The next few months are planning and preparing season in the California native plant garden. Perhaps especially this year, we look forward to the return of seasonal precipitation and cooler weather. But we can make the most of the long, warm, dry days. Yes, there are benefits to these days of summer! Benefits both to the established California garden and if you are in the process of changing over from a garden based on an old model or trend or on another climate.
Let’s start with the changing garden. Whether you are doing a lawn-conversion or a single planting bed, the task is two-fold: planning first, and then production (also known as work.)
A few key questions can help with the planning part , and now, while the weather is still fairly pleasant, especially in the morning and early evening, is a great time to get outside and walk around and envision possibilities and ask yourself questions. How do you want to use the space? We can put it just like that, without any fluffy, feel-good words like “garden” and “sanctuary.”
Although sanctuary may be a use. In other words, what function or purpose can this space provide that it is not now? Function may include very practical things like “less watering,” “lower maintenance,” “better access from the sidewalk to the front door,” (this is included in a design I’m working on now), and they can include things like “a place to watch the birds,” “a place in the front yard where we can sit outside,” and “a sanctuary.”
Another set of questions involves your particular site. “What kind of soil have I got?,” “What is the average natural precipitation here?” and “How many hours of sun does this space receive (or maybe there are many micro-climates in the space)?” are a few of these “site” questions.
You are already well on your way to having a successful new planting bed or full garden just by settling your mind and doing this mental work. Looking at photos, researching plants and exploring other gardens become less overwhelming when you have in mind some key goals and ground rules. Once you have formed some ideas and have a plan of action, also known as a design, you can begin to work with your budget and schedule some of the hardscape or non-plant work. You can remove plants that won’t be in the new garden. For example, if you are using soil solarization to remove lawn, June, July and August are the best months for this task. And you can build the new patio, gazebo, sidewalk, raised plantings beds or whatever construction-element you have determined on. All of this work can be done through the summer months without the threat of rain stopping the project. If you are doing the work yourself and don’t want to be outside during the hottest part of the day, the long day length gives us plenty of hours working in the mornings.
Once cooler weather returns, the new space has been constructed and is ready for the new plants. We then can plant in autumn, the best season in our climate to plant almost all trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers
So that is the changing garden. What about the benefits of summer to the established garden? California plants are so in tune with the climate that they make use of all seasons. They know what to do as a matter of survival, of themselves as individual plants and as their species in the form of reproduction. In spring, we have a large show of flowers. Some species do bloom through summer and some even into fall, but the majority of flowers and growth occur in mid-spring through early-summer. On a gradual unfolding scale, plants then start to form and distribute seeds and then go into dormancy. There is a long time scale here, which is why we can manage to have an interesting garden even in summer. Although, as I’ve written before, a true California garden is one that is partly or mostly dormant during the hottest part of the summer. Once you get used to this, it is no more discouraging than seeing trees without leaves or dormant Bermuda grass in winter. Many of the plants in the California garden need summer’s day length and heat to complete the cycle of reproduction and growth. For us, a dormant time in the garden provides a respite, or the “negative space,” that prepares us for the “false spring” of autumn bloom and growth we see on so many California native plants.
A garden is a living thing, and a California garden is one that lives in harmony with its climate and is useful to “its people,” meaning you, of course: the one who envisioned it. If you are not sure whether you want to make a change or what change you might want to make, spend the next month or so thinking about the possibilities and asking yourself “What do I really want this garden to be?”