The Mountain Gardener: October wildflowers still in bloom
by Jan Nelson
Oct 11, 2012 | 1825 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Above the clear, turquoise water of the Big Sur coastline, wildflowers still bloom in October.

Among them, bright orange sticky monkeyflowers meander among a carpet of rosy blooming California buckwheat. Deep orange California fuchsia flower on hillsides alongside the bright white heads of yarrow. They make a striking combination. Under the partial shade of pine trees, lavender seaside daisies explode with color. Even poison oak contributes deep, rusty-red tones to the landscape, making it easier to identify and avoid.

This wild land offers lessons and ideas to make our own gardens more beautiful.

Big Sur has areas of chaparral, oak and pine woodlands, riparian or streamside woodlands and redwood-tanbark-oak woodlands.

Nearly half of all the flora of California grows here, and many northern and southern California plants mix in this unique location. Only in Big Sur will redwoods and yuccas thrive together. The look is startling. It’s certainly not a combination you would think of for your own garden.

Near McWay falls on Highway 1, fragments of an elaborate stone house remain along with some of the landscaping. Christopher McWay and his wife, Rachel, settled the area in the late 19th century. The land passed through several owners until former U.S. Rep. Lathrop Brown and his wife, Helen, acquired it and built a beautiful stone structure overlooking McWay Cove. The house was torn down 50 years ago, but many of the landscape plants still thrive after all these years.

Hardy Pittosporum eugenioides have survived without any supplemental watering. A huge stand of blooming naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) covers the rocky slope. We all know what survivors these bulbs are. Tall Mexican palms and ornamental trees surround the fragments of stone staircases and walls, reminding us that nature will endure.

What allows all plants to thrive in their environment is the simple set of conditions that they like. It's nearly impossible to grow ferns in the hot sun around here, and don't even think about trying a California fuchsia in the shade.

Soil is important, too. Rich, moist soil is perfect for wild ginger, but gravelly, well drained soil works best for five-fingered ferns. Match the right plant with the right spot and you'll have success every time. Big Sur is a chock full of success stories.

Here are more tips for early fall in the garden.

Fall is not a good time for major pruning. Wounds heal slowly, leaving plants more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don't prune when leaves are falling or forming. Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature. 

Refresh perennials, such as butterfly bush, salvia and yarrow, by cutting a third to half of their growth.

Rake leaves and compost them or put them in your green can. If large leaves are left in place, they will mat down and set up fungal problems come spring.

Remove dead and diseased leaves from under camellias, rhododendrons and roses.

If you have a lawn, give it a feeding lower in nitrogen but higher in phosphorus and potassium. Phosphorus and potassium are the last two numbers on the box or bag.

Clean up spent plant material. An early rain may cause powdery mildew to take hold on your squash or late blight on the tomatoes. Do not compost these in your own compost pile.

Set out native plants. They'll love the winter rains to become established.

Bring in houseplants from outside around Halloween. Check for bugs first.

Cultivate around beds, trees and shrubs so rains can penetrate. Add chicken manure around fruit trees so they are ready to go in the spring. 

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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