Last year, I watched as a beautiful Grinnell’s Penstemon withered and died over a timespan of about two weeks. It had spread to about 3 feet wide since I planted it, starting from 6 inches high and barely five inches wide. It had bloomed during Spring and looked completely healthy and happy.
Until it didn’t.
The leaves all curled and it took on a sickly purplish color. Then it shriveled and dried up. It was dead. Had I watered it too much? Not enough? Was it getting too much shade? Too much sun? Did it get a disease from the soil? I had lots of guesses but no way of knowing what killed my penstemon. So, I contacted a graduate student who was working over at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden Grow Native Nursery and asked him what happened. I sent pictures and described as much as I could. His answer? No idea. He said, “If you can figure out why any plant dies then you have answered the million dollar question.”
I guess it makes me feel a little bit better that even someone with a formal education in gardening/botany can be as mystified as I am. But, it’s also a little bit frustrating. How are we supposed to keep our plants alive if even experts aren’t sure how to do that?
I’ve lost several plants this summer. Heat? Gophers? Disease? Too much water? I just don’t know. The casualties (so far, the summer ain’t over…) as of today: two penstemons, three monkeyflowers, a desert willow, a black sage, a ceonothus (that I moved after it sprouted from a seed dropped from another plant), two other ceonothus that I bought, a Jeffery pine, a couple of dudleyas, and a manzanita.
The weather is supposed to be cooling off. Today the high temperature was supposed to be 95. It’s currently 102 degrees in my yard as I write this. That’s hardly cooling off! Then again, we live in the Inland Empire, a region of heat, wind, blue skies and sunshine. And, I just read on my favorite weather blog, Weather West, this has been the hottest summer ever on record. It shouldn’t surprise me, I guess, that the summer just refuses to go away.
The story of July so far is heat. My Acurite Pro 5-in-1 Weather Center has been recording the temperatures. Here’s a screenshot from my Wunderground weather station app.
The temperature chart shows the daily highs and lows from June 12 through July 12. A month ago, June 14, the high was 92 and the low was 49. That’s a big difference from July 9 when it hit 112 degrees and the low was 72. From what I understand, the really brutal part of summer for my plants is the night time when it really never cools off enough for them. My vegetables, especially, seem to be suffering. I’ve got a drip irrigation system on them now, so they are getting the moisture they need. But, the heat seems to be affecting their production of fruit.
My native plants are adapted to the heat. Many of them go dormant in the summer. While there is variation among the plants, the cycle seems to be that they conserve energy during the summer. Water is pretty scarce so they survive instead of thrive. But, when the temperatures cool down in the fall, they prepare to grow and by the late winter, most California native plants are blooming and growing. For example, my desert willow trees drop all of their leaves during the winter and look dead. But, if you look, there are buds on the branches. When the weather warms, the tree sprouts leaves and grows. The summer is about flowers, seeds, and survival. A few plants, however, especially the younger plants, are still growing! I’ve seen new leaves on some of my manzanita. The white sages’ flowers are all but gone, now, their “wands” browning and ready to drop seeds, but they are sprouting some new leaves, too. But, the biggest story of growth this spring/summer has been my Gambel Oak!
You may be able to tell in the picture above, the two branches that are tallest are completely new growth just this season. Both of them represent two or more feet of new growth! It’s a big jump for a plant that heretofore has only shown inches of new growth in the past couple of seasons.
I have been told that there is a saying among gardeners that “first they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” This Gambel Oak was planted back in June of 2015, one of the first plants I actually put in the yard. So, in all, it was two years ago, but it feels longer. Patience is important, I guess, with gardening, but it’s hard to cultivate that, pun intended.
The heat has been brutal but looks to be letting up a little. Yesterday it hit 101 but today is suppposed to stay in the upper 90’s and the same is predicted for the rest of week. But, we had multiple days of scorching heat, over 15 with temperatures topping 100 degrees. The heat makes watering difficult. California natives don’t like water in the summer time, mostly. While I’m far from an expert on such things, my understanding is that the native plants have adapted to the heat and the nutrient-poor soil by working with microbial organisms in the soil. These bacteria live on the roots of the plants and they fix nitrogen, I believe, that the plants then take in. The bacteria thrive when soil is cool and moist or warm and dry. But, they don’t like warm, moist soil. Too much moisture in the warm soil kills California native plants and some are more sensitive than others.
