Saturday, November 15, 2014

Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning.

Late fall and early winter are important pruning times in Southern California gardens.  Many California native plants, particularly those from drier low elevations, are dormant from late summer until the winter rains.  That’s why fall has traditionally been a major pruning season.  To get a better sense of the seasons in S. California gardens see:

California is known for weather that varies dramatically from year-to-year.  Seasonal effects are only somewhat predictable; thus the timing of ‘fall pruning’ needs to be flexible and based on conditions at hand.  There is no ‘one size fits all years’ rule for when to do fall pruning. 

Several considerations should influence the timing of fall pruning.  First, the wise gardener   respects the plants’ health and welfare. Pruning – even necessary pruning – is stressful; temperatures should be cool enough that plants aren’t unduly traumatized.   Wait until the temperatures are ‘fall like’ – and don’t prune when hot Santa Ana winds are predicted.

On the other hand, pruning is best done before the yearly growth spurt.  Thus, pruning should be completed before winter rains commence in earnest – usually late November or December under current climatic conditions.    Dry season pruning also discourages fungal infections, which can spread through pruning cuts in damp weather. 

Another factor impacting fall pruning is the desire to ‘tidy up the garden’.  This is a noble aim – most of us enjoy a garden that’s at least somewhat neat and tidy.  By the end of summer, some plants are beginning to look a little raggedy.  Many native plants have completed their flowering (or will do so in early fall).  The temptation is to dead-head those spent flowers – or to commence pruning in earnest – all in the interest of garden aesthetics (or the neighbor’s good graces).

Garden of Dreams (CSU Dominguez Hills) - some plants are left un-pruned until winter
 to provide food for birds

Which brings us to a third consideration for fall pruning: preserving habitat.  Birds, insects and other creatures depend on fruits (including dried), seeds and insects found on fall plants.  Your fall garden is an important source of food; concern for habitat should also figure in the timing of fall pruning.

If you garden in S. California, you’ve no doubt noticed that different birds visit your garden in fall and winter.   California is an important stop for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway – a giant bird ‘freeway’ in the sky.  Some birds just stop to refuel; others spend the winter in our delightful wild-lands and gardens.  Either way, these birds – along with resident birds and insects – require food in fall and winter.

The past two years have been particularly hard on California wildlife.  Even with decreased water use, our gardens are still wetter and more productive than the drought stressed wild-lands.  That’s why we’ve seen more wildlife than ever in our gardens this year.  

From native pollinators and butterflies to large animals like deer, creatures are desperate for food and water - and so they come to our gardens.  As wild-lands suffer from climatic extremes, our gardens play an increasingly important role in providing food, shelter and water.  In all years – but particularly in years when food is scarce – we need to manage our fall pruning responsibly. 

Buckwheats are left un-pruned until late fall to provide food for birds.

But how can we manage our gardens to meet all these considerations?  Here are a few suggestions for Southern California gardeners (and others with similar climates):

  1. Wait a bit later to begin your fall pruning.   Instead of beginning in early October, wait until November if possible.  There are usually dry periods, even in December, when pruning can be completed.
  2. Don’t prune all your plants at once.  Plants in the Sunflower family, the Buckwheats, Sages (Salvias), plants with fruits/berries and summer-flowering wildflowers like Evening primroses are important sources of fall food.  Wait until the seeds are mostly gone before pruning them.  If you must prune, at least put the seed heads on your bird feeder.

Here are some plants to consider pruning later:

·        Annual sunflower, California sagebrush (Artemisia) and other summer blooming asters/sunflowers

·        Fall-blooming shrubs with fluffy seeds like the golden bushes, Pluchea, Goldenrods (Solidago species) and Baccharis species

·        All of the native buckwheats

·        Milkweeds (if still green)

·        Any other summer-blooming or fruiting plant that still has food value

Watch your garden; if birds are visiting a plant, they may be eating insects.  Postpone pruning it as well.    Prune other plants to make your garden look neat – save the food plants for last.

  1. Prune selectively.  Some plants – particularly those in public places – need to be pruned to keep the neighbors happy. No one likes a front yard that looks abandoned!  So prune the most visible plants first, leaving those that are less visible for later.  We sometimes prune the visible half of a Salvia (for example, that nearest a walkway) in late summer or fall, leaving the back half for later.  That achieves both aims: neatness and food.
  2. Don’t prune all of a species at once.  If you have several golden bushes, prune some of them and leave others to prune later.
  3. Educate and encourage your neighbors.  Post simple signs that explain why you’re retaining some plants, un-pruned for now, as food for birds and butterflies. Most will respect your decision to prune responsibly.  Some may even change their own practices, based on your gentle persuasion.

