Eighty years ago Dorothy opened her door, walked outside and into a garden.
Surprised, the garden she saw was completely new to her, and she proclaimed to her dog Toto “I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.” Everything was different in this garden; new plants, different flowers and a strange climate, and she declared “We must be over the rainbow!”
As a Southern California gardener, that’s how you might feel. You’re not in Kansas, New York, or Illinois. You garden in a unique area, different from anywhere else in the country.
“Fall is spring” here. Don’t turn the page; this isn’t a misprint.
Those three words form much of the foundation of a successful and sustainable gardening experience in Southern California.
Forget the calendar and what you might have gleaned from seed packets and television shows. From a plant’s point of view there are really only two seasons; a cool-season and a warm-season. One season is for growing and one is for resting.
Generally speaking, Southern California’s cool-season begins about now and wraps up sometime in April or May. Our warm-season, occupies the rest of the year, about April or May through early fall.
In Mediterranean climate regions, like ours, it is the cool-season when plants are happiest. To understand coastal Southern California gardening, consider the plant’s perspective. In Kansas, winter is a time when plants rest. Because plants are resting in the cool-season, gardening in these parts of the country is a warm-season activity.
But over-the-rainbow, here in mild Southern California, it is the cool-season that is the growing time. Unlike Kansas, here it is during the hot, dry, warm-season that plants rest. Much like Dorothy noticed in her OZ garden, a lot of things are different here in Southern California.
For us, “fall is spring”; but that can be hard to comprehend or accept if you grew up in Kansas, or just about anywhere else.
Most gardeners can grasp the idea of a plant having a growing season and a resting season. But where Southern California gardeners sometimes get confused is by assuming the warm-season is for growing and the cool-season is for resting. But we garden in OZ, not Kansas.
It’s understandable if this “fall is spring” concept seems just a little alien, just like it did when Dorothy opened her door to OZ. But remember, for most of the gardeners of the world, plants do grow in the summer and rest in the winter, just not here. We are, in fact, over-the-rainbow.
As evidence, visit a garden in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, Seattle or Kansas City in the cool-season. The gardens there are asleep; so are the vacant lots, the forests, the hillsides and the native plants. In those climates, April and May is the time when plants are waking up, flowers are budding, trees are growing and gardeners are furiously planting. In those places, where a huge majority of the nation’s gardeners live, “spring is spring”.
So it’s understandable that casual Southern California gardeners have such a difficult time grasping the idea that here, “fall is spring”.
It makes perfect sense. During Southern California’s warm-season, vacant lots dry up, hillsides sleep, wildflowers disappear, native shrubs hibernate and plant life eases, in a long wait for fall rains and cooler weather. Gardening in conflict with our natural cycles can be frustrating and exhausting. But appreciating and accepting where we garden and our seasons can be a relaxing and rewarding experience, with results beyond ones expectations.
In coastal Southern California most plants, when planted now, root furiously, with rainfall supplying most of their water needs. By the time our warm, dry summer arrives, these fall planted shrubs, trees, vines and perennials are already well established.
But there is an important exception to our local “fall is spring” scheme; and it centers on tropical plants. Bananas, plumerias, elephant ears, avocadoes and other exotic plants from warm tropical climates are on a different cycle. Tropical plants are not accustomed to much seasonal change in temperature or rainfall and actually prefer the warm-season, as long as the gardener supplies them with plenty of water during our long dry summers.
So, here in OZ, this is spring and the season isn’t over – it’s just beginning. There’s so much to do. This is our season. We’re not in Kansas. If Dorothy were here she would probably be planting her garden this weekend!
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.
Questions from Readers October 17.
Question: What is the address of the Orange County Agricultural Commissioner office?
Answer: It is 222 East Bristol Lane Orange, CA 92865, Phone (714) 955-0100. Office Hours are Mon.-Fri. 8am to 12pm and 1pm to 5pm.