For example, I have ceanothus plants that absolutely HATE water in the summer. They even seem to dislike it in the winter, too. The leaves turn yellow and fall off if you water them too much. But, on the other hand, some of the plants do want some summer water, particularly if they are in the first or second summer season. I have this really great book by Helen Popper titled “California Native Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide” in which she writes:
Do not overwater. In most of the state, summer water wreaks havoc with life underground. Not only does overwatering in the warmth of the summer promote the growth of fungal pathogens that lead to root rot and crown rot, it also harms beneficial fungi that link to their roots and enable them to take in nutrients and water efficiently. These links, called mycorrhizal links, enable the plants to ward off diseases, help them recover from drought, and improve the structure of the soil. The mycorrhizae exist in mature native gardens but they take time to develop in transitional gardens. Overwatering (or overfertilizing) disrupts the establishment of these unseen important relationships.
Overwatering also causes other problems. It needlessly encourages weeds and garden pests, such as aphids and gophers. In the parts of the state where irrigation water contains salts, watering during the dry season also causes salt to build up in the soil. While it is tempting to provide extra water for faster growth, hold off for now. Instead, water the soil deeply for survival, and hose off the plants once a month for looks. Irrigate, if you like, to stretch the natural rainy season forward a bit in fall and to push it out a bit in spring, but use restraint in summer. (Popper 128)
I try to follow the advice. But, we have had multiple heat waves over the last few weeks. I started this post a week ago and the heat is still hitting 100 every couple days and when it doesn’t, it’s still in the high 90’s. And it has been very dry. It feels better to us for the humidity to be low, but plants need some water. So, even though I think I shouldn’t, I feel like I should go out there and water.
The thing is that many California native plants need a couple years of water before you can let them be during the summer. In a couple years my backyard should need little to no water at all. Only when I plant something new will I need to go out and actually water. The website for the Las Pilitas Nursery is another treasure trove of information for California native plants and the author, Bert Wilson (now deceased), recommends spraying native plants to rinse off dust, but otherwise, not to water them. That’s what I try to do. But, some of my plants are still very young while others are close to being “established” in the yard, meaning their roots are developed and extensive enough to support the plant through heat and drought with minimal assistance.
The worst part, for me, is that I lose some plants anyway. My sticky monkey flowers always seem to brown and die in the heat. I’ve lost four of them this summer and several last summer. And the sages can sometimes wilt and die back in the heat. The worst hit has been my vegetables. My pumpkin plant stopped producing fruit after one pumpkin, as did my butternut squash plant. The zucchini vines withered and the tomato plants are struggling.
And, another issue related to this is that the wet soil attracts gophers. So, I had started watering more broadly over larger areas to try and confuse the gophers as to where the roots are, since I’ve had a lot of plants killed by the awful rodents.
White sage has become a favorite plant of mine. It is elegant and grows well in my yard. I have wanted to focus some posts on specific plants for a while. So, this post will be looking at white sage and my experience with them.
I have chosen a number of sage plants to go in my native plant garden mostly due to reports of their fragrance and easiness to grow. Both seem true at this point. As the picture above shows, I have a couple of white sage plants in my yard. Bees and hummingbirds love them. And, when they are doing well, they produce tall flower “wands” that shoot up over five feet tall. This one pictured is at least six feet tall in the highest stalks.
They have dealt with extreme heat. We regularly get temperatures over 100 degrees in August. And, last year was extremely dry. As it was the first year, I supplemented its water supply heavily. For the first year, I watered daily during the summer. I dropped the frequency down during the fall and stopped watering once the rainy season began this last October, unless it was still dry out. This summer I am watering about once per week, or so.
I have two other white sages that were pretty small for a while there. In fact, they still aren’t as big as the one above. But, I started watering them more and they got much bigger. So, early on, I would say that white sage enjoys a good amount of water. But, I have read that watering them less after the first year or two is a good idea. That seems true. But, I haven’t had the trouble with them being stressed from too much water like I have with my ceonothus plants.
