How do you care for a California native botanical garden in the summer?

by Danielle F. Winter

So you’ve uprooted your lawn and created a native botanical garden to conserve water and restore habitat for struggling birds and insects. But summer is coming, many beautiful plants are shrinking, and your neighbors look at you with a stench.

Welcome to summer in your new native garden, where maintenance is more about attention and patience than lawnmowers and choppers.

The good news is: You no longer have to set aside time each week to mow your lawn (or pay someone to do it).

The bad news is: You still have to weed.

How to care for a California native plant garden in summer - Los Angeles  Times

Goldfields, which bloom from March to May, will be inactive during the dry, hot summer months.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Weeding is probably the biggest and most important job you’ll face, said Bruce Schwartz, a one-time puppeteer and artist who works full-time maintaining his property in Eagle Rock, a wilderness of plants native to the nearby San Rafael Hills and Verdugo. To put away.

That’s because invasive, non-native weeds are tough, grow quickly, and constantly compete for light, nutrients, and water against slower-growing native plants, said Schwartz, who blogs under Eric Ameria at LA Native Plant Source.

“This is a really good time of year to restore weeds because the wildflowers have died, and you can see the weeds,” Schwartz said. “You can see the pernicious weeds now because they are green while everything else is brown.”

In general, weeds are any plant you don’t want, says Max Kanter, owner of Saturate, a native plant maintenance company based in Silver Lake. But to purists like Schwartz, weeds are non-native invasive plants imported during European colonization.

One of the biggest culprits is chickweed (Stellaria media). This spreading Eurasian native was probably imported years ago because it’s edible and used medicinally, “but it’s the bane of wildflower growers,” Schwartz said. “It grows in rank mats faster than wildflowers, and if you can’t control it, it will choke everything in a New York second.”

Bruce Schwartz sits in his native botanic garden.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Other native plant enemies include sow thistles; dandelions, which scatter clouds of seeds once their cheerful yellow flowers dry; long voluminous horseweed; round-leaved mallow; purslane; and spurge, which cover the ground like thick green cloths.

A 1992 photo shows the bare garden compared to now, with lush native plants and steps leading down to the terraced garden.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Schwartz has been fighting these weeds and other non-native plants for 30 years, ever since he and his late husband, Joseph, first saw the property that would become their home. They bought a 1911 craftsman-style home that day, but for Schwartz, the biggest attraction was the huge oak trees sprawled across the bottom of their sloping grounds.

Most of the grounds were covered in trash and undergrowth of common SoCal landscape plants—jades, ivy, vinca, and morning glory—and he’s been reshaping the garden ever since.

He said that newcomers to Schwartz’s seemingly wild landscape often look surprised as they wander its carefully landscaped, rock-lined trails. The ground is covered with leaf litter and a tangle of seemingly unkempt shrubs; in late spring, deciduous plants are in various stages of wilting and dying while other plants are preparing to bloom.

“Looks like I’ve carved walkways to a native paradise,” Schwartz said, smiling. But one visitor who took the tour eventually blurted out that she didn’t think he had a garden.

Bruce Schwartz has immersed himself in a lush growth of California native plants at his Eagle Rock home.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“She said, ‘These are just plants that grow everywhere,'” Schwartz recalls. “To her, a wild plant is not a garden, and I understand that not everyone is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but the irony is that this is a garden. Such a garden requires much work to prevent weeds from becoming overgrown.”

I understand that not everyone is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but the irony is that this is a garden.

— Bruce Schwartz, LA Native Plant Resource

His late father wouldn’t approve, Schwartz said. “When I think about my father and his garden – well, I hesitate to call it a garden, it was an extension of his living room, a public space where he entertained people, and it had to be clean. This is not a value judgment; it’s a very different view of a garden. It had to be perfect – no flowers could be spent, and no leaves could fall to the ground and be left there. It all had to be cleaned up.”

But in a native garden, leaf litter is a valuable nutrient because it breaks down; it also darkens the soil and helps it retain moisture, he said. And the thickets of shrubs, flowers, and trees work together to provide food and shelter for insects and pollinators that help the plants increase and thrive.

Nameplates identify the native plants in Bruce Schwartz’s garden.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m not saying we should tear up every exotic landscape plant in Southern California, but a lawn or patio of rose bushes, pansies, and petunias … those are thirsty plants that we’re out of water for,” he said. “So, for starters, I suggest you trim down your lawn and have a native victory garden where the food isn’t for you but for the wildlife that lives here.”

Schwartz recommends focusing on three types of plants for that victory garden — buckwheat, sage, and wormwood, all of which have wide varieties and require little or no water once established. “Those three plants are bulletproof, they will survive the semi-evergreen summer, and they are incredible habitat plants,” he said. He added that if you want extra color throughout the seasons, you can weave in other flowering plants, such as shrubby sunflowers, California fuchsia, or easy-reseeding California poppies.

A California polypody in Bruce Schwartz’s native botanic garden will go dormant over the summer, waiting for fall rain.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a much better way to design a native garden “than to plant a wildflower meadow in the front yard and have an empty lot eight months a year” when the flowers die or go dormant.

When maintaining your yard in the summer, forget your lawnmower and leaf blower and pull out a rake, clippers, a pair of gloves, and a watering can, as,y Schwartz, Kanter, and Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Foundation. Payne.

Kanter and his partners at Studio Petrichor coined the term “June Groom” to help native plant breeders learn how to maintain their summer gardens “because June is where most wildflowers and annuals are pretty much spent, so it’s a great time to take care of,” he said.

Weeding is a regular task for the maintenance of a native garden.

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