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California Native Plant PR

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

August Los Feliz Ledger Column

Dog Days of Summer - To Plant or Not To Plant?

Summer planting of California natives is a hot button issue, depending on whom you talk to.

Some people argue you that you can plant throughout the year, but most experts simply say, “Don’t do it.”

It can be a confusing matter for home gardeners.

Barbara Eisenstein, Horticultural Outreach Coordinator for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) in Claremont believes the controversy over when to plant stems from a nationwide spring marketing blitz. Retailers take a one-size-fits-all approach to gardening, leading to a misguided public here in California.

The truth of the matter is: most of our native plants don’t do well being planted in warm weather for many reasons.

Eisenstein, who runs RSABG’s Native Plant Hotline, a free resource for home gardeners funded by Metropolitan Water District, explained that, because most of California experiences long periods of hot, dry weather, many of our indigenous plants are not used to getting water during that time. They have adapted over hundreds of years to slow down, or go dormant, in the summer and do the majority of their growing during the winter rainy season.

Part of the problem for gardeners planting natives in the summer is that they try to compensate for the lack of rain by inundating the plants with water. That, Eisenstein said, creates perfect conditions for disease to develop in dry-tolerant natives from an over-production of bacteria and fungi.

Thus it is with good reason so many native plant people will tell you to “install in the fall.” At that time (usually end of November is best), we can take advantage of winter rains to irrigate for us.

It’s a great rule of thumb to follow, but sometimes the thought of digging in the dirt and communing with the Earth is too tempting to resist. In that case, there are ways of getting around the rule, if you’re willing to use the right plants and give them perfect growing conditions.

Native riparian plants (those that grow near rivers), Eisenstein pointed out, are accustomed to year round wetness; and desert plants, which receive water during summer monsoonal rains, can take more water in the home garden this time of year. Both groups of plants, however, require a fair amount of shade (research each individual plant) if being planted in the heat. After establishing a healthy root mass (takes about a year of babying and watering), some of those plants may be more tolerant of full sun.

Holliday Wagner, Nursery Manager at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants (TPF) in Sun Valley, was careful to emphasize that plants need large root structures to bring water up to cool the leaves. It is an essential process in the summer – unless you install shade plants.

If you’re going to plant any of the desert or riparian natives, try following these few tips for better success. After digging the right size hole for each plant, fill it with water and let it drain three times before putting the plant in the ground. Put the plant in the hole and then backfill the soil into the hole. Create a circular basin around the outer edge of the rootball for water to more easily seep into the root area and then water again. Add a 2-inch thick layer of mulch (shredded or chipped redwood bark works well) around your plants, keeping it 2 to 3 inches away from the crown to prevent rot.

Mulch is key to maintaining cooler, wetter soil, said Eisenstein. And, it keeps weeds down.

As for specific native plants that are more amenable to being installed in the summer, Eisenstein recommended: bunch grasses, Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) in particular, which “does fine [being planted] almost any time;” California Aster (Aster chilensis), a native ground cover known to grow rapidly; Island Alum Root (Heuchera maxima), which needs some shade; native Yarrow (Achillea species), which also needs a little shade; and Erigeron species.

She noted that these and other natives might also do well in pots during the summer. Pots provide portability if the sun exposure is too intense. Just be sure to stay on top of watering. A water meter will help you keep the right balance.

Wagner’s short list for summer planting included all shade-and-water-loving natives such as a stream orchid (Epipactus gigantea) with the largest flower of the California orchids, Spice Bush (Calycanthus occidentalis), a large shrub with big leaves and fragrant red flowers, and Button Willow (Cephalanthus occidentalis californica), also a large shrub.

Though both experts were willing to give specific plant names, neither seemed thrilled about the idea of summer planting, given all they know about native plants. Instead, each advised pulling back on the urge to garden in the hot months.

That seems wise not only for the reasons stated above, but also to conserve our precious water supply. And, for a lazy gardener, like myself, all the hoops and limitations of summer planting are just plain old unappealing.

There are other activities for those of us to whom the garden beckons in the summer. Try mulching and container gardening or (gasp!) killing your lawn through solarization and/or start thinking about a new landscape design that can be implemented in the fall.

The Theodore Payne Foundation (http://www.theodorepayne.org) offers great classes to spark the creative process and, of course, the Native Plant Hotline (909-624-0838) is always there to help you in your research.

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