As I write this in mid-August, the bright pink naked ladies . (Amaryllis belladonna) have begun to cavort near the top of the garden, Cyclamen hederifolium has sent up its first delicate flowers in the dry shade of a young oak, and zauschneria (Epilobium) blossoms are feeding the hummingbirds. For some, these events signify the end of summer, the beginning of autumn, and the conclusion of the gardening year. For me, they mark the start of spring in my California mediterranean garden. By the time this issue is in readers’ hands, Sternbergia lutea will have presented a few floral goblets of bright yellow—as Donn Todt points out in Second Spring, a more typical autumn color than the pinks of amaryllis and cyclamen. The first of the summer-dormant South African Pelargonium species will have begun unfurling their furry, tightly folded leaves.
I’ve often wondered what actually triggers these events, all before the first of the fall rains. Some insist that reduced day length and cooler temperatures are the cause. Yet, in San Francisco and much of coastal California, the warmest temperatures arrive in September and early October. Others suggest that the bulbs and other geophytes are responding to an accumulation of “baking hours” since the last rains of spring— somewhat the opposite of winter’s chilling hours needed by deciduous fruit trees. I’m inclined to agree with this last hypothesis, since the amaryllis often begin flowering earlier when we have a particularly warm summer, as we did this year.
The first autumn rains, usually arriving in mid-October in the Bay Area, trigger other responses in the garden. The strappy amaryllis leaves burst from their ground-level bulbs. Marbled leaves of cyclamen expand and hug the ground in small drifts. Different species of Pelargonium wait to send up their leaves until a bit of rain has moistened the soil.
The rains invigorate an unwatered abelia hedge and extend its flowering, which began in early July, at least until the winter solstice. Nearby, the first pale pink tassels on a chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum ‘Dancing Tassels’) begin to dance in the gentle autumn breezes of November. Both provide a seemingly endless supply of nectar for the resident and migrating hummingbirds; the currant, in fact, continues flowering until early March.
Native annuals (poppies, Nemophila, and clarkias) wait for a couple inches of rain to penetrate the dry hillside before they begin to sprout. Seeds of weedy exotics, especially broom, need an inch or less of rain to emerge. Ridding the garden of these noxious invaders becomes a priority once the rains start in earnest. (The secret is learning to recognize a weed’s seed leaves as they break the surface of the soil; it’s so much easier to pull them at that time.)
My childhood autumns in southeastern Michigan were characterized by two memorable annual events: the fiery coloring of the leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs, and the planting of bulbs for spring flowering. The fall colors usually peaked in mid to late October, just in time for homecoming weekend at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Here in the West, fall colors seldom match the drama of the eastern displays, but a single tree of a mildew-resistant hybrid crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia ‘Muskogee’) gives me all the reminder I need of those Michigan autumns, with a spectacular display of red, orange, and gold leaves for two to three weeks in late November or early December. As its colorful mantle begins to drop, the first Narcissus appears at its base: the delicate, translucent white, petticoat-like ‘Taffeta’, a gift of the late Wayne Roderick years ago.
Many plants in my garden arrived as gifts from Wayne, including the cyclamen and sternbergia. Wayne’s greater gift, however, was in helping me (and many others) understand that autumn is the beginning of the gardening year in the West. He particularly urged fall planting to take maximum advantage of the winter rains. So, I use the months of October through January to do all the planting—bulbs and otherwise—in the garden. (When planting before the rains begin, I fill each planting hole with water several times to thoroughly and deeply moisten the soil; it does make a difference.)
One look at the heirloom bulbs in this year’s Old House Gardens catalog inspires me to add a few more bulbs to the garden. But there are also shrubs, perennials, vines, and winter-growing succulents; some of them have been waiting for more than a year to be freed of the constraints of their pots. If the winter is a wet one, most of these new plants will need only occasional irrigation during their first summer—and none after that. It’s a busy season getting done a year’s worth of planting in little more than three months.
And then—it’s hellebore season . . .