That’s the status of many Central Coast gardens during the first part of September. Other than harvesting the last sun-ripened summer vegetables, keeping pace with watering and pulling an occasional weed, there’s not much that demands our attention.
Which makes this the perfect time to prepare for fall. Whether you’re anticipating a simple tune-up or wholesale renovation, you can start planning now. Consider the overall layout and flow of your garden first. Then focus your attention on plants.
Hardscape is just about everything that’s not a plant, and includes such major projects as walls and driveways or as simple as placing a new bench.
And while installing a driveway is best left to the professionals, you can widen your drive for foot traffic over a weekend. Along the edge, excavate an 18-inch to 3-foot-wide band of soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Set aside the excess soil to create an interesting mound, if possible, somewhere else in your garden.
Lay down landscape fabric, followed by 2 to 4 inches of sand. Then set bricks, flagstones or pavers on top, matching the level of your existing drive as you go. Butt the materials together to minimize cracks for weeds to intrude. Or fill the gaps with gravel, decomposed granite or miniature creeping ground covers.
Or streamline the process by lining the perimeter with benderboard or river rocks, then filling the void with decorative gravel.
You can apply the same techniques to create “landing pads” in the planting strip between your sidewalk and street. Choose materials that match or are compatible with the rest of your garden.
How about walkways? Can you walk around your entire house without getting muddy after a rainstorm? If not, now’s the time to install permanent paths. Be sure to insert 2-inch PVC sleeves underneath, so that you can get water and lighting wiring from one side of the path to the other.
If you lack rain gutters and downspouts, install them. Or at the least, site your walkways so that your roof drains onto them, rather than pummeling your plants and the ground below.
Establish any new seating areas. A bench next to the front door is always a welcoming sight.
Replace any time-worn fences. If your back yard is fenced and there’s only one gate, install another one on the other side to improve access.
As the days grow shorter, think about outdoor lighting. Downlights will illuminate pathways, while uplights will highlight interesting branching structure — especially on deciduous trees.
Once you’re satisfied with your new layout and hardscape improvements, you can turn to my personal favorite, which is the plants. By late September, the weather should moderate sufficiently to begin fall planting.
Trees, the biggest elements, come first.
Deciduous types, which lose their leaves in the fall, work well on the south and west sides of a house, as they provide shade in the summer, then allow sunlight during winter. Pay attention to their eventual height in relation to overhead power lines. Beware of invasive roots, and plant at least a few feet from any walkways, patios, driveways or your house.
As to what size to purchase: balance your checkbook against how quickly the tree grows. For example, purple-leaf plums and queen palms from 15-gallon containers grow so fast — several feet a year — that you won’t gain much by buying larger containers.
However, pygmy date palms and most Japanese maples grow at such a glacial pace that a 24-inch box may be a wise investment.
Next up: shrubs, to fill large spaces, mark property lines and conceal bare walls.
Many shrubs grow at least 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. Account for their ultimate size, especially if you plant from 1-gallon, rather than 5-gallon containers. Because the 1-gallons are so small at the outset, it’s tempting to plant them too close together. Use a measuring tape to ensure your spacing is accurate.
Plan to apply a 2-inch layer of mulch to span the gaps, hold moisture and moderate soil temperature. You might also sow California poppy seed or other native wildflowers to fill the emptiness. Poppies grow best in disturbed soil. Their slow fade after a few years will dovetail nicely with your new shrubs filling in.
Colorful vines will dress up plain fences and add instant height wherever you set a trellis or arbor. Most vines bloom best with heat and full sun, with their heaviest cascade of flowers facing south or west.
To support robust trumpet vines, tie several horizontal rows of flexible wire or heavy nylon fishing line to screw eyes attached to a fence or wall. Tighten the wires with tensioners or turnbuckles. Save your decorative trellises for daintier vines that won’t devour them.
Perennials and ground covers will boost your color quotient. Planted in fall, they may appear quiet at first. But their roots will be filling out belowground, making ready to support a bevy of blooms next spring.
Group your plants according to their watering needs. You’ll always have to irrigate to please the thirstiest plant. So if you plant without any regard to their needs, you’ll waste water on those that prefer to go dry.
An easy trick is to place your thirstiest plants next to any lawn, so they can capture overspray from the sprinklers and moisture that migrates underground.
Popup sprinklers work best on lawns, ground covers and anywhere else where your plants are a consistent height.
Popups are less effective in mixed plantings, unless they’re on very tall risers. Otherwise, taller plants will block the spray.
Instead, shift to drip irrigation and its many permutations, which include emitters, shrubblers and mini-sprayers.
Automate your irrigation by installing a controller. Clocks on some inexpensive timers only go to seven days. If your plants only need watering every 10 days, two weeks or longer, invest in a clock that will accommodate those longer intervals.
Please don’t try to save money on a controller by inflicting math on the schedule. If you plant water-conserving plants that truly need only an hour-long soak once every two weeks, but instead water them half the time, twice as often, you will sacrifice their health and turn them into weak, shallow-rooted images of their former selves.
Seeds of Wisdom
Wait to starting planting until late September or early October. In the meantime, store any new plants in bright shade, out of the wind. Water them frequently, as black nursery pots tend to dry out fast.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.