Lesser Goldfinch eating Annual sunflower seeds.



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Friday, November 14, 2014

Maintaining Your New California Garden: Overview

If you’re new to sustainable gardening, you probably have only a vague idea of how to design, install and maintain a new garden.  That’s why the New California Garden  series was developed.  We walk you through the steps, give you helpful tips and suggest  resources for creating and maintaining a ‘California-friendly’ garden.

If you’re just joining the series, we suggest you start with   ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ (July 2013 - and work forward.  The monthly activities will help you design an attractive and functional garden.

In ‘Maintaining Your New California Garden’, we focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of installation and maintenance.  The series  includes posts on soil amendments, planting, mulches, watering, pruning and much, much more.  We hope this series will make it easier to maintain your water-wise, life-friendly sustainable garden. 

Seasonal changes
Timeline for garden installation
Installing (planting) the plants
Mulches and mulching
Watering: winter & spring
Watering: summer & fall
Fertilizers and plant nutrition
Amending soil
Pruning: basics
Pruning: how to prune common CA native plants
Pruning: life-friendly fall pruning
Pruning: life-friendly summer pruning
Pruning: When to prune common CA native plants
Pruning: summer
Frost damage
Coping with weeds
Managing pests



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Monday, November 3, 2014

Plant of the Month (November) : California wood mint – Stachys bullata

California wood mint (Stachys bullata) in foreground (pink flowers)
Mother Nature's Backyard garden.

The area around the rain garden in Mother Nature’s Backyard gets a little extra water – about every 2-3 weeks this summer and early fall.  That helps the groundcover plants establish – and keeps the whole area a little greener.  One of the plants that’s blooming right now is the California woodmint, Stachys bullata.  This isn’t its peak season, but the flowers keep our hummingbirds and the few remaining butterflies happy.

California wood mint is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), a large family that includes culinary mints and the Salvias.   Plants in this family often have aromatic foliage and are used for cooking and potpourri.  Within the Mint Family, the wood mints (hedge nettles), genus Stachys, make up one of the larger genera.  Stachys species can be found on most continents and many are used in traditional herbal medicine.

The Wood mints are also known by the common name ‘hedge nettles’, a name somewhat descriptive but also quite misleading.   Stachys species likely grow under hedges – the shady, somewhat moist conditions being much to their liking.  But Stachys resemble nettles in appearance only.  The leaf shape and emerging plants are somewhat nettle-like.  But the Stachys are mild mannered; they do not sting like the Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), a plant from an entirely different plant family.  We suspect that gardeners have been dissuaded by the name ‘Hedge nettle’; we prefer the name ‘Wood mint’ for these delightful plants.

The California wood mint can be found in coastal California from the San Francisco Bay to Orange County.  Locally it still grows in the Santa Monica Mountains and in a few places on the Palos Verdes peninsula.  It most commonly establishes on summer-dry, north-facing slopes or moister canyons in the coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodland or riparian woodland communities, at elevations less than about 4000 ft. 

California wood mint (Stachys bullata) as groundcover.
Home garden,  Redondo Beach CA
Like most wood mints, Stachys bullata grows as a groundcover or understory plant (mints are common groundcovers in nature).  At most 2-3 ft tall (including the flower stalks), it spreads via underground stems (rhizomes) to form patches 2 to as much as 6+ feet in diameter.  Given a little summer water, it fills an area with green mint-like foliage – our idea of a perfect groundcover plant.

California wood mint (Stachys bullata) : foliage

Unlike many mints, California wood mint is not markedly minty.  In our garden it has but a faint minty smell, with a slight hint of lemon, and only when crushed.  Some have described the aroma as objectionable; we find it rather neutral.    The leaves are medium green, softly fuzzy and oval- to triangular-shaped with scalloped edges.  The foliage is similar in appearance to many garden mints.  

In nature, plants usually die back during the dry season, reemerging again with the winter rains.  In the garden, they also die back – either when watering is tapered off in the fall or if there is a frost.   When plants die back – or just start looking raggedy in the fall – it’s time to cut them back to several inches.

California wood mint (Stachys bullata) - Mother Nature's Backyard.
In addition to its use as a groundcover, California wood mint is grown for its flowers.  The wood mints generally have larger and more colorful flowers than the culinary mints.   The flowers of Stachys bullata are arranged around the slender square stems in whorls (clusters of flowers encircle the stem).  This type of inflorescence (flower grouping) is typical for the mint family; you may have noticed it in garden mints.  Other good examples are the Salvias – also in the Mint family – which have a similar inflorescence.  

