Malibu Garden Column


The October garden to do list

By Peggy Harris

The list of tasks to support the fall garden can be onerous; however, take heart, as the days shorten plant growth will slow. Less growth means less cutting and pruning. Fall garden chores center on cleaning up from summer production and preparing for next spring’s garden revival.

This month take out selected branches from centers of summer blooming plants such as lavenders, sages and rosemary. Prune heavily the Mediterranean plants that have bloomed all summer. Lavenders can be cut by half. If they don’t respond with new growth after pruning, they may need replacing. Fall is the best time to plant natives and Mediterranean shrubs so they can take advantage of winter rain and establish their roots.

Cleaning up the garden in preparation for fall winds and cutting back all vegetation, which has produced all summer long, are definitely fall garden tasks. When winds are approaching, soak tree roots to help them withstand the dry winds. Not all gardeners believe in raking leaves in the fall, or anytime. Leaving the canopy of fallen leaves is the beginning of the mulching process, which is beneficial for soil development, water retention and weed control.

Citrus trees are still bearing in most Malibu gardens. Plan to cut off dead and excess growth to shape fruit trees after they lose their leaves. Put this off for later-January or February. Do not fertilize fruit trees in October and November to encourage the loss of leaves in winter.

The winter vegetable garden should be taking shape. Transforming from the summer to the cooler season garden is best done by digging up and composting the remains of summer crops, then adding nutrients and making new beds for the cool season plants. Include the large, slow growing plants of broccoli, cauliflower, beets, Swiss chard and kale. Use tomato frames or fences to support a nice crop of winter peas. Plant onions, garlic and shallots to add to winter cooking. Perennial vegetables, including artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb and sorrel should be started now. Give the artichoke plants plenty of room and sun exposure and see how many years they will last. Support the asparagus above ground and tie the graceful sprouts to a fence or screen. These vegetables can be decorative in the garden as well as delicious on the table.

Flowering perennials, which flourish as the temperatures sink in Malibu, include the Japanese anemone and alstroemeria, the Peruvian lily. October is also the month that chrysanthemums display their late summer show of color in the garden. Roses will respond with holiday blooms if they are continually cut and if they receive a late autumn feeding.

Cool season annual flowers make colorful additions to fall garden beds. Include pansies, violas, primroses, cineraria, cyclamen, delphinium, dianthus and the flowering cabbage. Foxglove, Iceland poppies and nemesia (whites, purples and yellows) will perk up fall beds. These annuals are best if planted before the winter holiday season.

October is a good time to divide overgrown, tight clumping plants like the fortnight lilies (dietes), day lilies (hemerocallis) and agapanthus. Also, society garlic, subtropical flowering gingers (hedychium gardneranum) and bird of paradise (strelitzia reginae) can be divided and planted in new locations. These plants will all grow better when given more room to spread in the coming years.

Be careful not to divide iris too often because they can take a few years to recover and bloom in new locations. Cut back Santa Barbara daisy and spreading geraniums.

Fall bulb catalogs are filled with ideas, but be careful of tulips, which require digging up each year and refrigerating before replanting. Crocus, narcissus and daffodils will be the first bulbs to bloom if planted in fall in Malibu. Dutch iris is a sure winner for the large Malibu garden. Many new deep purple irises are available, including “Eye of the Tiger” with mahogany-brown and deep purple petals with a yellow center. These can be found at

Plant California wildflower seeds, including linaria, California poppies, scarlet flax, and lupine. Give the wildflower garden full sun exposure. Seed mixes are available through the Theodore Payne Foundation and at local nurseries. Water seeds after spreading on prepared slopes and protect with netting as seeds establish. Watch for snails and slugs. Collect and dispose of them or try a copper strip barrier around the beds of new plantings.

Protection from gophers using wire netting before planting tender new roots or bulbs is recommended to impede the progress of the territorial animals. When you find fresh, gopher-made mounds of dirt, usually there is one gopher working on an area of the garden. Catching the one culprit with a gopher trap baited with a lemon leaf will usually solve the problem.

October lawn care includes attention to the Bermuda grasses, which are common along the coast. These are warm season lawns and their growth will slow as temperatures get lower. These tend to build up dry thatch underneath. The lawn can be aerated with a rented machine, which makes plugs in the hard ground. Lawns generally need feeding in the fall. Try a combination of gypsum and organic soil amendments. Bermuda grasses can be over-seeded with rye grass to give winter green.

Peggy Harris can be contacted at P.M. Harris Landscape Design, 310.581.7956.