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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Spring-Summer Transition: Spring Garden Tasks

Mother Nature's Backyard at the Spring-Summer Transition

Gardens featuring California native plants have distinct seasons.  Spring is the time of new growth and wildflowers; we like to call it the ‘Growth Season’.  It’s a lovely time, one we look forward to each year.  But like all good things, the Growth Season is ephemeral.   To learn more about the seasons in California gardens see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/09/seasons-in-southern-california-garden.html.

Sometime in May (the timing depends on the weather and where you live in S. California), the garden begins to transition from spring to summer. You can see it happening before your very eyes.  Spring wildflowers finish their blooming – or are completely done – and the cool season grasses turn golden brown.  The days are longer and warmer, with a hint of the summer to come.  This is the spring-summer transition.

The spring-summer transition is one of two busy times in the California native garden.  The other is late fall (we’ll talk about that in October). These are clean-up, tidy-up and preparation times.  The tasks are not unpleasant, and you can do them over a period of several weeks (from May to June).  Once complete, your garden will look lovely; you’ll be ready to enjoy the outdoor celebrations of summer.

The main tasks of the spring-summer transition include watering, weeding/pest management, seed and foliage harvesting, tidying (including pruning) and checking, fixing and replenishing mulch and other hardscape.  We discuss each of these separately below.

Trickle watering bucket makes selective watering easy.

If your garden is young (two years old or less), now is the time to seriously begin a summer watering program.  The longer days, higher temperatures and wind can dry out a garden in a hurry.  So check the soil – dig down 3-4 inches – and water if it’s dry.

When watering, choose a cool, overcast day.  Review the 14-day weather forecast; if a cool, cloudy period is projected, that’s the time to water.

Even established gardens often include a new plant or two.  These will need a little summer water, even if the rest of the garden is drought tolerant. The easiest way to water individual plants is with a trickle watering bucket (for instructions on how to make and use one see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/07/surviving-drought.html).   Alternatively you can water with a hose set to a trickle.  Either way, you can water deeply, but selectively.

Oleander aphids and their predators on Milkweed.
Weeding and Pest Management

If you have a young garden, you may be ready to give up at this point.  Moist soils and warm weather provide perfect conditions for a number of pesky weeds.  Take heart: pull weeds before they go to seed and prevent a bigger problem next spring.  Weeding does become less of an issue as trees and shrubs shade out some of the sun-lovers.  That and weeding really pay off in the future – so get out and weed in the pleasant days of May!

If weeds are popping up in the cracks, wait for a sunny day and spritz them with vinegar.  It may take several treatments, but this old-time remedy really does work.  Best of all, it’s cheap and safe.

In general, pests are less of a problem in water-wise native gardens.  There are several reasons for this: 1) natives are less susceptible to their usual pests; 2) drier garden conditions deter some pests (slugs, snails and others); 3) native plants attract natural pest-eaters like birds and carnivorous (otherwise known as beneficial) insects. 

That being said, the fresh new foliage may be attracting aphids, thrips and other chewing and sucking insects.  Get out in the garden and look for them.   Look also for the beneficial insects: the ladybugs, robber flies, lacewings and others of Mother Nature’s pest control squad.

Ladybug larvae look like monsters - but they eat a whole
 lot of aphids
Learn what the beneficials look like: the Ladybug larvae (which eat the aphids) look like little monsters (see above) but they are true garden heros.   If you see adult Ladybugs on a plant, look for the larvae.  The adults are laying eggs, and the larvae are likely present in sizes ranging from minute to larger-than-adult.   Be thankful that you’ve got these voracious eaters in your garden!

If pests are overtaking a plant, then take action.  As a first step, try blasting aphids and thips off with a stream of water.  If that doesn’t work, use a mild insecticide – Safer’s Insecticidal Soap or a few drops of mild dish washing detergent in a liter of water.  Native plant gardens rarely require anything stronger.

Removing plants of the annual Succulent lupine
 (Lupinus succulentis)

Seed and Foliage Harvesting

Late spring is important for seed collecting/spreading.  After the spring-blooming plants finish flowering, they produce seeds.  If you want your wildflowers to return year after year, you need to either let the plants reseed naturally or collect the dry seeds and store them.   Learn more about managing annual wildflowers at: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/04/sustainable-gardening-managing-annual.html.

