Fall Foliage on Sycamore at Tree of Life Nursery in December  ©2011 Orchid Black

Native plant experts say that Fall planting is best.  Fall starts September 21.  So September 21 must be a good time to start planting natives, except that it isn’t.  The hot Santa Ana winds blow in from the desert, fanning the flames of wildfires and shortening everyone’s temper.  Many of our plants are semi-dormant now.  The sages, for example, have shed their largest leaves and rely on tiny half-sized leaves to get them through these hot times.

For folks from out-of-state, I liken these times, end of August to late October, to the frost period in whatever Eastern state they come from.  A bad time to plant—except in shade or on the coast.  Eastern folks understand this in a way that Californians don’t.  Seasonality is a part of their world.  Living in Southern California, where I have gone to the beach on Christmas Day (“Mom, it’s 95 degrees, let’s open the presents when we get back from the beach!”), it’s sometimes hard to understand our seasons.

Meanwhile, the plant sales are geared to Fall planting.  Everyone is told to get their plants in the ground in Fall, before the Winter rains come, so your plants will have a chance to make some good roots before Summer.  Forget the years the rains never come and it’s hot in January.  Forget the year, I think it was ‘04-’05, it rained so much that every Buckwheat that went into the ground that Winter rotted, whether in sand in San Gabriel or in rocks in Sunland.  Those same experts will tell you that the “first year your plants sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap.”  I tell people this myself;  it’s often true.  Plants planted in Fall and Winter don’t move that much, because plants don’t grow that much in the cold.

Meanwhile, I’ve planted with trepidation in May and June and July, and have discovered that plants that go into the ground in May don’t just sleep, they creep and even leap, sometimes getting a year’s worth of growth in six months.  Fundamentally, plants like to grow when it’s warm, as long as it’s not too hot.  Too hot can happen at any time.  It was 90° in February of 2003 when we put 300 plants into the ground in Washington Park.  We lost a few plants then,  more to uneven irrigation than any other cause.

So when is “Fall?”  It turns out, Fall is not now.  Fall happens in the native plant world approximately October 21, if we don’t have Santa Ana conditions that week.  So, to be safe, Fall doesn’t start until November 1.  This makes Fall a three-week season.  The 4th Thursday in November is Thanksgiving, and that week isn’t a full week.  Thanksgiving starts the Holiday Season, and the Holiday Season is not Fall, it is clearly Winter, if you look at the sale ads starring snowflakes and people with mittens.  December, being right in the middle of Holiday Season, is definitely Winter.

So “Fall,” in the Southern California native plant world is the first three weeks in November.  Sometime in October I get a call from a potential client who only wants me as a designer if I can assure them that their plants will go into the ground in November.  Forget the clients who got a design months ago, got their irrigation and hardscape in and are ready to plant.  The potential client needs someone who can plant in “Fall.”

I’ve sometimes wondered if I should suspend my ethics and my experience successfully planting throughout the year and simply auction off those three weeks in November to the highest bidder?  Do you think I should?

A link for you:  Las Pilitas Nursery’s “When to Plant California Native Plants…”

Next:  Pictures of  a successful summer planting.

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