Autumn is the start of the perfect gardening season |

Autumn is the start of the perfect gardening season

With the arrival of fall, gardeners and landscapers in the Sierra foothills can take advantage of the best season for planting. Whether you are adding new plants or moving established ones, the weeks ahead are the best time.

Plants are slowing their growth, perhaps even dropping their leaves. Or, in the case of herbaceous perennials, they may be finished with their display of flowers, and will not suffer if you cut them back hard and move them, or even divide them.

In the foothills, the clay soil stays warm for several weeks in fall. Warm soil stimulates root growth. Cool soil in the spring does not. Plants approaching winter dormancy rarely suffer from transplant shock. Plants growing actively in spring are much more susceptible to damage from winds or sudden temperature changes.

When we have an “Indian summer” with warm days and cool nights, the fall planting season may extend into late November and even early December. The best weeks are in mid September through the end of October. Gardens in shade, and some at high elevations, will need to be planted sooner. Those with southern slopes or lower elevations have longer to take advantage of warm soil

Start with the plants you want to add to the landscape from nursery containers. Local garden centers offer a wide selection of trees and ornamental shrubs perfect for the foothills. These plants may be “rootbound” after spending several months in a pot, but the roots can be spread. In fact, they should be spread whether your plant is in a small container, or a 24-inch box.

Look for healthy buds and bark, and good branching structure. With deciduous trees and shrubs, do not be too concerned about leaves that show minimal damage from a hot summer. It’s tough on plants to keep them in a container! As long as the buds are plump, the new leaves that emerge next spring will be off to a good start. Evergreens, however, should not show signs of damage from summer heat.

A great selection of natives will be available at the California Native Plant Society fall plant sale that takes place on the Sierra College Grass Valley Campus on Saturday, October 4, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Arrive at 9am to enjoy the “presale educational entertainment.” At 11a.m. Jim Pyle and Walt Carnahan will be discussing California natives to attract hummingbirds.

Take care in planting! Amend the native soil with a good organic compost, but mix it well with the native soil. One part compost to two parts native soil works for most plants. For all plants add an organic phosphorus (soft rock phosphate, colloidal phosphate, or raw rock phosphate) and oyster shell.

Spread the roots and do not allow them to dry out. One of my favorite tools for loosening roots is the Hori Hori weeder-root cutter. Using the broader side of the tool, I whack the root ball to loosen the roots. The back side of a shovel will do this too. If the plant is very rootbound, a strong spray of water from a nozzle may help. Avoid cutting or damaging roots.

Water deeply right after planting, including the area adjacent to the plant. Mulch your plants heavily with leaves, straw, and compost to retain moisture and protect surface roots. A deep irrigation every 2-3 days is usually sufficient for most trees and shrubs (unless a plant is very large or rootbound) until rains begin.

By late fall or early winter the ground is cooler and plants are not growing as much. During the midwinter months of January and February plantings done in September through November should not need to be irrigated unless there is no rain for a couple of weeks.

Even if nights suddenly turn chilly as days shorten, serious gardeners will be outside in this perfect planting season. They wouldn’t miss the opportunity! It comes only once a year!

Carolyn Singer has gardened in the foothills since 1977. She is the author of two books of deer-resistant plants: “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs” and ” Vol. 2: Groundcovers & Edgers.” Gardening questions may be sent to

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