Monday, September 29, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Seasons in a Southern California Garden

Some people, when moving from a colder climate, are convinced that S. California has no seasons.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We do have seasons, but they are quite unlike those experienced in Connecticut, Iowa or Colorado.   Once you understand them, you’ll be able to experience them more fully in your own garden.

When you garden with California native plants, each season has its own unique joys, scents, flavors and colors.  Each season also has a series of appropriate garden activities, closely tied to events that happen in nature.  Let’s take a trip through the seasons in several local gardens to see what we mean.

Southern California has a mediterranean climate.  With other areas on the west coasts at around 40° N and S latitude, we experience mild, rainy winters and hot dry summers.  But in fact, our yearly cycle is more subtle.   And it all begins with the cool rains of late fall/early winter. 

The Wet Season

The wet season can begin any time from late October to early December.  Variability in the beginning of the wet season causes headaches for local gardeners who are tired of the dry season want to begin planting.  The variability of California rains is legendary.  Their timing – and amounts – are hard to predict.  But the coming of the rains is always a time of great joy.

Our wet season coincides with the coldest part of the year.   The days are short and sunshine can be weak.   Winter deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves. 

This is also the time that our native evergreen foliage can be seen to best advantage.  The subtle greens, grays, silvers and whites appear to glow in the muted light.   There’s something magical about the contrasting foliage colors.  The colors of bark are intensified.

The garden at the beginning of the wet season seems flat.  Many of the fall-dormant plants were recently pruned.   But by the middle of this season the shrubs are beginning to leaf out.  They are programmed to do so in the cool, wet weather.

The cool season grasses, which only recently were brown and dormant, suddenly grow with abandon.  Deer and rabbits, if you have them, can be seen at dawn or dusk.

It’s usually too cold for the most troublesome weeds.  But annual wildflowers sprout as soon as the soil is reliably moist.  Be sure you recognize these tiny gems and don’t pull them, mistaking them for weeds.

Dry periods can occur during the wet season.  These can sometimes be prolonged – 2-4 weeks with hot, dry windy conditions.   Check your soil; if it’s dry at a depth of several inches supply some irrigation.

Early blooming shrubs provide color in the wet season garden.  Lemonadeberry, California Encelia, the currants, gooseberries and manzanitas are among the most reliable.  Large bees and hummingbirds visit them regularly at the end of the wet season.


The Growth Season

As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, we enter the second season of the year – the growth season.  The growth season usually begins in March in local gardens (although it may be earlier in a dry year).   Available soil moisture, warm days, plenty of sunshine and an explosion of growth in the garden – that’s the growth season.

Weeds and wildflowers, their seeds spread by dry season winds, are sprouting everywhere.  Be sure to pull them out where not wanted.  Spray a little vinegar on weeds/wildflowers growing between bricks and pavers – it works wonders.

The native lupines – annual and perennial – blanket the garden with waves of purple in a normal year.  Ceanothus species, from trees to low-growing groundcovers, are at their best.   If you love blue and purple, this is your time of year.

Gardens in April have the lush look of spring.  That’s why so many garden tours occur in April.   Be sure to keep up with weeding – it will save time later.

All the lush new growth may also attract garden pests, such as aphids and other sucking and chewing insects.  If you garden with California native plants, these pests are usually not a major problem.  If aphids are rampant, try blasting them off with a stream of water.  If that doesn’t work, try a solution of water and insecticidal soap, One of the real benefits of gardening with native plants is the time and money saved fighting spring insect pests.

March and April still produce some rain in a normal year.  If the soil is drying out in early April, don’t hesitate to provide a good soaking.  Even drought tolerant natives need moist soil from November/December through April.

By late April and May, the soil is drying out and the later spring wildflowers like Clarkias and Gilias are coming into their own.  Clarkias as sometimes known by their common name – Farewell-to-spring. Look for early butterflies on Salvias (sages) particularly the Puple and Black Sages (Salvias leucophylla and mellifera).  Among the butterflies you may see are the Mourning Cloak, Western Tiger Swallowtail and Monarch. 

You can still get in another deep soaking in late May if you time it with a cool, overcast period.

The Dry Season


By June, local gardens are usually entering into the delightful period known as the dry season.   The days are long, the fog burns off early, and the garden is alive with activity.  This is many local gardeners favorite time.

In many years, the Salvias (sages) are finishing their bloom in June-July, just at the time the early buckwheats are beginning their bloom season.  This period marks the start of the peak butterfly and pollinator season (June-August).