Annual wildflower plants (spent) used as mulch.
You may need to tidy the garden before all of the seedpods have opened.  Here’s a trick we use: harvest entire annual wildflower plants (or trim seed pods from perennials), cut them up if needed, and use them as mulch.   You may need to tramp the mulch down a bit for a tidier appearance; and you only want to use this mulch in areas where you want new plants to grow.   This method works quite well for reseeding, and has the additional advantage of creating no-cost summer mulch.

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) ready for harvest.

If you use flavorful leaves for tea or seasonings, this is also a good time to collect the leaves of native mints, Salvias (sages), California sagebrush, California goldenrod and others.   The Salvias produce two set of leaves; if you want to use the larger ‘wet season leaves’, collect them before they begin to dry up.  For tips on how to preserve the leaves and flavors for use all year see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html.   You can also use the dried leaves for potpourri and other crafts: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/11/garden-crafts-making-potpourri-from.html

Many native plants benefit from a little tidying this
 time of year.
Tidying up (including a little pruning)

The spring-summer transition is one of two times a year (the other is late fall) when the garden can look a bit unkempt.   A bit of tidying can make your garden safer and healthier, in addition to looking better.  So get out your gloves and pruners to do a little plant maintenance.

We’ve discussed collecting seed from spring annuals above.  We like to leave the annuals until most of the seeds have ripened.  At that point it’s easy to pull up the dry plants and use them as mulch.  

If possible, we also leave the seed pods and fruits on trees, shrubs and perennials, either until they are ready to collect or they drive us crazy – whichever comes first.  Seed and fruit-eating garden birds depend on our gardens, particularly in times of drought.  So hold back until most of the edibles are gone, then prune as appropriate.   For more tips on pruning native plants see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/11/pruning-common-native-plants.html.

Look over your trees and shrubs.  Are there broken branches?   Areas with disease? Crossing branches that are rubbing, causing damage?   These problems should be remedied any time you see them.  But the spring-summer transition is a good time to give your trees and shrubs a thorough review.

Pruning shrubs that have over-grown the sidewalk.
Garden of Dreams Discovery Garden, CSU Dominguez Hills
Some perennials may have grown exuberantly in spring, extending out over paths and walkways.  Now is a good time to prune these back as well.  Just give them a light pruning for human safety.  We like to feather the edges of shrubs along walkways, rather than hedge-pruning to a straight edge.  But whatever works with your garden’s style is fine.

Some shrubs and perennials are growing vigorously with the warm weather.  If you want to create a bushier plant, tip prune branches during times of late spring growth.    Catalina snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa), Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), the herbaceous mints (Mentha, Clinopodeum, Stachys) and California fuschia (Epilobium canum) all respond well to this treatment.

New mulch makes the garden look fresh & tidy.
Garden of Dreams Discovery Garden, CSU Dominguez Hills.
Checking, Fixing and Replenishing Mulch and other Hardscape

Late spring is also a good time to do routine hardscape maintenance.  If using irrigation (of any type), now’s the time to be sure that everything is in working order.  Replace broken or non-functional elements; test timers to see if they are functioning properly.   You’ll soon need your irrigation system in good working order.

Late spring is also a good time to reassess your garden watering system/strategy.  As native plants become established, they may need less water.  Perhaps it’s time to replace your drip or conventional irrigation system with something less intensive.  At the very least, move drip irrigation or soaker hoses to accommodate the growing root system of maturing plants. 
Gravel mulch would benefit from a good raking to
 remove dried plant material.
This is also a good time to see if mulch needs replenishing.  Organic mulches break down over the winter; you may need to add some new mulch atop the old.  New mulch also gives the garden a tidy appearance.  Even inorganic (gravel; rock) mulches may need occasional replenishment.  At the very least, rake the inorganic mulch and remove spent organic matter to give a neater look for summer.

Late spring is a fine time to critically evaluate your paths and walkways.  Are they safe? Functional?  In the right place?    Would additional paths make it easier for you to access the garden?   Now is a good time to make changes or repairs – before the heat of summer begins.

Inspect walls, fences, patios, sheds and other hardscape.  Make needed repairs.

Mother Nature's Backyard is ready for summer!
While the spring-summer transition involves some work, the results are so dramatic that you can’t help but appreciate them.  So get out in the garden, put in a little extra time now, and enjoy the results all summer long.



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




  1. I appreciate your great work. Thanks for sharing. Keep me more update in future.

    Landscaping ideas for small yards
    Landscaping with Succulents
    Water Wise Gardening California

  2. Now, this is a really useful article. It is so specific, and filled with good tips. Thanks for sharing.