I was just over at the neighborhood pool, scrubbing the tiles (my yearly work-duty), when a neighbor swimming laps stopped to take a breath, and asked how my garden was doing. After hearing about what's ripe now, the kinds of things I'm cooking, and our winter plans for the garden, she signed wistfully and said, "I'd like to grow a few plants."
I nodded vigorously. "Now's the time!"
"Really?" she asked, astounded.
Yes indeed! Here in Northern California, fall is the perfect time to get going on your garden. The rain is a-comin'! Ok, I agree, we still have our driest month ahead of us, maybe even two, but moisture is on its way. With shorter days, and slightly cooler temperatures, we can get some things in the ground now. Or, we can begin the soil-building process, which will chug along all winter, and be ready for planting in the spring.
Perhaps you've been thinking about how nice it would be to dine on fresh tomatoes next July. Maybe you've been eyeing a 4x4 patch in the corner of your yard, and musing about converting it into a tiny food plot. Or perhaps you've been thinking that the edges of your yard could use more color, more flowers for both you and the bees. Great! Now's the time to make those dreams a reality.
To prepare an area for spring 2018 planting, nothing fancy needs to be done. Clear out any large weeds, or if it's grass, mow it short, then place cardboard over the area. Make sure you remove any tape or labels from the cardboard first. Any kind of plain brown box will do. Or you could use several thicknesses of newspaper, or those paper bags from the grocery store, or burlap. The goal is to cover the area to prevent light from getting in. Then, on top of that layer, spread an inch of compost. You could also used bagged potting soil. You could use a layer of leaves or grass. You could use horse or chicken manure. Just get some good organic matter in there. Then cover that with a layer of wood chips. You could buy mulch, but you could also find a tree company working in your neighborhood and get a wheelbarrowfull of chips. You could use sawdust. You could use pine needles. You could use pet bedding from the feed store. You just want to protect the layer of organic matter in the middle, so that it doesn't wash away, or splash up when it rains.
Then, you just leave it all winter. Those materials will smother anything trying to come up underneath; meanwhile the worms and sow bugs and nematodes and other little creatures will start to eat the cardboard and organic matter. Fungi (the good kind!) will begin to grow and start to process the minerals in the dirt and make connections. Everything will start to decompose. In spring, you can pull back the top layer of mulch and plant right into to what's underneath. No fertilizer needed (as long as you plant into the dirt, not the mulch).
Maybe you'd like more native plants and flowers? This is a great time to start them. Go ahead and plant, according to the nursery instructions (some natives don't like rich soil, so make sure you are aware of that) - rough up the root ball really well, backfill with your native soil, cover with a layer of compost and mulch, and water well. Baby it a little through the next two months, then let it fly once the rains come - no more help from you is needed.
You can also sow native wildflower seeds right now - poppies, lupines, tidy tips, Chinese houses, goldfields, nemophila, all the lovely spring plants - and anytime in the next few months. Just mix them up in a bucket of dirt, whatever you have around, potting soil or compost, and then broadcast them in a place with no mulch. Rake them in lightly and then let the winter rains get them going. I tend to sow them several times, except in the coldest months.
If you already have a bed lying empty, or a few large pots, and you're really feeling motivated, you could plant garlic. It couldn't be easier - just plant each clove a couple of inches apart in compost-amended soil. After they start to sprout, mulch around them with whatever you've got, and then leave them alone until late May or early June. Homegrown garlic tastes SO MUCH BETTER than store-bought. You really will never go back once you've tried it.
All of this, I told my lap-swimming neighbor, along with: no more sighing wistfully at my descriptions of a tomato lunch! You can have your own next year, with just a little effort right now. It doesn't need to be a big production - it's really quite easy.
So - off you go - get started!!!