Thomas J. Story

Here’s what to plant, what to harvest, and how to maximize the bounty this fall.

Deanna Kizis, Johanna Silver, Mike Irvine  – September 23, 2021

Welcome to your October and November garden checklist. The first day of fall has come and gone, and our weather is starting to radically diverge. Below you’ll find to-dos for each region, but let’s hang together for a moment shall we? After all, despite the wide range of climates we cover in the West, there are some things Sunset readers can do together out in the garden—and indoors—this autumn.

Ordering wildflower mixes that are custom-made for your region will not only reward you in the spring but will also help pollinators. Urban Farmer sells seed packets that are specific to your state. Their native Washington blend, for example, includes Five spot (Nemophila maculata), Siberian Wallflower (Cheiranthus allionii), Scarlet Flax (Linum grandiflorum), and Lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), and, of course, California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).

Meanwhile, pots of African Violets (Saintpaulia) will brighten up indoor rooms. They come in a variety of colors, from hot pink to soft purple—even chartreuse. For an ombré display, try violets in varying tones of lavender from your local nursery or The Violet Barn.

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It’s always a good idea to amend your soil in the fall so your garden will be more fertile come spring. To add oxygen to a vegetable bed, till the soil, then add compost or other organic materials. For flower gardens, dig in compost as you sink bulbs and pull annuals.

And let’s all consider pickling vegetables so we can enjoy the last of our harvest later in the season. Use a mixture of 1 cup water, 1 cup vinegar (white, champagne, apple cider, or rice wine vinegar all work well), and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Customize the flavor with 1 tablespoon of sugar, red pepper, smashed garlic, or fresh herbs from the garden. 

Now, onto your regional checklist ideas …

Southern California

Plant

Set artichokes, herbs like sage and thyme, and rhubarb. All will mature before the first hard frost and overwinter well. Cole crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower will do the same, but cover them with soil up to their first set of leaves to prevent weak and leggy stems. For something different, try romanesco, a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower, which grows a gleaming green with pointed heads. Use it to make an arrestingly vivid pesto. 

October in California is the perfect time to plant strawberries so they’ll have deep root systems in time for next summer’s heat. Meanwhile, onion bulbs planted in the fall won’t bolt in the spring. 

Maintain

Like hibernating bears, some garden favorites need to rest through the winter. Stop feeding and reduce frequency of irrigation for grapevines, roses, and deciduous trees so they’ll go dormant. 

Divide and transplant perennial flowers like acanthus, agapanthus, bearded iris, bergenia, coreopsis, daylily, dusty miller, heuchera, hollyhock, Japanese anemone, Rudbeckia, Shasta daisy, statice, stock, and yarrow that are getting unwieldy or could fill empty spaces in the garden. 

Harvest

Pick winter squash, pumpkins, and decorative gourds when vines are dry and rinds are hard and resist an easy puncture with your fingernail. Cut the stem with a knife or clippers, and leave 2 inches attached to the fruit to lessen the chance of spoilage. Don’t forget to toast the seeds for snacking. 

Southwest

Plant

Add winter greens, including arugula, bok choy, cabbage, kale, and mustards to your vegetable garden. For lettuce, sow a succession of seeds over several weeks to keep a steady supply of leaves ready for cutting. 

At the nursery, look for skunk-bush sumac (Rhus trilobata) shrubs, as well as ‘Red Push’ pistache (Pistacia x ‘Red Push’) and ‘Bonita’ Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina ‘Bonita’) trees. By the time they’re in the ground, they’ll already be changing color during fall’s last call. 

Best planted now, hummingbird favorites Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica) and Baja ruelia (Ruellia peninsularis) bring a one-two punch of color, turning from red to a purple-blue come early spring. 

Maintain

Reduce watering frequency and adjust your irrigation timers. In autumn, when high temperatures sink below 90°, desert-adapted trees can be deep-watered every 14 to 30 days, while thirstier species—including citrus—need a drink every 7 to 14 days. 

In late October or early November, cut back overgrown woody Mediterranean plants like lavender, rosemary, and thyme. Older specimens that have become overgrown can be rejuvenated by pruning them as low as 12 to 18 inches above ground. 

Northern California

Plant

Consider a cover crop to greatly improve the fertility of a raised bed. Try crimson clover, Austrian field peas, or Tyfon greens. They’ll grow slowly through the winter and improve your soil when you till them under in the spring. 

In coastal and inland regions, continue to sow seeds of beet, carrot, onion, pea, radish, Swiss chard, and turnip. Set out seedlings of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. In the foothills and Central Valley, sow seeds of pea and spinach, and plant sets or cloves of garlic and onions. 

Protect

Scale insects or mealybugs leave a sticky residue on houseplants. Look above the honeydew coating to find the pests and rinse them off, then treat with cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol or neem oil. 

Maintain

Feed winter-flowering orchids with a weak 20-20-20 fertilizer each time you water. 

Harvest

Pick persimmons when they turn deep orange and bring them indoors to ripen. Flat-bottomed varieties such as ‘Jiro’ and ‘Fuyu’ are best eaten when firm or when they’re just soft to the touch. Allow varieties like ‘Hachiya,‘ with round pointed tips, to ripen until the flesh is almost pudding-like. 

Northwest

Plant

One of the Northwest’s best native landscape trees is vine maple. Most nurseries carry it, but for a wider selection look to mail-order specialists like Mendocino Maples Nursery

Maintain

If you have finished compost, spread it over shrub and perennial beds or dig it into empty annual plots. To stockpile for spring, cover your heap with a tarp to keep winter rains from washing out the nutrients. 

Harvest

Just before the first frost, harvest your tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, summer squash, watermelons, and peppers, since they’ll be damaged by the cold. Tomatoes that aren’t ripe can be placed on an indoor windowsill. 

Protect

East of the mountains, cut back fuchsias and overwinter them in a protected, dark place. A cool basement will do the trick. 

Mountain

Plant

At 6 to 8 inches tall, heirloom miniature daffodils are the perfect size for rock gardens and in groundcovers. Hoop petticoat daffodil (Narcissus bulbocodium) and double pheasant’s eye (N. albus plenus odoratus) are white; the Tenby daffodil (N. pseudonarcissus ssp. obvallaris) and hoop daffodil ‘Golden Bells’ and ‘Julia Jane’ are golden yellow. 

Plan for early spring color by planting botanical crocuses in blue gamma, buffalo grass, and sheep fescue lawns. Good choices include Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl,’ pale yellow ‘Cream Beauty,’ and gold ‘Goldilocks,’ along with C. tommasinianus ‘Barr’s Purple,’ ‘Lilac Beauty,’ violet ‘Roseus,’ and ‘Ruby Giant.’ 

Maintain

Remove, clean, and store garden supports. Nest tomato cages. Save a large plastic nursery pot to hold bamboo and metal stakes. 

Let a few stalks of endive, lettuce, mesclun mixes, mustard, and spinach go to seed to provide food for birds. Uneaten dropped seeds will germinate next spring and provide early fresh greens. 


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