Late summer in the native plant garden teaches us to appreciate subtlety and quietude. While some may look at these natural landscapes as dead or brown, we see an important function and structure to provide habitat to insects, lizards, and birds feeding on the senescing flowers and seedheads. It also gives us the visual cue to rest and conserve energy during these hot days.
Now that we are heading into fall, it is time for maintenance as well as installation of new plants. Maintenance at this time of year is less about weeding and more about cutting back plants. This reduces thatch to provide more light and air to plants, and it can also help make the garden look a little tidier. Herbaceous perennials, such as asters, mugwort, goldenrod, and yarrow should be cut back to the ground. At this time of year these plants will have dry flower and seed stalks and usually show new growth at the base. Grasses can also be cut down to a couple inches. Shrubs should be pruned to remove any dead wood and reduce size. Some shrubs, such as coffeeberry, redbud, coyote bush and dogwood, can be coppiced to the base and they will send up fresh new shoots in the winter. Maintenance tips by species can be found on our free app at the Apple iTunes Store. Mulch can be refreshed as well, which will improve soil quality and water retention, and help prevent weeds in spring.
Once you have cut, pruned, and mulched, you will see the bones of the garden reappear and can see any gaps. Fall is the best time to install new plants since they can take advantage of the cooler evening temperatures as well as the winter rains to set down their roots. Plants installed in the fall are much more successful than those planted in spring. Of course, you should still plan to give your plants some deep waterings in the first few summers to get them established, but they need less of this when planted in fall.
What to plant depends on soil conditions and sun exposure as well as what function you desire. Our app has various plant lists for different situations, including which species are best for lawn replacement, hedges, under oaks, and tolerating heavy clay environments. We even provide a couple sample layouts.
The California Native Plant Nursery and Grassroots Ecology will have our bi-annual plant sale for the public this Saturday October 15 at Hidden Villa from 10-3. Experts will be on hand to answer specific questions about native plants.
We hope you spend a few lovely hours in your native garden this fall and appreciate the differences and value of each California season.