Officially (and we mean to be official whenever we can), the rain season in California is the period July 1 through June 30. We’re here to report that (officially) the precipitation recorded at Tree of Life for the season 2022-23 totaled 25.40”. This large number will stand out for a long time and will eventually help maintain our so-called “average” of 12”, when some future season produces a paltry total of 6 or 8”.
July. We are smack dab in the middle of summer. In California, our year includes a 6 – 7 month period in which we get virtually no rain, (April/May through October/November). This rainless time, extending from late spring through early fall, is not defined by the word “drought.” It is the classic, normal dry season, a true characteristic in each of the five Mediterranean climate regions of the world. Native plants are adapted to this extended season of long day length and extreme heat with no rain. Interestingly, all these unique climate zones and the plant adaptations found in them are greatly influenced by their proximity to the sea.
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Unprecedented in July, Matilija poppy is still gorgeous, in full bloom with some flower buds continuing to open. Typically they flower full in May and fade away in June. Our spring came late and stayed a long time, but did not wear out her welcome. Summer is on the front porch a-fixin’ to come in (with one foot in the door.) We have had plenty of time to get ready for him, so here are a few tips to make his stay enjoyable (and not stressful) for you and your plants. Our natural gardens, properly planned, planted, and maintained, will thrive in every season.
Water is lost from the soil through transpiration (through the plant) and evaporation. Native plants are pretty thrifty when it comes to transpiration. Evaporation takes place based on sun, exposure, temperature, and wind. You add new water to the soil when the moisture level becomes low, but do not wait until everything is bone dry and the plants have reached their wilting point.
About 7 or 8 years ago (who’s counting?), we invented the protocol and coined the term – “Deep Soak with Refreshing Sprinkles,” and even started capitalizing it a few years back because the title seems to have stuck. We have defined it several times in this monthly newsletter, and many of you have it memorized and are employing this technique to keep your natural gardens thriving through summer.
Here it is again, for review, or for those who are not yet familiar:
We don’t really water plants, rather, we put water in the soil so plants can find it and use it as they need it. With native plants, rainfall suffices through the cool season in most years. To keep the garden lush and green we can apply additional water in summer. The total amount we add to our natural rain is not very much (about 6-10”), and our method for applying it is completely unconventional.
DEEP SOAK Defined- Infrequent and deep. Our goal is to maintain optimum soil moisture at a soil depth of 12-18” where most of the hard working feeder roots do their job. Keeping the root system moist, but not waterlogged is our number one goal. Obviously, immediately after a Deep Soak, the soil around the plant (root zone) will be waterlogged, with little or no air taking up the pore spaces around the soil particles. That’s ok for a few minutes, but ideally, air follows the water into the soil, and soon there is the perfect combination of water and oxygen that the roots need.
REFRESHING SPRINKLES Defined – Frequent and superficial. We want to keep the leaves and soil surface fresh and clean, thus preserving the moisture down deep and relieving stress on the plants during particularly warm periods.
The technique of combining these two activities is applicable to “established gardens,” those that have grown a contiguous network of roots, so that by watering the entire area, you are putting water where all the roots can find it. For new plantings, see the next section “Related to Watering.”
DEEP SOAK Explained – Try to remember one of those wonderful rain events last spring when we got 1.5” of rain, in showers, over a three day period. Good memories. A Deep Soak basically mimics a springtime rainfall of 1-2”. Here’s how to do it:
Sprinkler system: Determine how much water your sprinkler system delivers. Look up the make and model number of your sprinkler heads/nozzles. The factor is called the “precipitation rate” and it is expressed in “inches per hour.” For conventional spray heads, you’re looking at 1-2”, a big range. For the newer heads designed to “save” water, the precip. rates are more like .5-1” per hour. Another way to know is to place some wide mouthed cans or jars in random spots in your garden. Run your sprinklers for 15 minutes, measure the water in the cans, take an average, do the math and you’ll know your precip. rate. Or just guess based on the info above.
For easy math, let’s assume your sprinkler system puts out 1” precipitation per hour. Your goal is to put approximately 1.5” (between 1 and 2” depending on where you live, the higher amount for inland stations) of water onto your garden every 3-5 weeks during the dry season. So you need to run the sprinklers for 1.5 hours or more. Not tenable. Much of the water would likely run off, puddle, blow in the wind, and be wasted. Also, natives do not want that long duration of ambient moisture in summer. Besides, what would the neighbors say?!?
So you choose a relatively cool period (before a forecasted heatwave) and run your sprinklers for 20-30 minutes each day for three consecutive days. Early in the morning is imperative. Thus you will be replicating a three-day rain storm, and all the water will soak deep into the soil. This should suffice for a month or more, meaning that your garden will get between three and five Deep Soaks per year.
Watering by hand: For manually setting hose-end sprinklers in your garden, the same principle applies; 1-2” of water will soak down 14” or more in most soils, providing the soil is not bone dry when you start. As stated above: Our goal is to maintain optimum soil moisture at a soil depth of 12-18” where most of the hard working feeder roots do their job.