When white sage is in bloom it is a beautiful, very stately plant. The stalks of white flowers seem somehow heroic to me, rising skyward in defiance of gravity and serving as a beacon to birds and bees. I’m of the understanding that the stalks can be harvested and dried to make smudging sticks for Native American rituals, but I have not done so myself. I may give it a shot this year.
My soil is mostly loam but very rocky and layered. The first six inches, or so, is loamy sand. Below that is a lot of rock, majority granite, in potato-sized chunks, but there are some much larger rocks, too. I’ve pulled out quite a few that are over a foot wide and weigh what feels like over thirty pounds or more. That layer goes on for about a foot or two. Sometimes there are pockets of clay or sand. After the rock layer, there usually is a layer that is sandy and rocky. I’ve never dug down further than about 3 feet, so I’m unable to attest to more from my own experience.
I planted these sages from pots I bought at Grow Native Nursery in Claremont, CA (at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens). They were all quite small, most in gallon or smaller pots. I dug holes that about twice as wide and deep as the pots themselves. I filled the holes with water twice before installing the plants. Then, I made sure the base of the plant was about one inch or so higher than the surrounding dirt. I buried the roots and packed the dirt slightly, just to get rid of air pockets, but not so much to avoid inhibiting root growth. I watered almost daily in the beginning. No fertilizer. Mulch is good, though.
Overall, I recommend this plant. I currently have eight of them. I just planted four this fall. Two of those already produced flower stalks! They are already significantly larger than when I planted them. So, this plant grows pretty fast. And, it can easily spread to 5 or 6 feet wide, so keep that in mind. The leaves are a light-green, near to silver. They offer a nice contrast to darker foliage. One of my white sages died, I think from a gopher. Another got a pretty bad bug infestation that seemed to kill a lot of leaves. The plant itself is still alive and producing new leaves and stalks so I’m keeping an eye on it. Not much I can do for it, though. I’m trying not to use anything stronger than Neem oil on my plants. I am going to try raising some from seeds if I can figure out how to harvest them.
I’d be interested to hear from readers if they have questions about the white sages or experience with them. Thanks for reading!
The heat is upon us. Not the full-blast, oppressive, scorch of the Inland Summer, but still very warm and very dry weather. We have been averaging the high 80’s and low 90’s this last week. I have to force myself not to water. My instincts tell me to water the plants. But my experience says that will stress the plants and turn their leaves yellow.
And it attracts gophers. I hate gophers.
I am sure that gophers play some important role in the food chain and environment. But they have no place in my yard. Let’s review what kind of damage gophers do in my yard:
Eat plants I am trying to keep alive
Eat the roots of plants I’m trying to keep alive
Shear off baby trees and shrubs at their bases
Dig holes throughout the yard
Throw dirt up on plants I’m trying to keep alive
Undermine my retaining wall
Kill plants I paid for and spent time trying to grow
Here is a list of the benefits of gophers in my yard:
I haven’t seen any benefit
I will walk past a black widow and let it live in my yard. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why a black widow can be a potential problem. But at least they eat other bugs. I’ve moved centipedes, the big yellow scary-looking kind, so I didn’t hurt them. I’ve gone out of my way to attract birds to my yard. Those poop on my chairs and patio. Their seeds drop and grow in my yard where I don’t want them. But they eat bad bugs and they are pretty.
But I will drop everything to put a trap in a gopher hole and kill it.
I know it sounds bloodthirsty and barbaric. I get it. But I’ve seen a healthy, blooming, growing manzanita turn brown and die within days because a gopher ate its roots and burrowed so much in its root system that it dries out. I’ve seen my baby pine tree pulled into a hole and its trunk gnawed by gopher teeth. That’s the kind of stuff that brings me to a lethal frame of mind toward small furry creatures.
But let’s not dwell on the negative. There is a whole yard of plants and flowers to look at and enjoy.
The sun and heat are still bringing out the poppy blooms. I’m very pleased with my decision to sow poppy seeds around the garden. I think next October I will but several more packets and scatter them, too. It’s fun to see the little yellow and red flowers amid the rest of the plants.
