I’m writing this from my outdoor office, surrounded by shrubs, trees, vines, perennials and one giant night-blooming cactus. It’s hard to be a gardener and not prefer the out of doors. But it’s hot. Barely summer and it’s already hot. And dry. Not brown in my courtyard, thank heavens! But brown on the hills surrounding me and brown in the pastures. And the first wildfires have already started. California is a large state, and I still meet people who believe it is all ocean breezes and no freezes. I don’t live in that part. There are also Californians who live in true desert, and Californians that live in what to me is near Alaska chilliness.
It’s good to remember that when we talk and write about California native plants. There are plants native to our local region, and then there are plants native to somewhere else in California that thrive here, and then there are plants from other parts of the United States and, indeed from the world, that do better than some plants native to other parts of California.
One thing summer, especially in a drought year, can tell us is which plants really belong in our gardens. Years ago an acquaintance left for a long summer vacation and the automated irrigation system failed. She returned to a lot of dead plants. I visited her soon after her return (Oh! How I wished I had known she was out of town. I could have checked on things!) to give her some ideas on recovery. It was amazing to see what plants, some that were native to China or the Midwest, survived, and which ones, some that were native to California, died. In the last drought, I noticed how Chinese Elm trees fared pretty well, while Ornamental Pear a lot of Japanese Maples, and many plants native to California (just look at all those dead native pine trees) did not. So, we keep learning. How can we better prepare our gardens for drought years?
One obvious way, that gardeners have been doing for years in my area, is to replace cool season lawns and high-water-use plant species with plants that are more resilient and more adapted to long dry hot summers. That means looking towards microclimates that have long hot summers with very little or no rain. But it also means creating a microclimate in your own garden, so you can fit in a few plants from riparian zones of California or from areas that receive summer rainstorms, so you can invite in some lushness, some plants that bloom in summer, and plants that retain their green freshness right through triple digit heat. My courtyard, where I am sitting now, is dominated by these types of plants. Further out from the house, we can plant the spring-blooming but mostly summer dormant plants from scrub, chaparral, and low desert regions. These we will need to water all summer, but less than you think. They will probably require at least an annual trim to look tidy and to help you feel that the garden is not untamed wilderness. Further out, in the buffer between wild and the garden, we can plant local native species that, once established won’t need much care beyond pruning dead branches for fire safety and watering once or twice a summer, if even that. If you live in the city you probably don’t have the buffer zone, of course, but you can still think in terms of zones of lushness. Tiny courtyard gardens can have a lot of plants, no lawn, and feel cool(er) and green(er) than you might at first think when you think “low water use” or “drought resistant.”
Native plant labels don’t always give the origin of the species. If you get into California native plants in part to lower your garden maintenance, stick with plant species that others have had success with, again and again, for at least a decade. Ask local experts for recommendations in your region. You can leave the experimenting to those of us in the business of trying and failing in pursuit of the next great “new” native, or to those intrepid gardeners who have the time and ability to fuss and adapt and observe and monitor and fuss some more.
Many California native plants prefer to go at least partially dormant in summer. If you try to keep these plants too green, they will die of over watering. Choose instead to supplement the garden with native and non-native plants that like the heat, plants that bloom in summer, or with a few plants that like sun, heat and summer water.
If you planted a new garden last fall or this spring, this first summer will be tough. Some plants are likely to die, even with water support. Unless you had a catastrophic irrigation failure, those that make it are the ones meant to be in your garden. I often give a species a couple of tries. Wait until fall to replant. And don’t plant a new garden in the summer. It is very stressful to the plants, and part of gardening with our native plants is learning how to respect the seasons and grow with them, not in spite of them.