Umber Skipper butterfly approaches California wood mint flower (Stachys bullata)
In Stachys bullata, the flowering stems are taller and more erect than the rest of the foliage.   This is also typical of the Mints; the floral placement insures easy access for their pollinators, the hummingbirds and long-tongued butterflies and bees.  In Mother Nature’s Backyard, the Wood mint attracts butterflies as large as the Tiger Swallowtail, but the smaller Skippers are more routine visitors (see above).  For more on Tiger Swallowtails see:

Close-up of flowers: California wood mint (Stachys bullata)
The flowers themselves are typical mint flowers.  The five petals are fused into two lips, with the lower lip significantly longer than the upper.  Flower color ranges from pale pink to lavender or lavender-red.  The upper lip, which shelters the stamens like a cowl, is a single color; the lower lip has stripes or blotches of darker color over a pale ground (see above).   

The flowers are lovely and long-lasting.  We like them in a spring/summer floral arrangement with ferns, alone or with other pink or purple flowers.

Simple flower arrangement with California wood mint (Stachys bullata)
California wood mint is easy to grow given the right conditions.  In most of S. California it does like some shade, making it a perfect plant to grow under trees, on the north or east side of walls - even in pots on a shady porch.  It will survive nicely in fairly deep shade, though the flowering may be limited. 

California wood mint is not particular about soil texture; we’ve grown it successfully in soils ranging from very sandy to compacted clay (it actually improves the soil texture in the latter).  And it doesn’t seem too fussy about growing in the slightly alkali soils typical of S. California.

While looking best with a little summer water, Stachys bullata is more drought tolerant than one might imagine.  It tolerates seasonal flooding – in fact may be better for it – and looks lovely with occasional to moderate summer water.  We let ours dry out a bit between waterings, in generally watering every 2-4 weeks (even during the past two years of drought).   We like to taper watering off in the fall, letting the plants die back before winter.

California wood mint requires little in the way of care.  Snip off the dead flower stalks after birds have eaten the seeds.  If the plants die back in fall, prune back to several inches to promote lush spring growth.   We use a thin (1-2 inch) organic mulch (wood chips; redwood bark chips) when getting plants started.  After that we let the plants provide their own leaf litter.   

New growth in spring - California wood mint (Stachys bullata)
If grown in a pot, give plants a dose of ½ strength fertilizer in spring.   And if the plants exceed their allotted space (see above), just pull up the new stems as they emerge (you’ll have to cut them off).  That’s really about it.

So why should you consider growing Stachys bullata?  Certainly it makes an easy-care groundcover, particularly in shady parts of the garden.  It does great on shady slopes, helping to stabilize the soil.    California wood mint might just solve a shady problem area in your yard.

Mixed groundcover featuring California wood mint (Stachys bullata), Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea; magenta flowers) and Catalina perfume/Evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium).
We suggest growing it with other native groundcover plants to create a natural woodsy ground cover.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolia), native strawberries (Fragaria species), Catalina perfume (Ribes viburnifolium), Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), native Honeysuckles (Lonicera species) and even Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) combine well with the wood mint. The plants share light and water requirements, making them easy to care for.   A mixed groundcover can be a delight – providing interesting textures, fruits, medicinals and flowers over much of the year.

California wood mint is one of our favorite hummingbird plants.  Along with Hummingbird sage,  it keeps our Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds coming back for more.  If you explain nicely, they may even permit you to sacrifice a few flowers for a bouquet!  For more on Hummingbird sage see:

California wood mint (Stachys bullata) and Yerba Buena (Clinopodium douglasii) under a Kumquat tree. 
Home garden, Redondo Beach, CA

California wood mint is also an important medicinal plant.  Its most common use is as a topical (skin) disinfectant.  Leaves/stems are soaked or steeped in hot water to create an infusion; when cool, this can used to clean skin sores, wounds, cuts and boils.  Heated leaves and stems can also be pounded/ground to create a warm poultice applied to boils.

An infusion/tea from Stachys bullata  can be used as a gargle for sore throat; it was also traditionally drunk to treat stomach aches. As with any natural remedy (particularly those taken internally), be sure to start with a small dose; and don’t drink more than 1-2 cups of medicinal Wood mint tea per day.   If a wound, sore throat or stomach ache persists or worsens, be sure to seek qualified medical care.


For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




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Monday, October 27, 2014

Garden Crafts: Making a Yarn-wrapped Vase or Bottle

Yarn-covered bottle using hand-dyed yarn (natural dye: Rabbitbush flowers)

Non-knitters often ask what they can make with the yarn they’ve dyed (  In fact, there are a number of crafts that use colored yarns.  Making a yarn-covered vase, bottle or container is one such craft.  We like it because it’s thrifty and sustainable; you recycle containers and left-over yarn into unique vases, boxes and jars.