My Gambel oak (a non-native species from the Colorado/Utah areas) is finally putting on some height. Already this season it has sprouted a full foot higher. But my other two oaks remain short. The Wislenzenii seems to be growing slowly. But my Cryselopsis (Canyon Live Oak) looks like it’s the same size as when I planted it in 2015. The Buckwheat next to it is already higher! I know it takes a while to develop the roots for the tree to grow. But this seems extreme.
My vegetable garden is running rampant and growing wildly.
I hope to have some good pumpkins for Jack O’lanterns by October. Judging by these vines, I will have that. The square foot gardening experiment is going well. I’ve got tomatoes for days and we’ve eaten broccoli, zucchini,and kale from the garden.
Just a quick post with some pictures of the yard. Some of the spots are filling in well, and others are making me wait longer. When I started this in 2015, I understood intellectually that plants take time to grow. But, I underestimated exactly what that felt like in real time. There are eleven trees and probably four more large shrubs in my yard that, in time, will all be over 15 feet tall. I have two oaks that, after ten years ought to top 30 feet. And, those trees are all in my mind when I look at the garden. All of the manzanitas and ceanothuses are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall, some of them over ten! And I can see them, too, in those spaces, in my mind.
That makes it hard to look at the garden sometimes. I see what’s not there. Yet. I imagine the plants filling in and covering the areas now dominated by the red mulch. Here’s a shot of my stream and bench area. But, look at the Bee’s Bliss sage in the center, in front of the bench. That’s three plants! But, they filled in that whole long area, about 15 feet long. Honestly, I am surprised at how well they actually did that. I expected plants to be about 4 feet wide. But, they are probably pushing six or eight feet! Most of my yard will, eventually, look similar to that, I hope. Maybe I will regret that, I don’t know.
I actually have “banned” my gardener from my backyard. He pruned a couple of my California Buckwheats that I was enjoying spreading out. It was probably the right thing to do. But, I want to have a full, “wild” garden. Maybe in time I wlll need to remove some of these plants. But, I can deal with that later. The only things that I really can’t move, easily at least, are my trees. So I was much more deliberate in placing them. I think I made good choices. But I won’t be shocked if it turns out I underestimated their sizes, too.
I’ve had to water more now. I’m really only watering the really young plants. Not the ceanothuses, though. Nope. Those plants seriously hate water unless it’s cold and the soil is cold. And even then they seem to prefer little water. With our Toddler-in-Chief rolling back environmental protections so he can pretend he’s helping the working man, I suggest everyone buy ceanothuses. They love heat and dry soil which will likely the prevailing conditions in our future.
Waiting is hard to do. Every plant was bought from a nursery and were tiny when I planted them. Obviously, they are growing, some of them are thriving! But, still. I wish I could skip a few years and have bigger plants already.
It’s March, nearly April. Spring is well-sprung and the temperatures have been between 95 degrees on one extreme on March 13, to 34 degrees back on February 25. Average temperature is probably right around 50 degrees or so. There has even been some rainfall, about 1/2 an inch in the last 30 days. We are well over the average rainfall for the year here. And, flowers are blooming in the garden.
The vegetable garden is coming along. The only plants that I didn’t get to sprout was my eggplant. Yesterday I put out new Eggplant seeds, along with some Jalapeño, Serrano, and Bullnose sweet peppers. They said to surface sow. Let’s see how that goes.
I’m going to have to go in and remove some of the plants where they grew better than I thought they would. I have a large amount of seeds still left over. Baker Creek, at this point, has lived up to the reputation and produced some great seeds to work with, but the true proof will be in how the vegetables taste.
On the other side of the garden, the California natives…
Apparently it’s well-known gardening adage that “the first year they sleep, the second they creep, the third year they leap” in reference to perennials. This kind of seems to be what’s going on here, too. Some of my shrubs and trees are supposed to be 15 to 20 feet tall, others 6 to 10 feet. And, yet, the tallest I have right now is one of my desert willows is around 5 feet. But, my oaks seem to finally be making a lot of new leaves after spending the last year (or two in the case of my chryselopsis) just kind of sitting there. Many of my plants do really seem to be taking off this spring. It also wouldn’t surprise me that having so many plants in the ground, that their roots are helping the microorganisms in the soil to develop the kind of system that California natives want.
