Cool-Season Garden Prep
Nothing perks up a cloudy, gray February day like a bushel of fresh, colorful vegetables straight from the garden! While our neighbors up north are getting ready for gardening season to wind down, ours is starting to ramp up. Our mild, cool temperatures and frost-free winters are perfect for growing vegetables. Since the sun isn't beating down so hard, we don't have to water as often; this makes it much easier to cultivate healthy vegetables with less water! Before you start planting your veggies, go through this cool-season garden prep checklist to get everything ready.
Feed the Soil
Soil is living and breathing, and taking care of it is the foundation of all healthy, productive gardens. A wise gardener’s saying goes, “It's better to dig a five-dollar hole for a fifty-cent plant than to dig a fifty-cent hole for a five-dollar plant.”
Almost all local soils will benefit from regular additions of organic materials, such as organic planting mixes, composts, and amendments. Adding liberal quantities to your soil feeds critical soil microorganisms, aerates the soil, and makes it easier for roots to grow large and deep. Additionally, organic amendments improve the ability of water to move through heavy clay soils while increasing water retention in sandy soils. Organic amendments should be added regularly to soils. Remember: you are literally feeding the microorganisms that are in the soil. As these organisms feed, they decompose the organics and turn them into food for the plants. It’s the way nature has worked for millions of years, and the way a garden works as well.
For most gardens, add a two inch layer of good quality organic amendments over the surface along with a high quality granular organic fertilizer. Then, mix this thoroughly with about six inches of the soil beneath. It’s one of the best things you can do for your plants.
Good Soil Is Living and Breathing, and Brimming with Microorganisms
During coastal, Southern California winters, the ground stays cool and mild. These are absolutely perfect conditions for planting! However, before you get your cool-season crops in the ground, it's worth performing a soil test to check the health and composition of your soil.
Rain, hungry plants and weeds, time, and other factors contribute to nutrient depletion and shifting pH levels in the soil. A soil test will tell you if any essential components are lacking or if you need to add an amendment to neutralize the pH. If your soil is too acidic, you can add dolomitic lime to raise the pH. If it's too alkaline, add a sulfur-based amendment to acidify conditions.
Assess Your Plants: Out with the Old and In with the New
Fall is the very best planting season of the year, so this is a great time to evaluate your plants and make some changes! Take time to remove old, overgrown, uninspiring, or unhappy plants. Removing them now means you have room for new and better plants during the planting season.
If you’re looking for new plants to add to your garden, consider adding pollinator plants to promote a successful winter vegetable and herb garden. Some examples include coral bells, bush sunflowers, native milkweed, California lilac, and island bush snapdragons. For bare or overlooked garden areas, consider adding locally native wildflower seed mixes. They’re easy to sprinkle through the space and will germinate with fall rains. The resulting flower gardens have a naturalized aesthetic that will also support our local pollinator populations.
Clean Up Leaves and Debris
The change in seasons triggers falling leaves from deciduous plants and general plant debris. Leaving all those leaves on a lawn can create brown spots and look untidy. If there's a light sprinkling of debris, you can actually leave it alone, as this provides shelter for sleeping pollinators. However, if the layer of leaves is thick, you'll definitely want to bag it up. Throw away any diseased material, and add the rest to your compost bin for an eco-friendly tidy!
Freshen Up the Mulch
Mulch is a great product, even though the name makes it sound pretty lackluster! Twice per year, once at the beginning of the cool-season and again at the beginning of the warm-season, we like to add a fresh layer of mulch to almost all garden beds. Mulch breaks down over time, which is awesome for the soil, as it delivers even more organic matter and nutrients. However, it can lose its aesthetic appeal after a year, and adding a fresh layer on top can make your landscape look much more attractive.
Double-Check Your Water-Wise Practices
Water conservation is top of mind for all of us. Take a walk through your garden and double-check your water systems to ensure that you’re practicing your best water-wise skills and set up for a successful growing season. Start by setting up rain barrels to catch natural rainwater and water off your roof—this is a great way to capitalize on natural water flow and ensure that you can target the areas of your garden that need it most.
Next, review your sprinkler and irrigation systems. With the change of seasons, you likely won’t need your system as the fall rains will help keep your garden thriving. Instead of channeling water through your irrigation systems, consider redirecting your downspouts to the areas in your garden that will benefit from water collection and percolation.
Our cool season is also our windy season, so things can get pretty dusty, especially when the winds are coming in from the east! We always recommend cleaning and inspecting the hardscapes once the weather cools down. In the midst of the serious drought we’re in, water conservation is imperative; Instead of using water to clean your driveway and deck, use a broom—not a blower—to brush away debris. If we have a heavy rain, take advantage of the natural rainwater and sweep off your hardscapes, but otherwise just use a dry cleaning method for your hardscapes.
Take a look and see if there are any missing or dislodged nails and screws, broken pieces, or problem areas that need attention. We love spending time outdoors during the cool season when the sun isn't sweltering, so it's important to reduce the risk of injury by fixing any sharp cracks or pointy edges.
Need any help starting your cool-season garden in California? The experts at Roger's Gardens can help! Our growing conditions are much milder in winter than in Northern California and most other states, so the information you find online may not be accurate to our region. Our blog is always a great place to find gardening instructions specifically for Orange County, and our garden center has many cool-season crops ready to plant!
For more information, view How to Prep Your Garden for Fall Vegetable Plantings, Fall is for Planting, and The Best Vegetables to Grow in the Cool Fall Season.