In the garden: As weather cools in November, shift into full planting mode

It’s finally fall. We’re past the uncertainty of October weather. From now until April, gardeners are in full-on planting mode. So, get planting!

Build a garden

Before you jump into planting, make a plan. Without a plan, you waste time, money and, most important, you waste plants!

Stand back and look at your property. Think things through:

• How will you use your space? What kinds of needs does your household have? How can the garden meet those needs?

• Where you need shade, plant a tree. A few tips:

  1. Trees planted on the east side shade from morning sun. On the south side, they shade late morning to early afternoon. On the west, shade trees protect from afternoon sun. Trees planted on the north side offer no shade.
  2. Deciduous trees provide summer shade. In winter, their bare branches let the warming rays of winter sun pass through.
  3. Allow enough space for the mature size of the tree.
  4. Grass and trees are not compatible. Their water needs are entirely different. Trees grown with grass are typically weak-rooted and short-lived. They also shade out and crowd out the grass below.
  5. Choose trees whose roots won’t destroy irrigation lines, undermine sidewalks or break foundations. Research the potential for root damage at
  6. Find the sweet spot where the tree is close enough to shade your home, yet far enough that roots won’t cause problems.

• Place vegetable gardens as close to your kitchen as possible, in full-day sun and where water is close by.

• Site your outdoor kitchen conveniently near your kitchen.

• For a children’s play area, select a flat space (though slopes are great for rolling down). Cover the play surface in fine mulch or a low-water turf alternative like native meadow sedge. Don’t use “artificial turf.”

• Screen out unsightly views with tall shrubs. Space the shrubs according to their mature sizes and be patient while they grow in. That’s the lowest maintenance approach. Shrubs planted close together fill in quickly but are sentenced to regular pruning for the rest of their (and your) lives.

• Enhance beautiful views. Frame those views with tall plants on either side. You’ll be amazed at the difference framing makes.

• Place planting beds where you want color, texture, beautiful plants to enjoy looking at. Use a mixture of tall, medium, low and very low-growing plants to emulate the way plants grow in nature.

• Decide on a color palette — cool colors, hot colors or a combination thereof. If the colors you like clash with the color of your house, consider painting the house first.

• As you choose plants for the beds, group them according to their need for sunlight and for water.

• For more information on plants and color, check out my latest book, “Hot Color, Dry Garden” at

Measure your property and plot it on grid paper (one grid square = 1 square foot). Rather than draw on that base plan, cover the base plan with tracing paper and draw on the tracing paper. Use a pencil so you can sketch out ideas and erase those that don’t work.

Once you have a planting plan, prepare a shopping list. Include the botanical name of each plant and the number of each plant you need.

Important: Buy small plants. Large plants are tempting, but small plants adapt best to their new homes. They grow fastest, outpacing larger plants of the same kind within just a few years.


This is the perfect time to plant nearly any ornamental plant, especially natives.

For every plant on your shopping list, you should know:

• How tall and wide it grows.
• How much sun or shade it needs.
• The kind of soil it does best in.
• How much irrigation it requires.
• Whether it is evergreen or deciduous (loses its leaves).
• Any toxicity issues.
• Whether you have a spot to place it that meets all its needs. If not, choose something else.

Good evergreen screening plants: native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), native lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), native sugar bush (Rhus ovata). Non-native pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana), coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa and other species), myrtle (Myrtus communis), cone bush (Leucadendron sp).

Don’t be intimidated by a steep slope; it’s just a garden at an angle. Plant it with a combination of trees, shrubs and low-growing plants. Those bigger, woody plants grow the deep roots that hold the slope in place.

Plant for the future: Experts cite oaks as some of the best trees for our gardens, especially as our climate changes. Island oak (Quercus tomentella) comes up again and again in these discussions. This Channel Islands native tree has gray bark with deep-green leaves that are slightly hairy (tomentose) on the underside. Trees grow 30 to 60 feet tall and 35 feet wide. These fast growers can be upright, columnar or rounded, and the trees are extremely drought-tolerant along the coast. In inland valleys, they need some extra irrigation while they are becoming established. Birds, insects and animals are supported by island oak.

Need a vine near the coast? Consider one of the many kinds of passion vine (Passiflora sp) with its fantastic flowers, some kinds of fruit, too; snail vine (Vigna caracalla) which has curled flowers from white to lavender; or cup of gold vine (green-leaved Solandra maxima and variegated-leaved Solandra maxima ‘Variegata’). Cup of gold vine has large, shiny green leaves and oversize gold flowers whose petals are fused to make a “cup.”

Plant seeds for spring flowering annuals like sweet peas, along with flowering native annuals, including California poppies, elegant Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata), Phacaelia, and tidy tips (Laia platyglossa).

Planting 101

How to prepare a planting hole:

• Dig a hole an inch or two deeper and a little wider than the plant’s root ball; make it slightly square and rough up the sides of the hole to encourage plant roots to expand beyond the hole.

• Fill the hole with water and let the water drain out. Toss a handful (for a 1-gallon plant) or two or three (for a 5-gallon, more for larger plants) of worm castings into the hole.

• Do not add any other amendments.

