The Mountain Gardener: Autumn garden an opportunity for showy colors, edibles
by Jan Nelson
Sep 22, 2011 | 977 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fall is in the air — sort of. The sun is setting earlier each day, but our days are still beautiful. The autumnal equinox today, Sept. 23, marks the beginning of fall, when day and night are of about equal length. Gardeners living in Minnesota and Maine are thinking about "battening down the hatches" for winter. Us, we're just starting our fall planting season.

There are so many possibilities for fall and winter edibles, as well as colorful flowers, berries and foliage. For the biggest show, there's no better time to plant than early fall. Let the fun begin.

While most of the summer annuals and perennials will bloom until at least October, there are cool-season varieties that come into their own as our nights cool and will last through the winter. Try colorful combinations of snapdragons, pansies, violas, sweet alyssum, calendula, Chrysanthemum paludosum, forget-me-nots, Iceland and shirley poppies, ornamental kale and cabbage, primroses, stock or sweet peas.

Who doesn't love old-fashioned sweet peas? A small bouquet will perfume a room with a delicious scent. They remind me of my Aunt Ruth, who grew them every year and let me pick a bunch each spring whenever I went to visit. There are many new varieties and colors these days, but back then, her sweet pea vines were covered with the classic mixed colors of violet, blue, pink, peach and white.

Sweet peas have been around for a long time, and many different countries claim that they originated there. One story is that a monk, Father Cupani, first harvested them in the wild on an island off Sicily in 1695 and sent the seeds to the Netherlands. In the 1800s, a Scottish nurseryman named Harry Eckford began hybridizing and introducing larger varieties in a wider range of colors, and they became quite a sensation.

The most famous and perhaps the most important use of this flower was the extensive genetics studies performed by Gregor Mendel. Because sweet peas self-pollinate, characteristics such as height, color and petal form could easily be tracked.

Whether they came from Ceylon (the modern-day Sri Lanka), China or Sicily, heirloom sweet peas are as exquisite in the garden as they are in the vase.

I like to plant early-blooming types of sweet peas in October or early November. These varieties flower in the shorter days of late winter. Winter Elegance and Early Multiflora are common early-flowering types. Also plant some of the more fragrant spring-flowering heirlooms and Spencers at the same time to extend your harvest time.

My very favorite sweet pea, with long stems for cutting and an intense fragrance, is called April in Paris. The ruffled, primrose-hued blossoms are edged with dark lilac that deepens with time.

You can't go wrong, no matter what color or style of sweet pea you choose. They are all beautiful.

Time for veggies

Now that the weather has cooled, plant cool-season veggie starts — broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, onions and leeks — in soil enriched with 4 to 6 inches of compost, as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil's nutrients. You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard greens and peas directly in the ground.

This is also the time to start perennial flowers seeds, so they'll be mature enough to bloom next year. Happy fall!

Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional at Plant Works in Ben Lomond, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet

We encourage your online comments in this public forum, but please keep them respectful and constructive. This is not a forum for personal attacks, libelous statements, profanity or racist slurs. Readers may report such inappropriate comments by e-mailing the editor at