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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 prun...

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: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/09/seasons-in-southern-california-garden.html.

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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  1. Really nice article. Caring for habitat is the second pillar of native plant gardening - the first being: preserving the plant species themselves. It all works together, doesn't it?