Areas that get regular water look particularly lush from July to September.  The large evergreen shrubs from the Chaparral, including Ceanothus, Manzanita, Coffeeberry, Keckiella, wild rose, Carptenteria, Summer Holly and Toyon have mostly finished blooming and are sending out new growth.  Choose a cooler period to prune these shrubs, if needed, after flowering is complete.   This is also the time to hedge-prune, while shrubs are actively growing.

Elderberries, late currants and Manzanita fruits ripen, to the joy of jelly-makers and fruit-eating birds.   In August and September, dragonflies search for prey and rest on convenient stalks.

Summer-blooming sunflowers add color and a treat for pollinators.   This is a good time to sit in the shade and enjoy the garden will a glass of iced tea made from native mints.  Browse through the seed catalogues and order native seeds and bulbs.  Summer is the best time to order, before the supplies are depleted.  For a list of native seed suppliers, see the Seed Sources/Nurseries page. 

As the season progresses, the garden takes on a golden brown appearance as grasses dry and buckwheats go to seed. Take time to enjoy your garden in the late afternoon and early evening. The sunlight filtering through the dried grasses is enchanting.  If you've planted a native Brickelbush [Brickellia species] your late afternoon garden will be perfumed by its sweetly scened flowers. 


The Dormant Season

From the end of August to the beginning of the wet season many local native plants take their season of rest – the dormant season.  September often is our hottest - and driest - month.

While evergreen shrubs show no effects, deciduous trees and shrubs begin to lose their leaves.   This is not to say that nothing blooms from August to October.  In fact, a surprising number of shrubby members of the sunflower family are at their peak this time of year.  The same is true for California fuschia, a plant whose welcome flowers bring hummingbirds like magnets.

Overall, the garden is a symphony of browns; a restful blend of colors that is subtle and soothing. This is a good time to add hardscape features and to take a close look at your garden design.  Are there plants that are not doing well?  Bare spots?   Could your garden attract more birds and butterflies?  Would you like to include more edibles?  Your local native plant society and/or nursery likely has a fall plant sale.  Fall native plant sales are the perfect opportunity to buy plants you need for Wet Season planting. 

As the days get cooler, it’s time to prune many local sub-shrubs, some of them rather drastically.   In nature, these plants would be eaten down by browsers this time of year.  In the garden, we accomplish the same with pruning.

It’s a good time to renew mulch, start plants from seed and prepare the gardening tools for winter.   Also a great time to use the fall pruning to dye yarn/fabric, or create a custom-made potpourri. If you're inspired, look for our 'crafts' postings on this blog.

It’s also a time to sit back, take a rest and enjoy one of the prettiest times of the year.

And now we’re back where we began.  The rain clouds are building, the days are cool and it’s time for the rains to begin again.  What a wonderful year in the garden!

We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Plant of the Month (September) : California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Mother Nature's Backyard

By September, the garden is awash with tan, pale gold and rust-orange as grasses dry, buckwheats go to seed and many plants enjoy their fall dormant season.  In this symphony of browns, members of the sunflower family add a note of pure golden yellow.  One of our personal favorites is the California goldenrod, Solidago velutina ssp. californica.

California goldenrod is among several goldenrods native to western Los Angeles county.  Solidago confinis  (Solidago spectabilis var. confinis), the Southern goldenrod, once flourished from the coast to the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains.  The Western flat-topped goldenrod (Euthamia occidentalis) covered seasonally moist areas throughout California, including at the Dominguez Slough (currently the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve). 

The California goldenrod itself is still widespread throughout California.  Locally it can be found in the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountains, in Griffith Park and on Santa Catalina Island.   It grows in a number of California plant communities including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands and riparian forests/woodlands at elevations less than about 8000 ft.    Generally, the areas are at least seasonally moist, although they may be quite dry in summer.

For many years California goldenrod was known as Solidago californica.  In fact, most of us still think of it by that name.  The Goldenrods, like other native plant species, have recently been re-evaluated by genetic taxonomists.   Similarities at the DNA level suggest that many local variants, including the Arizona, Nevada and California goldenrods, belong together in the species Solidago velutina.   So we’ll just have to get used to a new name for an old favorite.  

While we’re on the topic of names, the name Solidago is derived from the Latin ‘solido’ – to heal or make whole – referring to the medicinal qualities of this genus.  In fact, California goldenrod is useful in several ways, including as a medicinal.  We hope its many properties will make you want to include it in your garden.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Garden of Dreams, CSU Dominguez Hills, Carson CA

California goldenrod is a spreading perennial that dies back after blooming (late fall/winter) and re-grows again in spring.  A mature plant produces many upright stems, 2-4 ft tall and crowned with clusters of flowers.  In general, plants that receive more light and water – and those in clay soils -  tend to grow taller and more robust.    

