• Fall planting in the Sierra foothills

    by  • September 30, 2015 • Sierra Foothills

    Part 1-The whys and hows

    Working along with nature

    Instead of planting in the Spring and having to water your plants all through the Summer, why not rely on Nature to water them for you? Planting in the Fall, providing water just at the start, will allow the plants to establish deep roots before the cold weather begins, giving them a good start for Spring growth. Trees, conifers, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and seeds can be planted now through October for a big payoff when Spring comes along.

    Fall planting pays off with a Spring show!

    Fall planting pays off with a Spring show!


    Here’s how to plant in the Fall:

    Remove any weeds in your planting area, disturbing the soil as little as possible to prevent dormant seeds from releasing into the bed. Remove their weedy bodies completely and get them off your property.

    Prepare the bed by adding a layer of mulch and water enough to soften the soil. Now is a good time to think about how you will provide additional water during the hottest part of the summer.

    When planting, pull the mulch back and dig into the surface just enough to set the plant. Don’t dig the hole too big or too small, just enough to cover the root ball. Set the plant in with the crown just above the soil line, and fill the hole with the soil you removed. For California natives and Mediterranean plants there’s no need to amend or fertilize the soil.

    Add a thick layer, one to two inches, of mulch will keep the soil from drying out and crusting over, which keeps nutrients and water flowing into the soil. It also reduces water loss due to evaporation. Mulch will provide cover for soil insects to do their work. Grass clippings, pine mulch, leaves or forest leaf cover are great for this.

    Water now, enough to really soak the plant, and continue to water deeply with the hose or a sprinkler for the first day.

    Plan out how you plan to water, but wait until summer to install any drip system. Using drip sprayers, rather than emitters is good because it simulates the rain. For the first year or two, watch your new plants and every week or so, check the soil with a slender trowel around the plants and make sure it’s moist. Native plants will only need occasional summer water once they’re growing well. They’re easy!

    Part 2- ‘No till’ gardening

    One technique, perfect for the California Foothills area, is called ‘No till’ planting. With no-till planting, the idea is to disturb the soil as little as possible and preserve all the beneficial layers of insects and fungus that help get nutrients to your plants.

    Fall planting benefits are that it:

    Reduces or eliminates the need to weed.

    Not digging into the soil prevents you from bringing old weed seeds up to the surface where the conditions are good for them to germinate. With no-till gardening, these seeds will remain dormant indefinitely and any wind, or bird borne weeds can be easily removed by hand. Eventually you will notice that you need to weed less in mulched beds. Who wouldn’t like that?!

    Garden in 2010 Hardly any weeding!

    Garden in 2010 Hardly any weeding!


    No till gardening helps nourish soil

    Healthy topsoil can be encouraged with a thick layer of mulch, eventually creating a nutrient filled soil. No need to dig it in or use more fertilizers. Tilling the soil speeds the breakdown or organic matter, which releases nutrients too quickly. A steady, slow release of nutrients is more beneficial to plant growth.

    Builds ‘living’ soil

    Worms and other soil life are important to healthy soil structure… their tunnels providing aeration and drainage. Have you ever noticed white spidery webs of fungus in the first foot of soil when planting or digging? That’s a good sign! It’s called mycorrhizae (my-cor-ry-zee) and it helps with uptake of water and nutrients, so your plants can benefit. Notice the photo in the slideshow and you can see why you wouldn’t want to break this up by pulverizing your soil.

    Saves time and energy.

    You’ll save energy by using the no-till method. Some effort is required in gathering materials for mulching, and applying the mulch during the growing season, but no digging or turning of the soil is required.

    So, when you till the soil, you kill the mycorrhizal fungus and expose weed seeds. Overall, you disturb the web of life that has grown into your soil. Yes, it will recover, but that takes time. The new roots of your plants are coming soon and they do best if they have a thriving ecosystem to connect with.

    How to do it.

    Remove weeds completely. Prepare your bed by covering it with a thick layer of mulch. Some use layers of wet newspapers to prevent weeds. Pull back the mulch and plant, using the smallest holes possible, without crowding the new roots of the plant. Spread the mulch bach and water. Easy!

    Caution: After we plant, it’s hard to tell when the soil becomes dry again. Keep a narrow trowel in your back pocket to dig down and see how moist or dry the soil is. You may be surprised! Keep watch for the next few weeks until the first Fall rains.

    Part 3-Planting on a slope

    Slopes can be a blessing or a challenge!

    Plants on a slope can either be easier to see or hidden from view. You can use terraces or steps for easier access up and down hills and it’s best to follow the basic contours of your garden for good design. Planting along a retaining wall can be display places for cascading and ground cover plants.

    Suggested plants for slopes are Manzanita ‘Howard McMinn’, low growing Ceanothus, like ‘Joyce Coulter’, the creeping form of rosemary, creeping Sage ‘Bee’s Bliss’, rockrose, and lavender. All these plants are perfect for any garden in California and can be found at our mountain area nurseries.

    Planting on a slope

    Planting on a slope

    Planting on a slope…holding water is the key.

    Three things are needed, a level plant, a water reservoir above and a rock below.

    When planting on a slope, plant the plant as level as you can forming a small watering basin around it on the downhill side, making sure the crown of the plant is above the level the water will be. Dig another hole uphill from the plant about 6 inches to a foot wide above the plant on the slope. When you fill this basin when watering, this will let the water drip down slower onto the plants’ roots. Fill the watering basin above and around the plant slowly to test how it holds water and adjust it, if needed.

    If the plant has been put in correctly, the contour of the land will capture rainwater or irrigation water as it flows down the

    Holding plants on a steep slope

    Place a rock on the downhill side the plant. It will help hold the plant in place and prevent water evaporation. If you have access to more rocks you can use them to make planting pockets and terraces to hold plants on a hill. Form semi-circles to form pockets to plant in. A group of rock planting pockets can become a rock garden to showcase succulents and low growing plants.

    Don’t forget to mulch

    Mulching around and below the entire plant with 2-3” of shredded redwood or pine bark will protect the soft new soil berm from eroding away. The mulch will also help keep the soil cool and prevent weeds. Keep the mulch 3” away from the base or trunk of the plant.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.