Malibu Garden Column: Autumn in Malibu

A castor bean plant in the Malibu hills blooms in brilliant autumn colors after an early, October rainfall. Peggy Harris / TMT

Autumn is clearly a time when old growth leaves, giving way to inner enrichment in preparation for spring renewal. Outward growth slows, while plants are cycling and responding to cooler temperatures and rains. Autumn oranges and earth tones are adorning the hills as sycamores, liquid ambers, maples and many other deciduous trees drop their summer leaves.

There are indeed seasons to be enjoyed in Malibu gardens. This year, the Southland has been blessed by an early rainfall, the first rain in six months. Fire worries are lessened, while hillside dwellers must watch loose rocks and soil. PCH roadside cleanups are in force along the vulnerable cliffs of the Big Rock and Tuna Canyon areas.

The whole Southland will benefit from a wet autumn season. Collection of rainwater in cisterns is an environmentally sound practice. The Tree People have a state-of-the-art facility built at the edge of Beverly Hills with a large, underground cistern to collect rainwater. On a much smaller scale, homeowners can collect rainwater from roofs (not the first rain, but later downpours) for use when the weather is inevitably dry.

Why not collect the first rain off the roof? It’s filled with debris from our six-month drought. I was appalled when looking at the storm drain at the end of Pico Boulevard to see first-hand exactly what Heal the Bay spokespeople have been pointing out and marking drains to alert citizens. The drain after the rain was flowing quickly, but the Styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles were bobbing on the surface. Not only must water runoff treatment stations, such as the well designed “Smurf” at the Santa Monica Pier, clean up as much of the chemicals as possible from the sewage runoff, the cups and bottles discarded in drains will never decompose! Will this message get to food servers and bottled water manufacturers? Would it be possible to reach all the consumers who discard things in gutters? The Tree People have decided to start with the young-schoolchildren-and to educate on environmental cleanup. Anyone who has participated in a beach cleanup, or even walked on the beach, knows that plastic and Styrofoam must go into recycle containers. Likewise, gardeners have to realize that whatever they put in their soil will one day reach the neighbors below and eventually, the ocean.

Looking at the bright side of the first rains and the ability to turn down or turn off the irrigation systems used on gardens. Fall is a time to dig in, prepare new bulb beds, and get cool season vegetables underway and to compost the dead leaves. Vegetables to add now include artichoke, broccoli, kales and rhubarb. It’s also time to divide thick patches of agapanthus, society garlic, day lilies and gingers. Fall is a great time to add annual color to beds. Try new hybrid bright lavender blue pansies as well as colorful snapdragons. Also add Iceland poppies, cineraria cyclamen and English primrose for color. Any native or Mediterranean plants added in the fall will get their roots started with winter rains.

New children’s garden: I recently enjoyed a visit to the new Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. It opened in June and will provide interest for children for many seasons into the future. A family visit is recommended. Contact the Huntington for directions and times at or by calling 626.405.2100.

Peggy Harris can be reached at P.M. Harris, Landscape Design 805.986.6965.