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October: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) likes it hot and dry, and can grow in the harshest of conditions and survive.
California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) likes it hot and dry, and can grow in the harshest of conditions and survive. rbenton@sacbee.com

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Smoke Tree ( Cotinus coggygria): The smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria, is especially gorgeous twice each year. In late spring or early summer it explodes into bloom, and by mid-June the tips of all of the branches look like pinkish wisps of smoke. In fall the foliage turns beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red. It also comes with purple foliage and bright pink/purple puffs of smoke ( C. coggygria “Royal Purple”), although the purple leaved varieties have a tendency to turn green by summer if they don’t get enough sun.

This small, typically 15 to 25 feet tall, tree looks best when left alone to fend for itself. It doesn’t mind rocky soils or long dry spells. In fact, too much water will kill this tree faster than prolonged drought.

The smoke tree tends to want to grow with multiple trunks, but can be trained to a single trunk. It’s a great tree for small gardens since it has an open crown, so it doesn’t cast a lot of dark shade.

It matures slowly, but you can cut it back to 3 feet each spring to keep it small. It also does well in pots.

Cultivated in Europe since the 1600s, it is considered one of the best ornamental landscape trees for our area. Under plant with drought-resistant ornamental grasses such as deer grass ( Muhlenbergia sp.)

California fuchsia ( Zauschneria californica): Sometimes sprawling, sometimes creeping – depending on the cultivar – this plant likes it hot and dry, and can grow in the harshest of conditions and survive. I’ve seen it growing on the shoulders of back roads where road crews have tried, in vain, to prevent anything from growing in that space. If you’re lucky, you might stumble onto ones in the wild with purple, even white, flowers.

Truly, this is a plant that doesn’t need much help from gardeners to thrive. Put it in the garden, especially the new, garden-friendly cultivars hybridizers have developed, and this California native will rise to the occasion. There’s hardly a summer day it isn’t covered with bright orange, tubular-shaped flowers. When this plant is in bloom, the hummingbirds are never far away.

The genus Zauschneria has only four species, but seems to be a taxonomist’s nightmare. Several years ago they were all changed to Epilobium, than back to Zauschneria. In any case the plants are quite variable. Some make woody shrubs, some sprawl and creep like groundcovers. Some die back. They all easily tolerate hot dry conditions. Their only drawback is they can look messy as they die back for winter. Cut them back after the midsummer bloom and you’ll get another flush of growth and bloom in October. There are also cultivars that make small, erect shrubs. The plants are widely available, even at big box stores.

What's in season in October: Persimmons

I love persimmon trees in the fall when the leaves turn bright yellow. The show lasts for weeks. Once the leaves fall away, the orange fruits still hang from the tree like holiday ornaments.

It is such a beautiful sight that I am loath to pick the persimmons, but, of course, it must be done. Leaving rotting fruit on the tree or on the ground only invites destructive overwintering insects into the garden.

Persimmon trees can reach 30 feet tall and as wide. They require little pruning once established, except to remove dead branches. The flowers are inconspicuous, so you'll likely never know when the tree is blooming. They can take full sun. Water deeply once a week after young trees are established. Older trees hardly need any water at all during the summer, but still appreciate a good occasional soaking.

Hold back on the fertilizer; persimmons don't like too much, and will drop fruit and produce wild growth if given too much.

Unlike many fruit varieties, persimmons don't require a lot of winter chilling to produce fruit. Persimmons don't need another tree for cross-pollination. Interestingly, according to "The Home Orchard" (UC Publication 3485), cross-pollinated fruit will have seeds, but fruit from a lone tree will not.

Persimmons fall into two main categories: the soft ones, like the Hachiya, or the hard-fruited ones, like the Fuyu. The Hachiya is soft and creamy when ripe. Eat it too soon, though, and its astringent qualities will make your mouth pucker. Its round fruits are large, up to 3 inches in diameter. The Hachiya grows about 20 feet tall.

The Fuyu remains crisp and firm when it is ripe, and can be peeled and sliced like an apple. It makes a smaller tree, growing only about 15 feet tall and as wide.

Persimmons are best planted during bare-root season, which runs from late December through early February.

The cultivars we grow in our orchards are from Asia, although there is a native American species of persimmon. All are cold-tolerant and hardy. They are all beautiful trees during the year. They make a good shade tree with their oval-shaped leathery leaves.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Hachiya variety should be eaten when soft and jellylike. To speed up ripening place them in a brown bag with an apple. Fuyu variety is crunchy and eaten like an apple.

Preserving: Hachiya can be frozen whole, even when not fully ripe. When thawed they will be ready to use. Fuyu can be dehydrated. Hachiya makes excellent fruit leather.

- Gwen Schoen

Spicy persimmon cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Makes 3 dozen

These are moist and have a wonderful flavor of spice. You can freeze persimmon pulp to use later if you grow your own and have an excess. These are great fall cookies.


1 teaspoon baking soda

2 ripe Hachiya persimmons, puréed

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1 egg

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dissolve baking soda in persimmon pulp and set aside. Sift flour, spices and salt together, set aside. Cream together sugar and butter or margarine until fluffy, then beat in egg and persimmons. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in nuts and raisins.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes.

Per 2 cookies: 217 cal.; 3 g pro.; 31 g carb.; 9 g fat (4 sat., 2 monounsat., 3 polyunsat.); 25 mg chol.; 140 mg sod.; 1 g fiber; 18 g sugar; 39 percent calories from fat.

Success in the October garden

Continue to clean up dead and fallen debris in the garden – spent flowers, dying foliage and leaves – so harmful insects don’t have a cozy home for winter.

Keep pulling weeds. Bag and discard the debris rather than composting it since composting doesn’t always kill weed seeds or diseases producing organisms.

Keeping plants watered and fed will encourage many perennials to bloom again.

Pot up herbs like thyme and parsley to bring indoors.

The best time to choose shrubs and trees for fall color is when they are in their glory. This way you’ll be sure to get the colors you want.

Cut back watering succulents. Give them just enough to survive. Too much water during a freeze causes them to turn to mush.

On mild October days, take houseplants outside (in a shady area) and give them a thorough watering and hose down the foliage. Don’t leave them out overnight if temperatures are dropping.

Cut away dead canna foliage. If they are crowded – lack of blooms is one sure sign – now is the time to dig them up and divide them.

Many perennials die back gracefully and beautifully. As long as the plant looks good, leave the dying foliage. When it gets messy or ugly, cut it to the ground.

Make a bouquet of colorful leaves.

Before the frost takes you by surprise, move tender succulents and cactus to a sheltered location.

Bring houseplants that have spent the summer outside back into the house. Houseplants that have been outside should be checked carefully for aphids or whiteflies before bringing them indoors.

Now is the time to reseed lawns that need sprucing up.

Plant garlic October through December and harvest it next June.

Begin planting spring blooming bulbs like daffodils, tulips, narcissus, crocus and more.