Many people think of springtime as the season for gardening. But Benicia area experts say autumn is an important growing season, too. Since September, the time has been right to put in certain vegetables, said Nicole Newell, the sustainable landscape program manager for Sustainable Solano.


Broccoli and cauliflower are perfect for fall gardens, and people can plant peas in anticipation of a spring harvest, she said. “It’s also a good time to plant hardy perennials and herbs, such as salvias that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Echinacea and lavender can be planted now as well—it’s a better time than spring,” she said. “Besides letting the plants get a start extending roots, this time of year capitalizes on the beginning of winter showers. 


Fall is also a good time to get new trees established, and Benicia residents can gather leaves from mature trees and use them to improve their gardens. Newell said Sustainable Solano encourages gardeners to compost those leaves or shred them and use them as mulch, rather than discard them as yard waste. That’s in keeping with Sustainable Solano’s philosophy of keeping things on site.


One plant Newell likes for this is comfrey. “My comfrey is so gorgeous, healthy and strong, with little purple flowers. I saw hummingbirds at them. Meanwhile, comfrey leaves can be gathered and mixed with water to make a fertilizer tea to pour on plants.


Newell said she patronizes different garden supply stores for different reasons. For instance, Morning Sun Herb Farm in Vacaville is ideal for those involved in permaculture. “It’s a gorgeous place with gorgeous gardens and a nursery,” she said. Newell often consults with staff members when she’s designing a garden. “I’ll ask about plants to attract pollinators,” she said.


As Newell has gathered knowledge from area experts, she has learned that gardening consistently is an “it depends” activity. Sometimes it depends on the weather. Sometimes it depends on what gets into the garden. For instance, she was anticipating a quality growth of sorrel and chard until her chickens escaped and attacked them. “My chickens like to get out,” she admitted. They ignored her Egyptian walking onions and artichokes on the way to the sorrel and chard. 

“My experience this year is they annihilated my garden!” she said.


Newell said that gardening in fall is an opportunity to add nutrition back to the soil. “One thing we recommend is always use a cover crop if you haven’t planted beds with winter vegetables by October,” she said. Fava beans, clover and vetch work well, and those can be obtained at Mid City Nursery in American Canyon. Newell establishes ground covers the way some people broadcast wildflower seeds. “I scatter cover crops all over the yard, even into wood chips,” she said.


For cool-season vegetables to plant, Joy Alberts of Joyous Spaces, recommends cabbage, carrots, lettuce, peas and radishes. She said now is also the time to plant bulbs so they’ll be blooming by spring. She suggested Allium, daffodils, freesia, grape hyacinths and tulips.


For those looking for fall color, Alberts recommended Achillea, Alstroemeria, Coreopsis, Heucheras, Pennisetum and the “Autumn Joy” version of sedum.


Formerly of Michigan, Alberts learned from her mother how to weed and remove flowering heads along long beds of perennials. She has a degree in interior design from Michigan State University, later moving to Benicia where she opened Joyous Spaces floral and garden design studio.


While Newell and Alberts advise people how to develop home gardens, Sustainable Solano executive director Elena Karoulina guides those who grow vegetables or flowers in community gardens. “People are currently clearing out their beds, adding manure and compost and getting ready for the cold season growing,” Karoulina said.


Karoulina is also an advocate for permaculture, a gardening plan that combines a variety of carefully chosen plants and trees that mutually benefit each other. The approach encourages irrigating with rainwater and gray water, such as the water from a home’s washing machine. That way, gardens can thrive even in times of drought, she said.


Monique Moench

Harvesting vegetables at Benicia's Liberty High School

Gardens can be found at Benicia schools, too. Liberty High’s garden not only grows plants, it nourishes minds, said Gene Ekenstam, one of several master gardeners who are teaching students about gardening. Helping with the project are Monique Moench, Barbe Johnston, Sally Thompson, and Sheila Clyatt, who also works Fridays with pupils at Mary Farmer Elementary School. On Wednesdays, Liberty students usually work in the gardens at least an hour, Ekenstam said. “The focus is a broad education in gardening,” he said.


All students are eligible to participate, although participation varies, Ekenstam said, adding that about 10 percent of the student body worked in the gardens last year. Sometimes students give their harvest to teachers. “Some eat it on site,” he said, adding that it gives students a chance to taste what they’ve worked hard to produce.