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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 of 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 attract garden pests, such as aphids and other sucking/chewing insect. If you garden with California native plants, the 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 are sometimes known by their common name – Farewell-to-spring. Look for early butterflies on Salvias (sages) particularly the Purple 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 with 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 scented 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 needed 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!

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We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

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