Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Foil Hungry Squirrels
Hungry squirrels can do serious damage to annual flower beds as they bury their collected fall harvest of nuts. To protect young plants from damage, sprinkle ground chili peppers over the surface of the soil. The squirrels don't like the "hot foot" sensation and will search elsewhere for easy digging. Use the hottest chilies you can find; cascabella or Thai chili is best. Coarsely grind the whole chilis in a blender or food processor, then sprinkle over garden beds. You may have chili seedlings the following spring; simply pull them as if they were weeds.
Care for Gift Plants
Poinsettias, cyclamen, azaleas, and Christmas cacti are popular plants to give as gifts this time of year. Make sure they are kept at a constant temperature away from opening doors and windows, have a source of much needed humidity, and are not left standing in water. Gift plants often come in plastic sleeves that don't allow for drainage. As soon as you receive a plant, throw that darned sleeve away! Use a saucer filled with gravel to act as a humidity tray.
Shop for Bare-Root Bargains
Bare-root plants will start showing up in nurseries and garden centers this month. Bare root is the most economical and stress-free (from the plant's point of view) way to plant, plus it has the benefit of allowing plants to adapt to native soils. Look for roses, fruit trees, berries, and asparagus, plus many other varieties of dormant or deciduous stock. If you can't plant right away, store the bare-root plants in damp moss so the roots don't dry out.
Protect Young Trees
Trees planted in the fall have ample time to grow new roots and anchor themselves into the soil before the spring growing season begins. However, the trunks need protection from the sun. Here's what happens: The sun hits the trunk of a young tree and causes it to heat up only along the side facing the sun. The rest of the trunk stays cool. The bark then splits and dies, which also kills the cambium layer beneath the bark. To prevent the trunk from splitting, wrap it with cardboard, tree wrap, or cloth strips, or leave the packing that protects the trunk during shipping in place for the first year.
Chrysanthemums -- a favorite fall perennial -- need to be cut back now. Trim faded flowers and foliage to 6 inches above the soil. Remove debris from around the plants and mulch to protect the roots from frost. Avoid fertilizer until spring.