I have managed to kill a few of these ceanothus. I didn’t mean to kill them. It was my inexperience with watering them. I’ve planted whirly blue curls next to these Ray Hartman ceanothuses since I’m under the impression that they hate water during the summer, too. These mountain lilacs are said to get huge and I believe it. In one year they’ve tripled in size at least. They are about four feet wide and three feet tall, well below the 20 foot full-grown size. But, they have beautiful glossy green leaves all year and the blue flowers are striking.
I’m loving how the plant, many of them, are finally filling in and looking good. Spring is fun!
My least favorite weather event by far. Wind. I hate it. I’m not talking about a breeze, a gentle stirring of the leaves. Nor do I refer to wind that is good for kite-flying and refreshes the atmospheric conditions. No, I speak here of gusting, tearing wind. Wind that blows and batters and blasts the land, the trees, and all that stands in its path.
Here in the sun-kissed Inland Empire, we get a hefty helping of this wind. I know, it’s my fault for buying a house below the Cajón Pass. Said geographical feature acts as a wind tunnel, it seems providing a natural easement between the great Mojave Desert that abuts the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains and the Inland Region that leads to the California Coast. This easement is the path of least resistance when there is a pressure difference between those areas. If an area of low pressure sets up off the coast, and high pressure is situated in the desert, then wind will rush through the Pass and eventually over my yard on its way to freedom over the ocean.
Like a young child let out of school for the summer, the wind breaks headlong toward, with speed and heedless of anything between it and its desired destination. This rough passage has an impact of no small import on my landscape.
As I walked around my yard, I find that where I used to have 1-3 inches of mulch (red bark, mostly), there is now bare ground. The aforementioned mulch is gathered in places I wish it was not, such as the base of my young Cleveland sage, which now has 4-6 inches surrounding it. The wind breaks some of the branches of my plants. A couple were entirely snapped off of their main trunk, effectively killing the plant. I believe I lost today a penstemon, a milkweed, and a monkey flower. I saw one of my Chickering Cleveland sage lost a major branch, too.
Besides doing physical damage thusly, the wind is also dry. Very dry. The humidity today is currently 15% and dropped as low as 12% yesterday. My understanding is that this dry air has a desiccating effect on the plants, in some cases wicking moisture from the leaves and branches, not to mention from the ground. Ideally, mulch should mitigate this, but not if the wind manages to blow that mulch aside.
So, even though we just got weeks of rain and that brought 11 inches to the ground, I still had to go out and water my plants. Dry, young plants are less supple and weaker, more prone to breaking off. Their leaves shrivel as the dry air blows across them. Some of the plants, like manzanita, have leaves that don’t lose as much water. But, for the younger plants just installed this last season, I have to water them, too.
Rain, at least, will give us much needed moisture. Cold and hot temperatures give the plants a sense of season, reminding them to grow, to sleep, to flower, etc. But, wind? Wind doesn’t offer me anything. It makes a mess. It blows trash into my yard, moves furniture, knocks over containers and as I mentioned before, scatters my mulch.
And, listen, lest you, dear reader, get the misconception that I’m airing a grievience over a brief event, an occurrence that is evanescent in nature and I ought to simply hush. Well, please find it in your heart to understand that this wind has been blowing since Thursday. That’s four straight days of wind averaging 13 mph. That’s the average. And, I just checked, we’ve averaged 13 mph for the entire month! We had wind like this in the middle of the month, too. My weather station recorded a high wind speed of 20 mph January 14th. Yesterday, we had a gusting wind that hit 22 mph. Imagine getting the plants in your yard, putting them in pots, then strapping them to the roof of your car and driving around for four days around the streets of your neighborhood. You drive the whole time, too. Vary your speed if you like, but average about 15 mph and that’s what is going on with the plants in my yard.
Four days. This wind is forecasted to blow through the night and into tomorrow morning, but it is supposed to, at least, begin to subside and be a much more manageable 5-10mph. Still, I hate this wind. There’s just no good from it, to me.
An eclectic mind garden. Cultivate, prune, mulch, compost.