“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.
– 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
– 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.