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Rites of fall


Although the brightest blooms and biggest harvests passed with the equinox, your garden still has much to offer well into winter, from beautiful annuals to a bounty of winter crops.

But making a garden work for you year-round means that you can't sit out the cool months. The good news is, the maintenance and planting you do now will pay off in big dividends during the winter doldrums, delivering everything from fresh veggies to daffodils and tulips galore.

Before you do anything, however, you'll have to undertake a good fall cleaning.

Remove all your malingering tomatoes and other crops. Even if it seems like you might be able to stretch the harvest, those tired-out vines can be hiding slugs, snails and other destructive critters, said Fionuala Campion, the manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma.

Old tomato and squash vines by October and November may also have mildew and fungal issues.

"Harvest everything that is still out there and close to being harvestable. Any green tomatoes you can bring in and ripen indoors. Put your spent tomato vines on the compost pile, chopping them up well and then cleaning the spot where they were," Campion said. "I recommend at this stage putting down compost or manure in that spot and then let the winter rains enrich the soil for the next couple of months until you're ready to plant in the spring."

Of course, you could also put that newly acquired garden real estate to use for a winter crop. In October you can still plant lettuce, beets and carrots in Sonoma County, not to mention peas, cabbage, chard and kale.

In fact, the only months you wouldn't want to plant carrots and beets are December and January.

Campion recommends for lettuce the Rouge d'Hiver, a rusty red heritage romaine from France with a sweet flavor and buttery texture. Among the heritage carrots, she loves Scarlet Nantes. Thinking ahead, if you love fresh garlic, you'll want to get that into the ground now for spring as well.

Fava beans make a great winter cover crop, but they also make for good, fresh-from-the garden eating. Campion said she planted the Crimson Flowered Fava among some flowering clematis vines, but it was the fava flower that everyone raved over.

October also is an excellent time to plant perennials and trees that are not frost-tender.

"They're going to get their roots established over the winter months and they're not going to be hit by paralyzing heat waves. They'll be all ready to grow once spring hits. And you won't have to worry about water; the rains will take care of that for you," Campion said.

While you've got the planting bug, plant your early spring bulbs now.

"Putting in bulbs is like a real vote for the future that you're going to be around in the spring to enjoy all those beautiful daffodils and tulips," said Lydia Constantini, the manager of Sonoma Mission Gardens in Sonoma.

Another vote for spring is sowing wildflower seeds. Constantini advises waiting until after the first "reliable rain." You want a good rainy spell, like those of November, to keep the seeds and ground moist. Follow this advice and you'll get bright California poppies and other smile-inducing flowers when you're most hungry for spring.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they can stop irrigating after the first rain hits. But Campion cautions you need to pay attention. If it hasn't rained for five days in a row, you'll still need to water.

Although winter means worrying less about watering, don't forget any potted plants under the eaves. They won't be getting the moisture they need, so either supplement Mother Nature or scoot them out and away from any overhangs so they can get wet.

"Anytime you have anything in pots, it's finite," Constantini said. "The plant can't fight for itself for water outside the walls of those pots, so it depends on you."

If you have roses, deadhead them one last time and then let them sleep. You don't want to push any new growth at this point in the season.

Apply dormant spray to your roses, peach trees and nectarines, in particular, to prevent diseases. Copper is available in organic forms and there are oils that also are organic. Constantini said a good rule of thumb is to use the holidays to jog your memory. Apply now, then again around Thanksgiving with a final dose around Christmas or New Year's.

If you have a lawn, autumn is an excellent time to reseed to cover any dead patches. Constantini recommends raking the area hard to rough up the soil and remove any dead matter, which you'll want to pull out. Then overseed with a type of turf that will best match what you have, lightly fertilize and cover the seed. Seed can be spread with a fertilizer or seed spreader.

Adding mulch to your beds is a smart idea in fall. It will help conserve moisture, but also provide some protection from frost. Either go with something cheap like rice straw, said Campion, or if you prefer something ornamental, consider fir bark.

Pull out any garden tools that you won't be using during the winter and give them a good cleaning. Then spray them with WD-40 to protect them from moisture and rust during the winter.

And finally, give yourself a boost by brightening up your pots and planting beds with annuals.

"Flower beds do not have to be desolate in the fall and winter," Constantini counseled. "You can put in beautiful stock, pansies, snapdragons, calendulas and my favorite, Chrysanthemum paludosum, which is like a miniature Shasta Daisy." Plant some bulbs underneath them and when those red tulips or King Alfreds push through, she added, you'll have a stunning display.