Preparing for Winter

In the milder areas of California, some gardens are just
coming into their own for the year. While gardeners in other parts of the country are facing their first
frosts, many Californians are enjoying the first ripe beefsteak tomatoes of the
year. One of the reasons for this
difference is that the Pacific Ocean acts as an enormous air conditioner,
keeping temperatures cool even when the days are long. The ocean reacts gradually to this change in
daylight hours, warming up slowly, so that along the coast, the warmest days of
the year are in September, a few months after the longest day of the year. This phenomenon is called the “delay of the
maximum,” because maximum temperatures arrive well after the maximum daylight
hours are past.

 Still, it
is tempting to start tidying up and putting the garden to bed, even though many
of these chores can wait a few more months. In frost-free areas, there is still time to continue planting annuals
that will provide seed into winter—cosmos, sunflower, and coreopsis all have a
few months of good growing ahead of them. Vines and shrubs may still be blooming and, in the case of salvia and
many other perennials, should not be cut back until mid-winter or very early
spring, when next year’s growth starts to appear.

 So leave
berries in their thicket, let flowers go to seed, and enjoy the remaining warm
days. When you do start to prune and
clear, let those branches pile up, where they will provide a little shelter and
foraging space for birds in your garden. By springtime you may have good compost underneath, or at the very least
you’ll have a pile of organic material that is easy to run through a chipper/shredder. Do pile on plenty of aged mulch when rains
start—this will suppress weeds, keep soil in place, and give a boost to
soil-dwelling insects that birds forage for. Finally, consider filling any empty spaces with a cover crop like fava,
vetch, rye, or clover. As long as you
don’t get a heavy frost, these “green manures” will grow right through winter,
fixing nitrogen in the soil, encouraging even more insects, and they can be
tilled under in the spring when it’s time to plant.