Summer in the Native Garden

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How do you spend your summer? Are you busy hiking, traveling, growing vegetables, socializing? Or do you lounge in the shade in your hammock? Native plants are the lazy-bones of summer. To conserve energy, they slow down, and many go dormant and wait for the first rains of fall. Spring is actually fall, when most native plants bloom and set seed. Summer is for resting.

Here are some things to do in the native garden this summer:

Water Smart:

  1. A young native plant needs to be watered during its first two years, but there must be deep soaking to encourage roots to develop deep within the soil. The rootball of the plant should be checked to be sure it does not dry out in spite of moist surrounding soil. Plants need both water and air; constant moisture may prevent the plant from getting adequate air. It is wise to let the soil dry out on the top inch or two before adding more water. In most cases, a deep soak once a week is adequate.
  2. Established plants with roots deep within the soil usually find enough moisture to withstand summer drought without any or very little supplemental water. However, many plants will look their best if they receive a deep soaking once a month during the hottest months. Know your plant. The problem is that fungi in the soil that thrive in the presence of heat and moisture can cause roots to rot if they receive summer water. All native plants can be affected, but some are more vulnerable than others. Fremontodendron (Flannel Bush), Trichostema (Woolly Blue Curls) and Calochortus (native bulbs) receive no water in summer at all. Hopefully you realized this when you were planning your garden and you placed these plants away from others that would benefit from summer water. Plants other than native plants are not as susceptible to root rot because they come from somewhere else and they respond to different fungi than we have in our native soil.
  3. The timing of water can be important, since it is the combination of heat and moisture that encourages fungi growth and the resulting root rot. Most of us water at our convenience, but it would be best if we had cool, cloudy days in summer when we could water. Since summer is generally uniformly hot, try to water in early morning or after the heat of day. Two signs of improper watering that you can diagnose after a plant has died: if you pull it out and there is no root development beyond the rootball, there was likely inadequate deep watering. If there are simply short, scraggly roots, the outer roots may have rotted away due to the fungi in the soil. Unfortunately, symptoms of drooping yellow leaves or brown tips and edges on leaves may result from either too much or too little watering. Check the moisture of the soil by digging down a few inches. A plant that wilts during mid-day in the sun but perks up in the evening may have adequate moisture.

Remove dead branches and flowers: Pruning can be done during a plant’s dormant or slow-growth period. Cut out dead, diseased and crossing branches. Shape shrubs by selectively removing branches while keeping a natural look. Remove spent flower stalks, unless you want to collect the seed. Sages can be cut back by 1/3 after they bloom.

Avoid planting: Planting is not advised during the summer, although it is possible with extreme attention to watering. It is more successful with plants that have adapted to summer moisture. This includes riparian plants, moist evergreen forest plants and desert plants that are used to monsoon rains. It is generally best to reserve planting for fall. Here is an excellent planting guide.

Collect seeds: Seed collecting is interesting in the summer garden. See the second edition of Marjorie Schmidt’s, Growing California Native Plants, for tips.

Epilobium canum latifolium | California Fuchsia

Although summer is generally a time for rest in the native plant garden, plants, such as the above photo, California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum), provide an exception. Blooming bright orange in late summer, it forms a mat that gradually increases in diameter. Several species have been selected for abundant bloom and various heights and it is readily available from nurseries. You and your hummingbird neighbors will enjoy the bright orange tubular flowers. Native plants offer a beautiful, low-water solution to the summer heat.