My first experience with gardening and design took place more than 15 years ago. We had purchased a small house in desperate need of landscaping. As a new homeowner, I was quite enthusiastic and willing to take on anything, so I decided to design and landscape the yard myself.
According to my calculations, if I started in February, I'd be ready to plant in early May. After all, before the yard could be landscaped, I needed to take care of a few odds and ends, such as correct the drainage on all sides of the house, clear a weed-choked lot and remove a 10-foot-by-3-foot section of concrete. As I soon learned, a series of horrible, backbreaking chores awaited me. What I thought would take three months to complete took eight, and by that time May was long gone and fall had arrived. Ever the optimist, I decided to proceed anyway. I prepared and planted my yard in October and it worked like a charm.
Plants are at their most vulnerable when first placed in the ground. It generally takes a number of months for them to settle in and become established. It's during this tentative time that things can go wrong, heat being one potential problem. A burst of heat on a warm spring afternoon can wreak havoc on your young plants. As the weeks march on, your new garden faces the stress of more and more heat, which people try to counteract by watering heavily. Thus, the cooler, shorter days of October are kinder to the new garden. Fall days make the transition from container to ground fairly easy, and less stress on your plants means a greater chance of survival.
Compared to spring, the fall months have less pest and weed activity. My nemesis, the snail, is especially active in spring when warm temperatures and moisture create an ideal environment in which to feast. Snails love young, succulent leaves; a night's work can put a real dent in your new yard. You can be vigilant about catching these creatures, or you can avoid the problem by planting in October, an off-time for snails and other voracious insects.
And what about weeding your new garden? The same holds true. It's the low season for weeds. When I installed my landscape in October, I was delighted to find I didn't have to weed much at all.
With the very real possibility of drought in the near future, conserving water is uppermost in everyone's minds. While any newly planted garden requires conscientious watering, particularly in its early stages, the cooler weather in October calls for less of it. By planting in October, you can save on the water bill and, while you're at it, save by keeping your eyes open for plants on sale. I picked up some of my shrubs and most of the trees in my yard for 50 percent off.
By mid-April, your plants have had six months to settle in and develop strong, healthy root systems. With the onset of warmer weather, you can sit back, enjoy the garden and watch the fruits of your labor.
Los Altos resident Judith Grant is a garden designer and member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.