This is a fairly easy craft; you may have actually done it in school.  It’s a great way to use up scraps of yarn, and is a wonderful rainy day activity.  It does take a little practice, but you’ll pick up the technique quickly.   Once you have some practice, you can introduce the craft to children (we suggest 4th grade and up – and using rather thick yarn for a beginning attempt).


All that’s needed are:

  • A bottle, jar or container to cover.  Start with smaller, straight-sided ones until you get the hang of it.  Glass and cardboard are a little easier to work with than plastic (at least in our hands). Plastic, wood or cardboard ones recommended for children. 
  • White glue (Elmer’s or liquid school glue).  Use the kind that dries clear.
  • Yarn of several colors – you’ll need 10-15 yards (meters) total, depending on the size of the bottle/jar/container.  Any yarn but the fancies and very thin yarns (which are too hard to work with) will do.    Wool, acrylic, hand- or commercially dyed – or a combination – can be used.  If doing this craft with children, use the thickest yarn you have.   Acrylic yarn may be easier to work with at first - it usually stretches less than wool.

We suggest choosing several colors of yarn that you like – 3-5 colors look nice for a typical bottle or jar (see above)

  • Piece of bulky yarn or string (enough to go around the container once plus a little extra).   It’s best if the color is neutral (white, brown, gray or black) or complements the other yarns.

  • Scissors to cut the yarn.
  • Paper or a large trash bag (to protect the work surface in case of drips).
  • Small piece of plastic wrap (or a plastic bag)
  • Fixative (optional) – see step 8, below


  1. If using jars or bottles, remove paper labels (soak in warm soapy water overnight) and thoroughly wash the insides and outsides.  Be sure that the jar/bottle/container is completely dry before starting the project.
  2. Spread out paper/trash bag on the work surface. 
  3. Choose a selection of yarns that look nice together.  We suggest using yarns that are all the same thickness for your first project.  We also suggest choosing three or five colors, if possible.  Be sure that the yarns are straight, with no kinks or knots.

Foundation layer of household string

  1. Make the foundation layer

  • Spread a line of glue at the very bottom edge of the container.  Let it dry for about 1 minute.
  •  Take the bulky yarn or string and place it over the glue (to glue it in place).  Cut off any excess length and be sure that both ends are well attached (use a little extra glue if needed). 
  • Place the container right side up on the work surface.  Using the piece of plastic wrap, gently work the bulky yarn/string into place at the very bottom of the container (where the container meets the work surface).  Press the yarn/string in place, flattening it slightly against the container.  It’s important that the yarn/string is well-glued and even with the bottom of the container;  this will form the base for subsequent layers of yarn.
  • Let the foundation layer dry completely before adding color layers.
  1. Add the color layers

  • Choose the first color and lay out a straight piece that’s long enough to go around the container 3-5 times. 
  • Squeeze out a wavy ribbon of glue (a bit wider than you want your first color layer – ¾ inch is fine) just above the foundation layer. 
Spreading glue - yarn-covered vase project
  • Smooth the glue with your finger to make a thin, even coating.  Let the glue sit for about 45-60 seconds or until slightly tacky (time to wash your hands).
Wrapping yarn - yarn-covered vase project

  • Lay the yarn in place, starting just above the foundation layer and continuing around the container.  If working with wool (or other stretchy yarn) be sure you don’t stretch the yarn.  Continue to lay the yarn on the glued surface, around and around, until you run out of yarn.  Be sure both ends are firmly glued (use a little extra glue if needed).
Smoothing yarn with piece of plastic wrap
  • Using the piece of plastic wrap, gently push the yarn layers together (down) so there are no gaps where the container shows through.  Then flatten the yarn against the container surface so it adheres to the container.   You will have several minutes before the glue hardens, so take your time.  You can add a little more glue if needed. 
  • We suggest letting each layer dry for at least 30 minutes before you add the next layer.   It’s much easier to add a new layer when the one below it is dry.

  1. Continue adding color layers, following the steps above, until the container is covered.

Completed yarn-covered vase and bottle - yarn craft idea 

  1. Let the piece dry thoroughly.

8.   Spray with a fixative (optional) to make the vase/bottle/container waterproof.  If using a fixative, we suggest one of the non-toxic varieties. 

Yarn-covered vase with dried flowers: yarn is hand-dyed with natural dyes from
California native plants

We hope you enjoy this craft and that your unique new vase, bottle or box gives you years of enjoyment.    We like to use our vases with dried flowers.  The vase above has dried seed heads from Giant buckwheat ( and flowers from Felt-leaf everlasting (




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