How to plant:

• Water the plant in its container and let it drain.
• Turn the container on its side and gently press on it to loosen the root ball.
• Carefully slide the root ball out of the container and gently loosen the roots so they no longer wrap around the root ball (skip this step with Bougainvillea or Matilija poppies).
• Place the plant into the hole and refill with the soil you dug out.
• Wet the soil as you refill the hole and tamp the soil around the base of the plant.
• Soak the soil after you plant, then add drip irrigation and a thick layer of mulch, but leave bare dirt immediately around the base of the stem or trunk.
• Irrigate and mulch.

How to plant annual tiny flower seeds:

• Choose a spot in full sun.
• Rake soil smooth, then water to saturate the soil.
• Put the seeds into a 1-pint plastic container, then add construction sand in a 1:4 ratio, and mix.
• Sprinkle the seed-and-sand mix over the seed bed.
• Rake soil gently so seeds are just barely buried.
• Water again, with a very soft spray, so the soil is wet enough to settle it around seeds. Continue to water every few days (unless it rains) to keep the soil, seeds and young seedlings damp.


Prune ornamental trees. Hire an insured, licensed, certified arborist who is on-site with the crew while they work.

NEVER top a tree. If a tree is too tall, replace it with one that matures shorter.

Prune summer and spring flowering shrubs now, before new flower buds form. If you wait too long, you’ll cut off the buds and lose the flowers.

Prune fig trees. Their wood is surprisingly soft and easy to cut. Keep trees short so fruits are in easy reach.

Cut back geraniums, starting with long, scrambly growth. Cut branches back to where new leaves are forming. Plants will soon form flower buds in preparation for spring bloom.

Prepare for winter

Protect bare and spare hillsides from pounding rain by installing straw-filled wattles horizontally across a hillside. The tubular barriers act as “speed bumps” to slow water (and mud) flowing down the slope. After winter, cut the wattles open to release the straw and let it decompose on the soil. Dispose of the plastic netting. Compost “socks” are like wattles but filled with compost.

Clean rain gutters. If the stuff that comes out of the gutter looks like compost, add it to your compost pile or use it to mulch garden beds.

Cover Plumeria or move them under the eaves when nighttime temperatures drop below 35 degrees. Stop watering Plumeria once the leaves fall off. Resume watering only once new leaves appear in March.

Move tropical bromeliads and cold-sensitive succulents under the eaves or patio cover to protect them from cold.

Cover cold-sensitive in-ground plants with floating row cover. Hold the material in place with small clamps or clothespins. Local farm and irrigation supply stores sell floating row cover by the roll or by lengths.

Refresh mulch — rock mulch for succulents, woody mulches for all nonsucculent ornamentals. Aim to always maintain a 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of mulch.


The weather is cool, the sun is lower in the sky, days are shorter. Plants need far less water this time of year. Run irrigation for the same number of minutes but only half as often as in summer — or less.

Once the rains start, turn off irrigation altogether. If we get normal rains, leave your irrigation off until March.

Install a new Wi-Fi “smart” irrigation controller. These controllers calculate watering schedules for each zone of your garden based on location, the type of soil, type of plants, etc. Set up and monitor the controller with an app on your smartphone and/or computer.

Fruit trees

Deciduous fruit trees: Strip off lingering leaves by month’s end. Prepare to prune and spray, starting next month.

Plan now for the bare-root fruit trees, grapes, berries and other fruits you’ll want to shop for at your local independent nursery in January.

Fertilize citrus and avocado just as the rains begin. Use an organic, granular citrus and avocado food.

Vegetable gardens

Harvest sweet potatoes early in the month and let them cure in a cool, dry spot so they are ready for Thanksgiving

Pull out summer crops (eggplant, tomato, pepper, etc.) Put the old, diseased plants into greenwaste (don’t compost). Commercial green waste processing destroys the pests and diseases.

Amend the planting bed with compost, worm castings and all-purpose vegetable fertilizer. Mix in the straw mulch from last season.

Plant now from seed or seedlings: cabbage, rapini, kohlrabi, spinach, peas, leeks, fava beans.

Direct seed root crops into garden beds: rutabaga, beets, carrots and turnips.

If you don’t plant winter vegetables, plant cover crops. Cover crops are “green manure” that grows through winter. Six weeks before you plant your spring garden, turn the cover crop plants into the soil so their roots, stems and leaves can break down and amend the soil.


California’s reservoirs are at dangerously low levels and water is limited. No matter where in California you garden, it’s time to look hard for ways to use less water. Learn to “drought-proof” your garden by attending one of a series of free webinars offered this winter by Nan Sterman, WaterWise Gardener, in coordination with San Diego County Water Authority. The next webinar is at 5 p.m. Nov. 21. Registration is required. For the full webinar calendar and to reserve your spot, visit

“Hands-on Holiday Bulb Planting,” Nov. 15, 7 to 9 p.m. Join Nan Sterman and florist Annette Gomez to plant your holiday centerpiece of pure white paperwhites in a gorgeous handmade pot from ceramic artist Susan Aach. Learn how to grow bulbs that perform beautifully in our gardens, as you enjoy an evening beverage along with sweet and savory snacks. Come for the experience, bring a friend or family member, give the workshop as a gift. Register at

Sterman is a waterwise garden designer and writer and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. More information is at and