Autumn is the ideal time to start a garden. This is perfect proof that the gardener’s claim to fame is in manipulating nature, rather than in slavishly following its dictates. The popular opinion that gardeners are people who wish to imitate or return to nature could not be further from the truth. As every schoolchild knows, spring – not autumn – is when the growth cycle in the plant kingdom begins. If all were done according to nature, the vernal equinox alone should usher in the planting season.
Nature is unpredictable, and there is nothing that creates more havoc in a gardener’s life than the unpredictable or unexpected. A frost that comes too early or too late, a sudden storm that follows sowing of seeds and washes them away, a warm winter or overcast summer: These are all part of nature and yet, they are guaranteed to upset the gardener. The gardener, when all is said and done, has much in common with the farmer. For both, ritual and routine are sources of great comfort and delight, while bad weather – nature’s calling card – is the prime nemesis.
Fall planting is one ritual that gardeners have come to treasure. No matter that fall is classically known as harvest time. With the advent of mass-produced, always available containerized nursery stock, it is now possible to plant at any time, as long as the ground is not frozen. In Los Angeles, the ground is never frozen, not like in the eastern states, where the ground freezes for long periods. Yet, whether you live in the East or in the West, fall is still the best time to plant.
The reason for this autumnal planting prejudice is that most root growth takes place at this time of year. If you are planting trees, shrubs or ground covers, the extraordinary root growth in the next three months will ensure healthy leaf, stem, flower and fruit growth net spring and summer.
There is a holiday in England, called Michaelmas, which comes at the end of September and in whose honor a daisy has been named. The Michaelmas daisy is a perennial that can grow to 4 feet, although varieties of every size, including dwarfs, have been developed; flowers may be white or pink, but the most famous are blue, mauve or violet. Michaelmas daises may bloom on and off throughout the year, but now is the time they are most floriferous.
Michaelmas daises are asters, but they should not be confused with the annual asters that, while ravishing in 4-inch nursery pots, die almost immediately after they are planted. Other related perennials adorned with blue, lavender or violet daisies are: Felicia amelloides, the blue marguerite, a low-mounding, spreading daisy; Aster frikartii, a hybrid with enormous blooming capacity; Brachycome multifida, the Swan River daisy, with delicate, intricately patterned leaves and miniature daisies to match.
A person could make a whole garden from the daisy family (Asteraceae), with every flower color under the sun. Zinnias, which are in full bloom at this moment, appear in every color except blue. Cosmos appear in pink and white, but also in orange. Rudbeckias, the black-eyed Susans, have the ultimate orange in their petals, as do marigolds. Marigolds make a farce out of plant names since the tall types, known as African marigolds; and the short types, known as French marigolds, are both native to Mexico. The dainty white flowered Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) is also from Mexico; it is astonishing in its prolific flowering habit, with hundreds of flowers covering each plant.
A California native daisy that should be more widely planted is Gaillardia grandiflora, the blanket flower. Able to withstand the worst heat, the blanket flower’s blooms are distinctive, with dark horizontal stripes across its yellow or red petals.
Coreopsis is perhaps the most authentically American daisy. One species or another is likely to be found growing wild in every one of the states. Coreopsis grandiflora is a 3-foot-tall yellow-orange self-sowing perennial that does well in the Valley. A smaller, more graceful plant with light yellow, glowing flowers is Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam.” Coreopsis gigantea is an out-of-this-world succulent tree that, although native to the Channel Islands, is a real challenge to grow; it is more of a seaside than Valley species.
Coreopsis is recommended for soil with inadequate drainage. If you have a patch of ground in the sun, where nothing seems to grow, try coreopsis. Cut off spent flowers for repeat bloom.