Press Releases

Back to Berkeley: Now is the Time to Plant for Many Natives By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 23, 2005

One pleasant surprise when I moved here from Pennsylvania was being able to garden year-round. You’re arriving just in time for planting season. 

September in wild California is a lot like February in the Northeast, but warmer and without the grimy leftover snow. If you’ve never seen February here, just wait. But you’ll have to wait only till October or so for the first winter rains to open the clenched soil and the native plants to start showing themselves. Meet them in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden.  

If you want to plant them, now is the time. The closer to the first rains, the less you’ll have to irrigate them. Some natives resent being watered when the weather’s warm, and become more susceptible to soil pathogens. The natural watering is perfectly timed for them.  

Why plant natives? They attract native wildlife, and foster the populations we’ve threatened by paving their homes and groceries. Some are good pollinators, like our native bees, generally more peaceable than honeybees. Some are just beautiful, like Anna’s hummingbird, or the hermit thrush and varied thrush and assorted warblers that winter here. You’ll be amazed at the color of ceanothus flowers in spring, and what you see visiting them. 

But say you have only a windowbox, or a few containers, or a little square of dirt to play in, or a decent fringe of natives in the landlord’s border already. You can brighten your table anyway, and there’s no need to wait six months for home-grown salad. This is the perfect time to plant greens and culinary herbs. 

Lettuce, arugula, mache, chicory, endive, most salad greens do well in winter, especially with just a bit of sun part of the day. If you plant them before the hot days of September and early October, they will probably bolt, so don’t rush. You can plant root veggies soon, too; carrots get weird in our clay soil, so try them in a planter box, for early spring eating. Cabbage relatives like broccoli (or better, broccoli raab), collards, kale, bok choy, and turnips (for roots and greens) grow all winter.  

Swiss chard, sorrel, purslane/ verdolaga (that one grows as a weed here), and other cooking greens love winter, and so does spinach, another one best grown in a planter box. Radishes and scallions are practically instant gratification.  

Plant a chayote vine for lots of tasty weird squashlike fruit; artichoke (full sun) to eat flowers; fava beans for a spring harvest plus soil improvement. Snow peas, no surprise, are a classic winter crop. 

Herbs! Lemon balm is easy—it’s feral in Tilden Park, even in shade, so it might like a sunny windowsill. (Even a sunny window is shady to outdoor plants.) Winter savory wants sun; so do parsley and cilantro. Try any perennial herb now, even lavender, soon for a good start with minimal irrigation. If you can water till the rain starts, many will benefit from still-warm soil temperatures.  

Savvy local nurseries carry seedlings of most of these, and you can get natives at the California Native Plant Society’s huge sale, first weekend in October at Merritt Community College in Oakland. I’m increasingly impressed with Spiral Gardens’ new nursery at Sacramento and Oregon streets, open Tuesdays through Saturdays. They have most of the stalwarts mentioned above, including natives, plus surprises like the funny cloverleafed tuber, oca; vining Malabar spinach; sugarcane; tobacco and horseradish. Get some catnip for your cat, and you can both sit under thy (grape)vine and thy fig tree, or even a loquat, from their well-labeled and inexpensive stock.