REFRESHING SPRINKLES Explained – It is imperative that Refreshing Sprinkles be done in addition to Deep Soaks. They are fun and easy. Fun because you get to see your garden a few times a week. Easy because you’re just squirting water. Go out at the end of the day, late afternoon or early evening and spray down your entire garden with a pistol sprayer on your garden hose. Wet all the leaves and the soil surface, effectively cooling everything down instantly. If you want full effect, turn the spray directly overhead and take a quick end-of-day garden shower to see how your plants are feeling. No water is entering the root zone, so this is not an irrigation. But plants can take up water through their leaves, so this technique makes the roots’ job a little easier, keeps the plants clean and turgid, freshens the top dress or mulch, and just feels right. Do it a couple times a week or more after the heat of the day and in time so the leaves will be dry by nightfall. Your garden will tell you how often. It only takes about 5 minutes. And oh yeah, expect a few hummingbirds to fly in for a quick bath.
Related to Watering
New plantings, establishing new plants in the summertime –
Just like kids and puppy dogs, gardens need a lot more attention at first, and much less vigilance as they mature, allowing for more genuine interaction and a mutual appreciation.
DEEP SOAK New Plants: Basically hand watering and hitting every plant with the soft rain nozzle on the end of the hose, wetting the soil right at the plant (nursery root ball) and in the irrigation on the soil surface around the plant, ideally hidden by the top dress or mulch, (outside the root ball). You increasingly widen the area you water to coax the roots into the moist soil outside the original planting hole.
Do your Deep Soak in the morning (before 9am) approximately once every 5-8 days. Go around and test the soil moisture right under several plants in different sections of the garden. If it is cool and moist to the touch 2″ down, do not do a Deep Soak. If it is starting to feel warm and dry to the touch, perform a Deep Soak. (Later, if you notice that certain large plants are not needing a Deep Soak so frequently, you can skip them now and then.) Your intervals will increase in time as the plants start to mature.
REFRESHING SPRINKLES New Plants – Same as above, see REFRESHING SPRINKLES Explained.
You can trim some fast growing branch tips to shape a few shrubs, but you should have finished most of your pruning by now. No hard pruning in summer. You might see a need for some clean up on dead flowers in August, because so many natives are still in bloom as late as July this year.
Never. Stop. Weeding.
Mulching / Top Dress
No new mulch imported in summer. As mature plants lose leaves (i.e. coffeeberry dropping a few leaves from the interior of its branches), allow them to remain in place… the plant is making its own top dress.
No fertilizer in summer.
Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases
See last month’s newsletter for information on Manzanita leaf gall aphid. Summer is the ideal time for you to observe and document the balance of beneficials (garden allies) and injurious plant pests. If your neighbors are constantly irrigating their ordinary landscapes, you may have to deal with their snails and their ants, moving into your place. Oh the woes of a suburban life!
By now your super bloom is a super seed set. We have been discussing how to save seed in the last few newsletters. Germination in fall is only about 15 weeks away. Oh the joys of a wild life!
Adding New Plants
Anything you plant in summer will require extra attention, so you have to be very diligent regarding water and specialized care. Hand water all new plants until winter. If we get an extreme heat wave, provide a temporary shade tent for your new plants. Just stick a couple leaves of the ever present Mexican fan palm in the ground to prevent your new plants from getting scorched. Summer planting on the coast is always safe. If inland, it’s best to work in the shade. And don’t forget desert plants! If they fit into your theme, they can be handled in summer. Come on over, we have something for every situation.
Harmony. It’s a wonderful thing. Four singers, singing in unison, make a pretty sound, but give them parts, and have them sing in harmony and it’s nothing less than amazing. It is what we are seeing (and hearing) in our gardens this month. The generous winter, long spring, and cool start to summer have allowed our plants to really learn and practice their parts, so their harmony is absolutely perfect this year.
Rain for the record books
Deep Soak – mornings, infrequent, thorough
Refreshing Sprinkles – evenings, frequent, superficial
New plants – hand water
OK careful tip pruning
No mulching (let the plants do it themselves)
Create a biotic balance
Seeds are on hold
New plants – intensive care
I have found that gardening on my knees is truly one of my favorite activities. There’s something sacred about that posture, but also, observing everything up-close, absorbing each subtle sound, the unique feel of soil and plants in my hands, and the rich scents that waft in deep enough to affect even my taste buds; this wholly sensory experiment in simplicity, crawling around to accomplish a few elemental tasks, proves sublimely satisfactory.
When I’m finished, I might be a little slower to get to my feet than a while back (stiffness), and I might have to walk around a little stooped over for a few steps, but eventually everything returns to normal. In summer I tend to wear shorts every day, so my wife often asks, “Why are your knees so dirty?” My answer? “My best gardening is done on my knees.”
Hey, we’re really makin’ it now!
From the JULY in the Natural Garden,
Questions? Help is just one call or one email away. Call (949) 728-0685 or email (with pictures if you like) our special helpline: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. SUMMER SOLSTICE 2023, June 21
back at camp after a hike
returning a little before dark
for getting cleaned up,
a few chores, dinner and tea
long day of light today
the longest since this day
now they will be turning shorter
with nights crawling into their space
very dark now
a couple nights ago, new moon
lots of stars, but fewer of interest
that’s how I see it anyway
at least it’s not cold
a light bag, no tent, my wool cap still
in from the south, a seasonal friend
scampers o’er the summer sky
hoping this pillow brings me sweet dreams
hearing an owl clicking her clicks in flight
some nocturnal rodent is out there
hoping simply for sunrise again