Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: A Transitional Season: Late September in the Garden

By Ron Sullivan
Friday September 29, 2006

This is a season that confounds naming, a season that also confounds immigrants, especially gardeners from eastern North America, who can be heard to complain, “There are no real seasons here.” Some of us figured out right quick that there are indeed seasons in coastal Northern California. After 33 years here I still haven’t come up with adequate names or even a satisfactory number for them, though.  

Is it Fire Season? Yes, certainly. Since 1991 I’ve shuddered at the scent of smoke at midday, in spite of my love of barbecue. Don’t we all hang over the wildfire news and calculate how close the fires come to the places we love? Some years I don’t even notice the suspense I’ve been until it dissipates under the first real rains.  

And it’s Stink Season: storm sewers, especially in San Francisco, exhale an unwholesome sulfurous miasma when it’s been months since the last rain, and when the wind’s right we’re treated to a twice-daily blast from the late-summer algae bloom and die-off in the Bay, served up for our delectation at low tide. We get a special helping of it when the weather’s September-hot and so we have all the windows open, too. 

It’s Dust Season, and every stroll along a park trail or even the garden path stirs up those particulate drifts 

In the garden we get to choose between dust and mud, but the occupants of wilder spaces just have to bear it and choke until October or November.  

There’s the genius of the season. No matter how much we know the rains and gray weather will bring us down, we long for it all anyway. It’s a natural transition season in the wilds and in the garden.  

It’s time to hang up most of the tomatoes, leaving a few just to see if they’ll be ripe for Thanksgiving. Time to compost the greens that bolted, and to sit on our hands for a couple of weeks and not plant seedlings that will probably also bolt in the September heat spell. (Still a good time to start seeds in flats, if you’re a procrastinator like me.) 

Watering everything is getting boring. If you want to plant natives, it’s about time. You’ll have to water them for a summer or two, depending on their preferences and the weather, but after that you can trust them to their own climate. If you already have natives, resist watering at least until the soil temperature’s gone down. Lots of pathogens thrive in warm/wet soil conditions, and you don’t want to encourage them.  

This is the season when zone planting—water-loving plants in one area, usually closest to the house, and droughty plants farther out—shows its usefulness. Planting things that need irrigation—non-natives and the more thirsty natives, those that live along streams in the wild, for example—all in one zone makes watering easier as well as keeping the plants that prefer dry summers safe from rot.  

The best place for the wet zone is near the house or a hose bib, even if you set up an automatic system. Another consideration: in this dusty dry season, the irrigated zone is where you’ll want to rest among cool green leaves, so put some seating and open a bit of view there. 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet.