Skip to content

Sorry about missing March. No excuse, or 1000 excuses, you choose. Pause. That’s what I thought, the former… good choice. And now on to April.

Current events, history, review, and notes

The cool (never extremely cold) and consistently wet winter/spring season has allowed us to put our gardens on autopilot. Even brand new plantings have required very little extra attention. Our storms have stacked up evenly over the last six months or so, totaling 20” of rain to date (TOLN reading), with more on the immediate horizon. Rejoicing in another easy year to be a naturist gardener.


Come June we may need a refresher course on our proven method, “Deep Soak plus Refreshing Sprinkles”, and June will come soon enough. For now, rainfall alone continues to be more than sufficient to keep our gardens healthy, and our soils moist down deep.

Related to Watering

Can rainfall be excessive for the water needs of natives in the garden? Yes. In heavy soils sometimes, but most often where drainage issues cause the water to puddle under plants where silt can wash in, burying the crown (where the stem meets the roots), which can cause root rot. Don’t let that happen, The soil temperatures of spring are not conducive to root rot, but the damage may show up later if the crown or collar had been buried by siltation in the rainy season.


April is an excellent time to do light pruning, especially soft branched sub-shrubs like salvia and artemisia. You can pinch the tips off fast growing branches, shape plants by “heading them back,” and perform minor thinning jobs as you remove whole branches back to a main stem. You can also safely prune woody plants like lemonade berry and toyon as necessary. Most of your ceanothus are probably still blooming, so they can be trimmed in May. Your manzanitas have probably finished blooming, but for the most part, they require little or no pruning because they tend to grow with such grace and symmetry. On many manzanitas, the spent flowers will turn to attractive summer berries (manzanitas, little apples) so it’s best to leave them on the plant. Artful thinning to reveal the beautiful branching habit may be in order on large manzanitas.

Bonsai at Huntington Botanical Garden. Meticulously pruned to reveal branching and structure.

Now is a good time to evaluate all your native plants and consider a little thinning. Selectively and artistically removing entire branches allows for better air circulation, and can open up the plant’s structure for better viewing.

Don’t forget to keep your tools free from possible transmission of fungal and bacterial diseases. Dip your shears for 8 seconds in a 10% bleach solution (9 parts water, 1 part bleach) or alcohol, or Lysol spray.


How’s it going? With good rain years come good weed years. And good years for wildflowers. By now you have a good eye for what is a weed and what is a wildflower, and you can act accordingly. Pull the weeds.

Mulching / Top Dress

Our advice is to let natural leaf fall accumulate under shrubs and sub-shrubs, as natives tend to produce their own mulch or topdress over the years. Some people would like to apply a layer of organic top dress to the entire garden, for water conservation and weed suppression, as well as the clean “fresh” look it provides. It is safe to import new mulch or top dress to your natural garden in April/May. Be sure to avoid manures and green waste compost, especially if they bear a foul odor. Bark products such as redwood walk-on bark 1/2-5/8” size is ideal. 

You know a mulch is bad if you can identify all four of these shapes in it: sticks, strings, flakes and dust. The material will eventually form a woven mat, impenetrable to water and air. Many  gardens have gone downhill fast as a result of bad mulch, usually piled too high, and sometimes at the wrong season.

The same is true of mineral mulches like decomposed granite, aggregates, pebbles or sand. The thickness on the surface need only be 1-2”, and this is a good season to apply them.

For all top dress materials, organic or mineral, be careful to not let it pile up around the collar or crown of the plant; the spot where the main stem meets the root system at ground level.

Note the natural leaf litter, forest duff built up on the ground under this mature chaparral. A California peony (Paeonia californica), growing in the shade, lower center of photo.
Close up of the California peony (Paeonia californica) from the preceding photo. Note the natural build up of leaf litter, acting as a “mulch.”


April is a fine time to give your garden a little plant food. Use a good all purpose dry organic fertilizer, and toss it around evenly, ideally just before a forecasted rain event. If you will not be disturbing young wildflowers, use a three-prong scratch tool to work the fertilizer into the top 1” of soil. The numbers on the  “guaranteed analysis” for organic fertilizers are always low compared to commercial or chemical fertilizers. The three numbers on the bag tell us the percentage Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K), always in that order. A typical N-P-K on a bag of organic fertilizer will be something like 8-3-5, and the guaranteed analysis may also list certain micronutrients. 

Natural gardens in most situations can get by without additional fertilizer, but the key word is “gardens” which implies the notion of “gardeners.” Performing basic tasks like feeding, weeding, watering, and pruning not only enliven our gardens, but help us connect to them. Though your garden may not look as though it “needs” fertilizer, tossing some organic plant food around will benefit both your garden and you.

Optional: You can apply your new top dress (see above) after applying the fertilizer onto the scratched soil. If you time these activities to occur just before a rain event, you will have hit a home run: scratch, feed, mulch, rain. Otherwise, water it in at some point.

Regarding rates, follow the instructions on the bag, using less if you prefer. Natives are efficient and fertilizer can be expensive. How to apply? Toss it around like you’re feeding chickens. (You don’t have to say “here chick chick chick, here chick chick chick”). Never fed chickens? It’s like scattering wildflower seeds in the fall. Never done that? It’s like broadcasting dry organic fertilizer.

Berberis nevinii, in nursery production for decades, is actually a federally endangered plant.

Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases

Aside from an abundance of brown snails and a few slugs, pest problems have been minimal this year. The best defense against injurious plant pests this summer will be healthy plants and a holistic ecological balance in the garden. We make homes for the good guys, and they help keep the bad guys in check. Ant problems are just around the corner.

Annual Wildflowers

A few of our gardener friends are reporting their first poppies, tidy tips, five-spot and a baby blue eyes. If you sowed seed last fall/winter, your work is starting to pay off. If not, you can put it on your calendar for October/November.

Adding New Plants

The spring months offer the perfect opportunity to add new plants or to design and create a brand new natural garden. Come on over… we have a beautiful inventory. The plants and the place are looking super nice with all the rain, especially now, with the sun (hopefully) coming out to stay. And oh yeah, the swallows are back, and the little brown bats are filing into the barn well.

Dakota approves of this planting, a lemon tree. Note the ample wide hole, the berm, the plant’s crown higher than the bottom of the basin, the sparing use of organic mulch inside the basin, and the thorough soaking the plant received while the backfill was being returned into the hole.


What are our plants saying this month? I’m hearing “togetherness.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.” In a way, each of our individual gardens constitute their own little world. Not only are all our plants connected to each other, but to each animate and inanimate thing, the birds and bees, rocks and soil, and all that is in them. We, too, are part, if we are thriving “together” with our garden.


My dog and I take a little walk on the same little trail a couple times a day. Just at the end, is growing a California sagebrush (Artemisia california) that has been perfectly tip pruned by me, pinching it for the last few weeks. Ever since it started making luxuriant new growth, I nip off a piece in my fingers as I walk by. This grooming technique will cause the plant to be bushy, in this case only an incidental side benefit, as the real reason for my daily activity is so that I can rub the tender green growth onto my mustache, and carry the scent of “cowgirl perfume” with me for a little while. I discard the crushed piece over Koda’s way (aiming for his face) and he wonders at this gesture, his sense of smell a thousand times more keen than mine.

Our Re-wild gardens give us the opportunity to regularly visit our favorite wild places (in our minds), by appealing to all our senses, and sensitivities.

Important Review

20” rain year

Rains sufficient for watering

No silt around crown

Pruning to shape plants

Pull weeds

OK to add mulch, high quality only

Good time to feed plants

Promote balance to prevent pests

Your very own super bloom is coming (if you sowed seeds)

Perfect time to plant


Sense of Scents

Spring bloom on Our Lord’s Candle, Hesperoyucca whipplei in a Re-wild garden at TOLN


Our relationship with nature starts with our connection to our own homeland, our immediate surroundings; the water, land and skies of our everyday experience. To bring it even closer to home, you could say that we can find a good place to call home in our natural gardens, and as we can get to know them at a deep level, we make ourselves a part.

The beauty of a natural garden is that when we go in, we imagine big “nature” out there, (the real thing), and then later, when we go out into big “nature” out yonder, we remember our little gardens back home.  In this way, we grow in knowledge of our entire homeland. We realize our stewardship responsibility, and learn to discern between hands-on and hands-off activities. A time for involvement, a time for simple reflection. Hopefully these monthly (ideally monthly, sorry again about March) newsletters help make the distinction between action and inaction in a Re-wild garden. 

Never should our garden tasks be considered chores. All the undertakings in our gardens, active or inactive, remain inherently restful, and allow us intimate connection. After all, the word “ecology” is only Greek for “the study of home.” And we can only feel “at home” if we know something about our home. We are therefore ecological stewards of our gardens.

But now abideth knowledge, connection, intimacy, these three, but the greatest of these is intimacy.

Let’s keep makin’ it. It feels like we might be a-makin’ some progress.

From APRIL (March too) in the Natural Garden,

Mike Evans