Forget Primal Urges; Plant Now


I've planted almost all of my gardens in the fall because, although the urge to work the soil may be stronger, even primal, in the spring, experience has taught me that the autumn months are the better time to plant in Southern California.

Last fall I planted an entire landscape, everything from trees to tiny ground covers, completely redoing my front yard. By the end of summer, the new garden looked anything but. It really grew, thanks to that fall start.

That's one kind of fall planting--putting in permanent things that could be planted at other times of the year but do so much better planted now. The other kind is the seasonal planting of temporary things, like bulbs and bedding plants that bloom in the spring or the cool-season vegetable crops we harvest in winter.

Either way, it's an exciting time for gardeners, so take your pick: Tackle an entire landscape or just a few pansies.

A Cool New Hue

Here's a hot news flash concerning a cool new color: Nursery workers are raving over a new lavender pansy, and they say it really is lavender in color, not just in name. One predicts that Imperial Lavender Shades will be "the hottest selling pansy this year." It is the latest in a pastel series that includes the first "pink" pansy, Imperial Pink, with which it should look very nice. Now, what else could you plant with a lavender pansy?

A Favorite Fall Scheme and a Useful Tool

Years ago, Lew Whitney, who runs Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, came up with a planting scheme that makes the deliciously fragrant, but perversely floppy, freesia stand upright. In the fall, he planted obconica primroses six inches apart in a partly shaded bed. Then, using a dibble, he planted one freesia bulb between every primrose. The primroses were a mix of soft colors; the freesias were white.

The stiff primrose stems held up the limber freesias, and the combination was as elegant as the bulb beds at Keukenhof Gardens in Holland--and fragrant to boot. The same idea should work with a variety of fall-planted flowers, in sun or partial shade, as long as the stems are sturdy enough to support the floppy freesias.

Those who dabble at gardening probably have no idea what a dibble is, although it is one of the oldest gardening tools. A dibble is essentially a pointed stick, and the most elegant have metal tips and a handle. (You'll find them at better nurseries.) Instead of digging, you punch holes for plants or bulbs. It may take some effort to punch a hole deep enough for a daffodil or tulip, but it's the perfect tool for freesias, babianas, homeria and other small bulbs that do so well in Southern California.

Too Many Salvias

Last month I nominated a sage from Sinaloa, Mexico, named Salvia sinaloensis as my "plant of the year." But the plant I had in mind--the one that has done so remarkably in my new shady-but-dry border--is actually named Salvia chiapensis , from Chiapas, Mexico. I'm sorry about this and promise to bone up on my geography of Mexico.

I would like to blame the mistake on the fact that there are too many new salvias--my yard is full of them--but I'm afraid I simply mixed up the plant tags. David Frost, the wholesale grower, discovered the mistake after wondering about a run on his stock of the sage from Sinaloa; he also agrees that there really are too many new salvias.

He has 40 kinds listed and gets five to 10 new ones every year. He thinks the names are "significantly confused," but at least we have this one straightened out.

If you have bought a Salvia sinaloensis , let me tell you that it, too, is a nice plant, and it's not too late to dig it up and move it. S. sinaloensis does not grow in the shade but in sun, and it likes weather on the warm side, being extremely happy on the east side of town. It is, however, also it is doing very well in my coastal garden.

It grows only a foot tall by two feet wide and may die down completely in the winter, sprouting anew from the roots in spring. It has handsome burgundy-tinged foliage and the purest, deep blue flowers you can imagine. You won't be disappointed in your purchase--unless you're trying to grow it in the shade.

If you want to try the shade-tolerant salvia with the nonstop magenta flowers that I've been growing, search out S . chiapensis , not S. sinaloensis . If you go to the Los Angeles Garden Show, you won't have to look far. Both Hortus and Burkard nurseries will have them at their booths.

Dancing Ladies

When I moved from Northern to Southern California, I was most amazed by the orchids growing outdoors in gardens, attached to trees, just as they do in tropical South America. Especially the Oncidiums . I immediately "planted" some, if tying something with plastic tape to a post or tree can be called planting. Now every fall, when mine come into full flower, the amazement returns as the golden yellow or chocolate-colored orchids open.

These orchids are epiphytes, what some people call air plants, and grow above the ground attached to things, taking their water and nutrients from the air, from rain and from litter that gets trapped in their tangle of roots.

Originally, mine were tied onto slabs of tree fern bark hung from nails driven into the porch posts, but their roots now wrap around the posts, securely holding the clumps of leaves. In fall, thread-thin stalks open delicate flowers that flutter like little dancing ladies in the dry autumn breezes.

I believe the ones I am growing are, in fact, commonly called dancing ladies, Oncidium gawerramsey . They have inch-across golden yellow petals, flecked maroon at the base, with the lower petal flared like a twirling skirt. I also grow the rarer O . enderianum , similar but larger, with almost chocolate-colored blooms. Earl Ross, the orchid specialist at the Arboretum of Los Angeles, suggests another oncidium for those who live farther inland. O. sphacelatum is hardy outdoors even in Arcadia.

Soon to flower is the hardiest orchid of all, Laelia anceps , also worth looking for. Attach it to a tree or wall and, every fall or winter, it will amaze you with spikes of lavender and purple orchids.

Visitors always ask what I do to keep them so happy, and then, upon learning I do virtually nothing, where they can get them. They grow in morning sun, shaded for the rest of the day by the porch or a tree. Occasionally, I spritz them with water. That's it for care, though most epiphytes aren't so easygoing.

Finding them is easy right now because there are specialists selling orchids at the garden show.

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