The Mountain Gardener: All in the fall
by Jan Nelson
Nov 15, 2012 | 1676 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Warm days, rainy days, short days, cold days — they’re all in the fall here in the Santa Cruz mountains.

It's part of what makes our area so special to us. We are inspired by Mother Nature and our mountains. We feel a connection with nature as we enjoy our gardens.

There are some easy things you can do at this time of year to extend that enjoyment. Gardening should be fun, too.


Time to take cuttings

Taking cuttings of shrubs is a relatively easy and economical way to make new plants.

Some plants that can be increased by hardwood cuttings include manzanita, coffeeberry, crape myrtle, pittosporum, euonymous, forsythia, spirea, viburnum and roses. Edible plants — currants, figs, grapes and quinces — also make good subjects.

For deciduous plants, it's best to take cuttings soon after the shrub drops leaves and the plant goes dormant. Evergreen shrub cuttings can be taken now.

Start by taking cuttings of year-old wood that's about a quarter inch in diameter. Discard the top couple of inches of each stem, since this unripened wood doesn't have enough stored nutrients to survive.

Cut the stems into 6- to 9-inch pieces. Because a cutting won't grow if planted upside down, make each top cut at a slant, so you can keep track of it. Then dip the bottom ends in rooting hormone and tap off any excess.

You can store cuttings from dormant shrubs, bundled and labeled, in boxes of sand in the garage or outdoors in a well-drained trench. Each piece will form a callus at the base where roots will form next spring.

Come spring, plant the cuttings in good soil in shade with only the top bud exposed. Water as needed, and once the new plants develop leaves and increase in size, start feeding them monthly with a balanced fertilizer.

By next fall, your new shrubs should be well established and ready to be moved to their permanent place in the landscape.

Some plants, like abelia and spice bush, are propagated by softwood cuttings in June.

Also, you can simply pin down a stem of a plant like manzanita by putting a rock on it, so the soil makes contact. After a year or so, you will have a new plant that you can dig up and move.

Other natives, such as ceanothus, can be propagated in a peat and grit mix and will root in about 50 days if given bottom heat. Take these cuttings in January.

You can check the UC Davis Plant Sciences website,, for information on specific plants you might be interested in.


Stake trees

Trunks with leaning tops or those planted in very windy areas need support. To determine how high to place ties, move your hand up the trunk until the treetops straightens.

I usually allow the stake to reach up into the canopy a bit, so that a wind gust doesn't snap off the trunk right at the base of the canopy. Tie the tree to the stake loosely in several places.

Trees in containers are tied tightly to the stake, but those in the ground should have some wiggle room to stimulate the trunk to be stronger.

This is a good time to check existing tree stakes to make sure the ties aren't digging into the trunk and the stakes are large enough to support your tree. Remember to keep your tree staked only as long as needed and then remove the supports.


Keep feeders hung

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source. Don't take down your feeder in the fall.

Anna's hummingbirds live and breed in this area all year long. They need your nectar more in the winter, when very little is in bloom.

Even a species like the Rufous benefits from access to a large nectar supply to stock up on nutrients before a long migration. Keep your feeders up year-round and keep them clean.


Prepare for wildflowers

The recent rains will allow weed seeds to sprout, which is just what you want if you're planning a wildflower meadow.

The most common mistake when planting wildflower seeds is not getting rid of the existing weed and grass seeds that are in the soil and will germinate along with the wildflowers. These fast-growing weeds smother the slower-growing wildflowers.

Take time to eliminate the competition. Get rid of existing weeds when they sprout by cultivating the soil to a depth of not more than 1 inch. Deeper cultivation exposes more weed seeds that will germinate along with the wildflower seeds.


Tuck plants in for winter

Pick the season’s last roses and add alfalfa meal or pellets, which will soak into ground and prepare them for next spring. Don't prune until the end of January.

Groom strawberries and mulch them to deter slugs in winter.

To help protect citrus from frost damage, pull mulch back from below the canopy.  This allows the ground to absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

- 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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