California goldenrod leaves are alternate and become smaller and more elliptical the further one moves up the stem.  The lower leaves are oblong, often toothed and clustered at the base of stems.  The foliage varies from a medium green to gray-green; some plants have leaves that are densely fuzzy.   The stems often have a tinge of red or purple.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) against a fall sky

California goldenrod blooms in fall, from late August through October in our area. The name ‘goldenrod’ well describes the arrangement of the flowers.   The small flowers are arranged in a wand-like arrangement at the ends of the stems, creating a wall of golden yellow in a good year (above).   On closer observation, the flowers are actually small sunflower heads, complete with flat ray flowers and yellow central disc flowers.  There are literally hundreds of small flower heads on each flowering stalk.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)  - flowers
California goldenrod with Fig-eater Beetle and European Honey Bee

If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll note several common insect visitors.  The large green Figeater beetle is likely eating the flowers or pollen.  For more on this interesting local beetle see:       The European Honey Bee is among the many types of bees attracted to California goldenrod.   In fact, the goldenrods are excellent pollinator habitat plants.   They bloom in fall, when food can be scarce.  Their abundant flowers, with their tasty nectar and pollen, provide an important source of food for adult pollinators and their offspring.

California goldenrod can be a great educational resource for children and adults.  Pull up a chair on a sunny day and you’ll likely see an amazing array of insects.   You’ll first observe the fall flying butterflies like Skippers and Blues – perhaps even a hummingbird or two.  But sit quietly and notice all the tiny insects, including numerous species of native bees, flower flies, beetles and other insects.  You may even find a spider waiting patiently for insect prey.  In fall, the California goldenrod is its own little ecosystem, teeming with life.
Phidippus californicus – Jumping spider on California goldenrod

In late fall, California goldenrod produces copious fluffy seeds that spread by wind.  The seeds are eaten by finches and other seed-eating birds, so we leave them on the plants awhile.  When it’s time to tidy up in late fall or early winter, cut your goldenrods back to just a few inches.  They will sprout back revived and healthy in the spring.

California goldenrod - ready for pruning back in late fall

California goldenrod is fairly easy to grow.  It likes full sun (and flowers best under these conditions) but tolerates light shade and even works as a groundcover under tall trees.   It does fine in most local soils and is particularly well adapted to clay soils.  While quite drought tolerant, it stays green and blooms longer if given occasional summer water.  We grow California goldenrod around our bubbler fountain, where it gets an occasional splash.  We’ve watered it three times since May in our clay soils.   The lower leaves are beginning to turn brown in late August - but this has been a very dry year indeed.

California goldenrod is a spreader.  The goldenrod ‘patch’ will increase in size each year, as the plant spreads via underground stems (rhizomes).  In our experience,  plants given only occasional summer water spread rather slowly; they are easily contained by removing unwanted stems in spring/summer.  That being said, this plant is an opportunist; like many local riparian plants it will take advantage of available water and grow vigorously with regular irrigation.  If worried by its propensity to spread, grow California goldenrod in a contained area: a planter, small contained area or even a large container.

Goldenrods are used too infrequently in local gardens, perhaps because they are sometimes viewed as weeds.  They have an undeserved reputation as allergens; in fact, the culprit is usually ragweed, a species that blooms concurrently with the goldenrods.   At any rate, goldenrods are unequalled in their ability to brighten up a fall garden.  Given their size, they are best used contained or mid-bed in a mixed planting with Yarrow, Erigerons, Asters, milkweeds, native grasses and shrubs. 

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) at base
 of solar fountain - Mother nature's Backyard

Goldenrods are a must for habitat gardens.  They are among the few fall-blooming native perennials, making them essential in gardens too small for the larger shrub Sunflowers.   In addition, California goldenrod is a very useful plant.  Very young leaves & shoots can be used as cooked greens in spring.  Leaves can be dried and used as a soothing tea. 

Goldenrods have been used medicinally where ever they grow.  Native Californians use powdered, dried leaves as a disinfecting powder for skin sores, wounds, burns and rashes.  A decoction (tea) made from leaves was traditionally used for feminine hygiene, as a wash for skin sores and to prevent hair loss.  

Yarn dyed with California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

Crafters also find good use for goldenrods.  The flowering stems make good dried (pressed) flowers that retain their color for years.   Flowering stems and leaves can be used to make lovely soft yellow dyes that can be used to color wool, silk or cotton yarn or cloth. 

In summary, California goldenrod is a lovely plant that attracts many insect visitors in fall.  It has many useful properties and is a joy to behold in the fall garden.  We hope you’ll consider this plant when you visit the fall native plant sales!

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: