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August in the Natural Garden 2021

We’re rounding the corner toward the home stretch… the end of summer. There’s still hot weather ahead and proper watering will be important, but as the days wane a little shorter, you may notice your plants starting to “open up” a little. Relaxing. Breathing a deep sigh. We’re almost through the worst of it, they say. It’s been a hot summer.



The Sonoran Desert of Northern Mexico, southern Arizona and southeastern California has been getting rain. Monsoons, or “chubascos” as they are called in Spanish are the dramatic downpours that tumble boulders and scour once dry streambeds in flash floods. The water rushes down to soak the sandy lowlands. Typically, the Sonoran Desert receives half its annual rainfall through these remarkable summer storms.

Our state has been as hot and dry as any summer ever, and numerous heat records have been broken throughout the West. But take a drive out into the sticks, a sojourn into the wildlands of southern California, and see that everything is just fine thank you, (and this after a dry winter), and that native plants are tough and adapted, somehow always ready to handle one more hot day.



Continue with your “Occasional Deep Soak Plus Frequent Refreshing Sprinkle” pattern for keeping moisture locked into the root zone (14” deep) and also keeping the leaves and soil surace fresh, clean and happy. The goal in summer watering is to put 1-2” precipitation on the entire garden, slowly soaking it deep into the soil every 3-4 weeks or so (early morning waterings), supplemented by refreshing sprinkles two or three times a week, spraying the garden down for five minutes or so, (early evening sprinkles). On a hot day, those are like afternoon monsoons moving through.

To achieve a Deep Soak, you will need to run a typical sprinkler system 2-3+ hours, which in most situations would result in runoff and puddling, and would also make for an unhealthy long period of excess humidity. The best way to put 2-3 hours of sprinkler water on your garden is to utilize a technique called “pulse irrigation.” Simply run the sprinklers for 30-45 minutes (make sure there is no runoff) per day for three days in a row. The goal is to get the equivalent of a 1.5” rain event to soak slowly into the soil. Do these irrigations very early in the morning, preferably on the days before extreme heat events. With each watering, the moisture goes a little deeper. 

Most mature natural gardens will thrive on only 4-7 Deep Soaks per year, applied May through October. Newer gardens will need watering more frequently and rainfall is usually sufficient to provide natives all the cool season watering they need. These instructions assume you have a sprinkler system of typical shrub heads which deliver .4 – .8” precipitation per hour. You can check your sprinkler’s precip rate online by searching according to the make and model number. Then do the math so you can run them long enough to replicate a 1-2” rain event. 

To do a Refreshing Sprinkle you just need 5-10 minutes and a garden hose. With a spray nozzle (the pistol type works great), wet down all the leaves, the soil surface, the whole garden. When a hummingbird buzzes in for a quick bath, enjoy. Turn the nozzle straight up and take a quick shower. You’ll really appreciate how good you are making your plants feel. You can do Refreshing Sprinkles 2-3 (or more) times a week, always in the late afternoon or early evening. Ideally, the leaves should be dry by nightfall. On a warm summer’s day, the leaves will dry quickly, but you will have achieved your purpose of cooling everything down and giving the plants a little relief at the end of the day.



Deep Soak – waters the root zone, infrequently

Refreshing Sprinkle – waters the leaves, frequently

Plants take up water by their roots, applied in Deep Soaks, and run it through their whole system. In cooling themselves, they lose water into the atmosphere in a process called transpiration. Plants also take up water (though natives much less) through their leaves. Refreshing Sprinkles will replace some of the water lost through transpiration. Always do refreshing sprinkles very late in the day. That way the plants will be ready for the heat of the next day.



No pruning other than deadheading old flowers, corrective pruning, or heading back subshrubs that are intruding too much into each other. It is best to wait around 6 weeks to do any significant shaping. Major thinning can wait until fall/winter time.

Coffeeberry Frangula (Rhamus) californica is clean and bright all year



You may be dealing with a few warm season weeds like purslane, puncture vine, telegraph weed (actually a native), or field bindweed. Persistence is the key. Cut them or better yet pull them. Only use herbicides for impossibly tenacious weeds like nutgrass, bindweed, or bermuda grass, and always follow the label instructions carefully.



All your top dress material should be in place and functioning for moisture retention and weed suppression. Do not bring in fresh organic mulch during the warm weather.



August is a month when most natives are not actively growing, so no plant food is needed at this time. Desert plants and potted plants will always benefit from fertilizer in the warm season though.



Harmful insects are generally not active in the natural garden this month. Some places always have snails and if you are properly watering your natural garden, snails don’t live there, so if you find snails or slime trails, you can probably blame your neighbors. Time to convince them to plant a natural garden. Beneficials and pollinators are extremely active this month so don’t mistake them for bad guys.



All last year’s flowers have gone to seed. Maybe you collected some, so good job. You can sow collected seed or come by Tree of Life for some fresh seed in October. For now, like the soil waiting for rain (it’s too early to be talking about rain), just be patient.

The lovely tawny summer seed heads of Saint Catherine’s lace, Eriogonum gigantem



As much as I’d like to encourage you to plant lots of stuff now, we are only about 6 weeks away from the beginning of the planting season. Best to hold off, unless you are planting in the shade or near the coast. Also, if your monarchs need milkweed, definitely plant it for them as soon as possible. Otherwise, this month you can plan, imagine and envision what you are going to plant starting September 15.

Desert pavement in coastal sage scrub, Torrey Pines State Reserve


A natural garden embodies the truth that less is more. Each plant, rock, or shadecast, even every bare space tells a story that can be woven into the imagination of the visitor. Nature is complex, but never complicated, thus simplicity in garden design allows for an intricate experience. A garden walkway of natural stepping stones takes the walker in her memory back to a trail in the mountains. She brushes the branches of a bay and is transported to Big Sur. A lizard stares her down from a boulder and memories of a desert evening come alive. The fountain might as well be a waterfall, the grass clumps a meadow.


We can make gardens that provide encounters with nature, both in reality (the rough sound of footsteps on a gravel path) and in fancy (pretending the path leads to a camp three hours away). The “camp” might in reality be a bench that looks out at a small pond. You can momentarily “see” a high Sierra lake. Nice place to sit and watch the brightly colored dragonflies vying for position over the water. Or read. Or take a nap. Then enjoy a swig of water before heading back to the house. 


It’s a high calling, building and tending nature in miniature. Let’s call it “natural horticulture” and elevate it to its proper place in our society, for those who practice it make our world a better place. Let’s answer the call and do this.

Hey, we made it!


From the August Garden,

Mike Evans

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