocados (Hass, Lamb, Reed), Valencia oranges, lemons and limes, Pixie and Gold Nugget mandarins, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, passion fruit
June avocados: Reed on the left, and Lamb on the right
(Why do I mention what you could be harvesting and eating? So you can plan. If you want to be harvesting tomatoes next June, for example, then plant them next March. Or if you want to be eating avocados from your yard in June, then plant a Hass, Lamb, or Reed tree.)
– Water plants for “thrival” not mere survival; don’t make the mistake that I have in some past summers of being stingy with water on vegetables and fruit trees, which lowers production and defeats the point; if you scratch into the dirt around the roots of your plants, you’ll know for sure how much water they have access to, as I wrote about in this post
– Appreciate and observe the summer solstice (June 20): Have a late dinner out in the yard while you notice where the sun sets — isn’t it fascinating how far northwest it falls below the horizon on this day?
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May can be spring, or May can be summer. Last year (2016) it was spring, with cloudy and showery weather, but this year so far it feels more like summer with dry breezes and lots of sun and not much May Gray yet — yet! The forecast is for it to turn back to spring for the upcoming second week of this month, with showers and cooler weather.
Cool weather is great planting weather. Take advantage, if you can.
Regardless, it’s already been plenty warm for subtropical plants to set fruit. Maybe your citrus and avocado trees are like mine: still blooming but also with pea-sized fruitlets. And maybe you planted some tomatoes in March that are already setting fruit. If May ends up being more warm like summer, we’ll even get to eat some by the end of the month.
But I chose the photo above to represent May because it’s the prettiest subtropical flower forming fruit this month in my yard. Passion fruit vines have everything beyond beauty going for them too: vibrant, evergreen foliage; vigorous growth to cover a fence or pergola; not messy when their fruit drops; tangy and tasty fruit; plus a fascinating etymology. Maybe you have a place to plant one — maybe next week?
Sometimes it feels like we live in paradise, friends. If you want to keep it going, here are some May opportunities in the yard:
Sow and plant
– Sow or plant these vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, beets, eggplant, beans, cucumber, corn, squash, melon, chard, basil
– Plant peppers and eggplant later in May if you want to be really smart about it; late May into early June is an ideal time to plant these heat lovers because if you plant earlier they’ll grow slowly and bugs can decimate them; however, if you plant later than mid-June you’re not going to get as much fruit as possible before it cools in the fall
My diversified portfolio of seeds and seedlings on deck, to be planted in the ground from tomorrow through the end of May.
Harvest and eat
– Harvest wisely by doing it early in the morning for leaves of lettuce, chard, and kale; they are turgid at this hour — full of water and crunchy — and will taste best and keep fresh longest
– Stop watering onions and garlic that you planted last fall once their outer leaves start to yellow; they’ll continue to enlarge their bulbs on residual soil moisture; pick them to eat anytime, but wait until their tops are totally dead if you want to store them
– Eat these goodies (had you planted them): blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes (especially smaller-fruited types), potatoes, onion, garlic, broccoli (still a few final florets!), peas, lettuce, beets, carrots, peppers (if you overwintered a plant)
– Go hunting at night with a flashlight to see which bugs are eating your plants; in May, you might find earwigs on peppers, pill bugs on strawberries, june bugs on avocado leaves, slugs and snails on lettuce; pick them up and drown them in soapy water, collect them and feed them to chickens, throw them into your neighbor’s yard (unless you live next door to me), or squish them on sight
– Weed spotted spurge and purslane before they set seed; uproot and lay them on the ground upside down so they dessicate and decompose (but beware of purslane’s ability to root and regrow if it’s laid on moist soil)
– Note sun and shade patterns throughout the day; May through August patterns are about the same, in other words, you can grow a warm-season vegetable or a deciduous fruit tree in a spot that is sunny now but may be shady at other times of the year (north of a building, for example, like these pomegranates)
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