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Five fall gardening annoyances

Don’t fret: It’s cooler, so things actually aren’t too bad

Damage vegetable plant
Most of the damage to this plant at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center was caused by birds, says master gardener Gail Pothour. The leaves are eaten along the edges. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

The oranges are splitting again. The new lettuce disappeared overnight. The carrots still aren’t sprouting. Help! Who decided that fall was an easy time to garden?

Take a deep breath. Notice the air — it’s cooler in the morning, isn’t it? Even the afternoons are better. Little spikes into the low 90s are much easier to handle than, oh, 112 degrees. Right? OK, then. Relax.

But fall does have its challenges. Here are five, and how to deal with them (or at least explain them):

Damaged leaf
Same plant as above, but a different leaf and likely different pest for most
of the damage: Caterpillars sit on the ribs and eat the leaf centers.

1. Holes in leaves of new sprouts or transplants.  Leafy cool-weather plants, like broccoli and bok choi  and kale, are prime targets for a couple of pests, says master gardener Gail Pothour, longtime vegetable guru for the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. These include cabbageworms, which are smooth, velvety green caterpillars that turn into pretty little white butterflies. Cabbage loopers are a different caterpillar but another fall vegetable pest; they are green and yellow, and move like inchworms because they have no middle legs.

Caterpillar pests crawl along the ribs of the leaves and take chunks out of the middle. At worst, they crawl down inside the heads of the developing vegetables where they can't be reached. So catch them early, if you have an outbreak. Row covers will keep the butterflies from laying eggs on the plants. Bt, short for bacillus thuringiensis, is an excellent bacteria-based caterpillar fighter.

2. Disappearing sprouts or transplants. If you see damage along the edges of the vegetable leaves, suspect birds, Pothour says. Young, fresh plants look good to them, too. Birds will sit on the soil next to the plant to feast, and can eat it down to the ground if it's young. To keep birds off the young plants, try row covers, mesh baskets or the like. Just be sure to anchor those covers so the birds can't get underneath.

3. Sprouts not appearing at all. Did you plant carrots? For such a common vegetable, they take a long time to germinate. Weeks, in fact. Be patient. Then when they do sprout and get to be about 2 inches tall, don't forget to thin them. They need space to grow. And if you're planting beets or chard, rinse the seeds first, Pothour advises. This removes a chemical on the seeds that inhibits germination. Incidentally, the master gardeners have published a great guide to growing beets .

4. Oranges splitting. This has become more of a Northern California problem in October just the past few years. It's not a disease. Basically, spikes in warm weather and lack of irrigation together signal the tree to suck some moisture out of the fruit. The fruit wall weakens. Then when the tree gets more moisture from rain or irrigation, it sends it back, bursting the weakened fruit. I wrote a full blog post on this problem last year. I've lost only two oranges to splitting so far this year, thank goodness.

5. Perennials looking ragged. Perennials tend to be leggy in late summer, and can be pruned or cut down now, especially if you see new sprouts forming at the base of the plant. Even if you don't see any, it's a good time to clean them up. Perennial herbs can use a good fall haircut, too.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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