October is the best gardening month of the year in the Valley. Though the last two weeks of August cracked open the fall gardening door, in October that door swings full open to the cool gardening season.
This is the most important step to successful gardening in the arid Southwest. It’s hard to overcome a poor start with flowers and vegetables, so take the time to prepare the soil. Your efforts will be rewarded later. If the soil is not right with organic material and pH, plants will not produce. Spade the garden beds to a depth of 8 to 12 inches — turn the soil over and break up the clods.
If you are going to grow vegetables, for each 100 square feet of garden area spread 3 pounds of ammonium phosphate (16-20-0); 2 to 3 pounds of sulfur and 5 pounds of Ironite. Spread a minimum of 3 inches (8 to 10 large bags) of compost, forest mulch, steer or horse manure; adjust the amounts up or down consistent with size of beds, except for the organic material. Mix, blend or rototill together. Water well and plant when the soil has dried to just moist.
If you are going to plant onions, substitute gypsum for sulfur into your soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Sulfur makes onions hot and strong.
A better method of vegetable gardening is to grow them in planter boxes 6 inches high using a soil of one-third compost, one-third peat moss and one-third vermiculite. The book "Square Foot Gardening" should be your handbook for successful vegetable gardening. It uses 25 percent less space with greater success than the row-and-furrow method. I have converted my garden to this method.
DISEASE AND WEEDS
To decrease the spread of diseases in your landscape, dispose of infected plants immediately, before the disease can be spread to others. Pick up rotting fruit or dead leaves, which can be a source of disease. When in doubt, throw them out; do not compost diseased materials. Disinfect your tools between pruning cuts with alcohol. Apply water to the soil, but do not allow it to splash up onto the leaves of plants. Prevention is everything.
Pre-emergent herbicides can be applied from October through early December for winter annual weed control. Follow the package directions carefully for best results. Do not use pre-emergent herbicides where you will be planting seeds this season.
Early October is the last opportunity to kill unwanted grass and weeds. Herbicides work only when the plant is actively growing, so when the weather turns cold the plants’ processes slow down considerably. The next opportunity you will have to use Bermuda herbicide will be April or May. If you are planning to start a garden in the spring, spray the area now or the grass will come back to life with your seedlings. Use an herbicide such as Roundup, Ortho Cleanup, Doomsday or Grass Getter. Manage is the herbicide of choice if you have a nutgrass problem, but it will take two or three applications to kill it.
A good way to get the right population is to press a garden rake into the soil until its teeth make half-inch-deep holes. Pull the rake straight up without disturbing the row of holes in a square pattern throughout your bed. Sow one seed in each hole. Any of the winter vegetables are suitable, whether they are leafy kinds or root producers. The emerging seedlings will be about 1 1 /2 inches from one another and will not need thinning for perhaps three to four weeks.
A word on varieties: Obtain the shortest-day varieties you can. Earliana cabbage takes 60 to 75 days, whereas Flat Dutch cabbage takes 90 to 100 days. Onions may be planted from seed, but use only shortday varieties such as Granex, Grano or Vidalia.
Leaf lettuce types are much easier to grow and will supply you with fresh lettuce for months. You can also pick leaf lettuce sooner.
Strawberries are more difficult to obtain now, unless you can get some from a friend. Sequoia seems to be the most durable. If you plant strawberries now, they can establish their root systems in the cool days and warm soil so strawberries will set in the spring.
Plant seeds of beets, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collard greens, endive, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, leeks, mustard, onions, parsnips, peas, radishes, rutabagas, spinach and turnips. Plant transplants of broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, garlic, kohlrabi and leaf lettuce.
This is the time to plant flowers. The season to plant just about anything you wish is here. Many of these are showing up at nurseries. If you would like to try some bulbs, plant them the first of November. Freesias and paperwhite narcissus will come up year after year without much maintenance, as will crocus, gladiolus, iris and ranunculus. If you enjoy hyacinths and tulips, they will need to be put into a paper sack and chilled in your refrigerator for four to six weeks, or they probably won’t bloom. For a nicer look, plant bulbs in groups or clusters instead of rows.
Dianthus, geraniums and petunias are my favorites because they bloom continuously and prolifically. Petunias do best in full sun and come in dozens of colors and shades. You can plant geraniums and dianthus in shade or sun. In full shade, partial shade or in full sun, geraniums are beautiful and come in a variety of hues. I love to use lobelia and alyssum as borders. Lobelia is bright blue and alyssum comes in white, lavender, pink or Easter bonnet, which is a white-lavender mix. Alyssum has such a sweet perfume to it.
TREES AND SHRUBS
With the exception of palms, October is the best month for planting trees and shrubs — even cactus planted now has a greater success rate than cactus planted in spring. The soil is still warm from the day, so the roots establish well and the plant will be stronger before the heat of next summer hits them.
Dig a hole at least three times the size of the root ball, plant the tree or shrub so the top of the root ball is slightly higher than ground level and backfill with the native soil, treble super phosphate and Ironite. Run the hose in the hole as you back fill to settle the native soil and drive out air pockets.
It is too late to fertilize freeze-sensitive plants such as citrus, hibiscus and bougainvillea. But early-fall fertilization can help the recovery of summer-weary trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, lawns and flowers. Nitrogen fertilizer should be adequate. Follow with deep irrigation.
As cooler weather arrives, cut back on watering. For example, if you water your citrus every week during the summer, stretch this out to every two weeks. The length of the watering cycle remains the same but the interval between irrigations is stretched. A sudden wilt or drop of citrus leaves may happen following abrupt weather changes. Twig dieback and gumming often occur with this condition.
If pecans drop before peak harvests, this is a normal shedding of nuts that are damaged or underdeveloped. No management required. The dew that is falling on your cars and patio under your pecan trees is from aphids feeding on the pecan leaves. No spray is necessary or practical. Just park your vehicles someplace else for a few weeks and hose off your cars and sidewalks.
Citrus fruit begins to enlarge after its no-growth period during the hot summer months. Last year we did not have the cooling-off period and citrus never had the opportunity to enlarge and the fruit remained small into the spring. Citrus fruit splitting will generally be noticed on the southwestern side and is caused by rind sunburn; there is nothing to be done.
A light application of potassium on Bermuda in the fall will enable it to come out of dormancy in the spring with greater vigor.
The second week of October through Nov. 1 is the average window for planting winter lawns. Use perennial rye as the choice for a deep green lawn.
Mow Bermuda lawns to about 1 /2 inch. Sow seed at the rate of 10 to 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet. After initial soaking, water three or four times a day for three to five minutes to keep the seeds moist. If the seed dries, it dies. Keep moist for about two weeks until the seed germinates, and then water once a day. You should be able to mow the third week after sowing: Mow 1 1 /2 to 2 inches in height and water once a week. It is better to dethatch Bermuda in the summer, when the grass is actively growing, than in the fall. Do not increase opportunities for fungal disease on turf by overwatering or watering at night.
Prepare the soil and plant now for a late spring exhibition. Good choices for the Valley: Mexican gold poppies, California poppies, desert bluebells, desert marigold, desert lupine, aroyo lupine, dyssodia, firewheel, red flax, Mexican hat, spreading fleabane, desert senna, verbena and sunflowers. Water the flower bed daily until the seeds germinate, and once a week thereafter if there is no rain and you will have a great wildflower show next spring.