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Fall and Winter California Gardening Part 1: Introduction
What is the best time of year for planting in California? Spring is the obvious answer, right? Not so fast. Spring is the planting season for most of the United States, but for much of California, especially hot-summer areas, fall and winter are the ideal seasons for gardening.
This is the 1st in a series of articles with information and tips for California gardening from late summer or fall through spring.
Home gardening is one of the safest and most-rewarding activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. For other helpful articles, see the GardenZeus blog page Dig In.
California is Different
California marches to its own seasonal gardening drummer. Seasonal timing is different almost everywhere in California than the rest of the United States. Gardening advice from national sources, including most of the gardening magazines sold at your local supermarket, gardening websites, and mail-order seed companies, will often lead California gardeners astray or fail entirely.
California is varied in climate and geography with distinct climate zones ranging from high-elevation cold-winter areas to deserts to subtropical or semi-tropical coastal areas. While the milder and warmer areas in California have similar planting cycles, there are differences in timing, plants, and veggie varieties that are likely to be successful in any given area. This is why GardenZeus developed the fifteen different California Climate Zones and our customized information for those zones.
Articles in this series will focus primarily on topics and issues for mild-winter California-areas.
For gardening and planting purposes, summer in many inland California areas is similar to winter for the rest of the country, the time when it’s difficult or impossible to succeed with planting, and weather makes it unpleasant or even dangerous to work outdoors. This is especially the case in inland areas with weeks or months of high heat that extends from mid-or-late summer into fall. See Summer and Summerer. In many California areas, mid-or-late summer through early fall or until weather cools after summer is the only time of year that’s it’s almost impossible to succeed with planting outdoors.
Temperate Versus Mediterranean Climate
Most of the United States has a temperate climate with warm or hot summers, mild to extreme cold with cold rain or snowfall over winter. The harshest weather conditions typically occur from late summer through spring, including severe tropical storms and hurricanes from late summer to fall. Rain occurs year-round in most of the United States, including during summer. The dormancy period for most plants and trees is during the cold winter. Gardening outdoors is difficult or impossible from fall through spring because of freezing temperatures and weather ranging from severe rainstorms to snow and hail.
Most of California has a Mediterranean or Mediterranean-influenced climate which it shares with only a few other parts of the world: the European Mediterranean including significant portions of Portugal and Spain, southern France, and much of Italy and Greece; portions of Turkey and various areas in the Middle East; parts of North Africa; the cape of South Africa; parts of Southern and Southwestern Australia; and portions of South America, primarily in and near Central Chile.
Mediterranean-climate areas have warm or hot summers; mild winters with minimal, occasional, or no frost; rain from fall or early winter through spring or early summer; and little or no rain from spring through fall. The harshest weather conditions in warm-summer Mediterranean areas occur from summer through fall. Gardening may be more difficult during summer due to hot, dry weather.
The period of dormancy or slow growth for many native plants in dry Mediterranean areas is summer through fall or winter due to heat and lack of natural rainfall.
Because California’s climate is different from the rest of the United States and has so many distinct areas, GardenZeus developed the California Climate Zones. Enter your zip code to learn your zone and receive customized planting information for your area, including timing and variety recommendations.
When Do I Plant?
The ideal planting season varies by geographic region within California, what plants you want to grow, in some cases your purpose for the plants, and other factors. It may vary for individual gardeners. By all means, if you’re planting lettuce to harvest seeds only, start the seeds outdoors in warm inland valleys in April or May. If you want lettuce to eat, you’ll do better in warm-summer areas from fall through spring.
Planting seasons and needs vary by California Climate Zone. Future articles in this series will provide information and tips by your GardenZeus zone.
Warm-season annual vegetables grow best during periods without frost. Some need warm weather to thrive but many suffer at hot temperatures starting at about 85ºF or higher, especially during prolonged periods with hot weather. Cold-season annual vegetables are often frost-tolerant and are ideal for growing during winter in California areas with minimal and mild frosts. Most cold-season crops suffer during warm weather and may bolt or die in response to periods of hot weather. See Planning for New Vegetable Gardens Part 2: Seasonality.