In general, gardeners are an optimistic lot, and usually our optimism pays off… eventually. After nearly three years of meager winter rains coupled with extreme summer heat, we are now experiencing a “great” rain year, with repeated soakings and copious precipitation that will provide deep moisture for our plants well into summer and beyond. We have almost 19” and counting in the record books for this season – with more season to come and a forecast for a rainy March. Our gardens and our natural areas are seemingly happy, which should make us happy.
Current events, history, review, and notes
Our generous rains this season have been interspaced with enough sunny weather to really give plants a good jump on spring. Even in the big cold storms (unless you’re at the mouth of a canyon), most of the water is soaking in. Where runoff is occurring, the water is finding its way down to a dry creek bed and the groundwater is being bountifully recharged. And not a moment too late, for the ground down deep was pretty parched and water tables were going dry. This is how winter is supposed to work.
Good job on providing Deep Soaks for your entire garden over the last few weeks, by the way. Looks like you’re starting to get the hang of it. Take notes. When we get an inch or so of rain over a 3-day period, that is exactly what a summertime Deep Soak should look like when we use the sprinklers. But for now, of course, sprinklers are not in use.
Related to Watering
Try to get new plants in the ground just before or during a rain event.
Spring is fast approaching. With the rain and the sun and the rain and the sun, new growth might be a little “floppy,” especially on soft branched plants like sage, buckwheat, sunflower, and sagebrush. They tend to flower a little later in the season, so some judicious tip pruning right now will make them bushier and their flowers will be showier. Be careful on Salvia to not cut the branch tips if they are already forming flower buds. Woody shrubs like ceanothus, manzanita, toyon, lemonade berry, sugarbush, cherry, etc. do not need any pruning this month. We will do some thinning and shaping in May.
Keep yanking out those weeds, especially those pesky grasses. With the saturated soil, pulling weeds should be easy.
Mulching / Top Dress
No need to import any mulch now. If you have a particularly low, wet area and you’re tired of the puddle, you might apply some coarse mulch (1/2” redwood bark), just to solve the problem and make the garden a little tidier. As far as your plants are concerned, they would prefer to make their own topdressing by dropping leaves straight down onto the soil above their roots.
Plants take up nutrients from the soil, transferring it from their roots to their stems, leaves, and flowers, and they put those nutrients to use via sunlight and air. This is incomprehensibly wonderful! Nutrients (plant foods) are supplied through the minerals present in soils as well as through the decomposition of organic matter in the soil. This is unimaginably fantastic! In wild places, native plants are often distributed where they thrive, based mainly on the physical, chemical, and biological qualities of the soil. And they thrive with no “feeding” done by humans. This is absolutely marvelous!
In natural gardens, we assemble plants from many different ecosystems, and we often ask them to grow in dramatically graded sites where soil quality has been (to say the least), compromised. And there is a school of thought that says native plants do not need any fertilizer. Ever. In any situation. This is completely preposterous! We feed our natural gardens because they are gardens and we are gardeners. This is part of our reciprocal relationship. Like when I pet my dog, we both feel good, same when I scatter some fertilizer on my plants. This is satisfactory.
Native plants are super efficient at taking up nutrients, sometimes even in poor soils, and their growing times are linked to the weather, so they do not need or want as much fertilizer, or as frequent feeding as most exotic plants. Still, in nearly every case, natural gardens benefit greatly from occasional feeding, and the season is almost here. This is just stupendous!
All this to say, in regards to feeding, not yet, but soon, stay tuned. For now, I just wanted to clear up any controversy around the idea of using good horticultural practices in caring for natural gardens. Yes, feeding is a good idea. This is great news!
Spoiler alert, the right time is basically late spring and fall. More to come in future newsletters.
Disclaimer: Our lovely demonstration gardens here at Tree of Life Nursery receive no fertilizer. We never need to feed the plants growing in the ground here because we have ideal soil, natural leaf litter accumulating under all the plants, and a simulated ecosystem in place, sustaining excellent garden health… and proving that native plants are not “needy” when it comes to supplemental feeding. However, in most urban and suburban settings, because the sites have been so drastically impacted in removing topsoil, native plants appreciate an occasional boost with fertilizer. This is absolutely reasonable!
Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases
In general, March is a great time to enjoy the beauty of your natural garden. And this year, with so much rain and good winter weather, garden problems should be minimal. A gopher might show up, but hey, they never take a rest. Insects and diseases are in check this month.
We have 4” pots of around 10 species of California native wildflowers ready for planting in your garden, in case you missed the window for seed sowing last fall/winter. Blooms are starting already!
Adding New Plants
This is the best time to plant natives! As the soils start to warm, growth rates will become very impressive.
What are plants telling us this month? I think I hear them saying they are happy and that they would like to make us happy. Somehow they have figured out that flowers make us happy, so it looks like we’ll be in for an amazing (and mutually happy) spring.
Deep Soak rain
Tip pruning only
Natural top dress
Wildflowers are blooming
Flowers make us happy
Puddles, rivulets, streams, creeks, rivers. We had almost forgotten how much they did for us. Now they’re back and we can splash through, or jump over, or wade across, or just sit and watch… water. Surface water is back in southern California and it looks as if there’s more coming… more rain in the forecast and eventually snowmelt from the high country as the season progresses.
In garden design, we call it “live” water when it is moving, as it does in a fountain, a constructed rock spring, a waterfall, or a gentle recirculating flow into a pond. In the present wet winter/spring time, let’s enjoy natural “live” water at every opportunity, and allow each encounter to etch an image into our hearts, so we can recall that beauty forever, and so we can build little models in our natural gardens. “Live” water in our gardens literally engages all five senses, evoking feelings of serenity, calm, reflection, hope, and the assurance of all things necessary for life itself.
Soon enough, our natural landscape all around will be back to its characteristic dry look. But as long as we have surface water to look at, especially if it is moving, we can peer in and actually see deep into our very essence, for water is life.
Signing off now. I’m going to go out and play in a puddle and a stream.
Hey, we’re smack dab in the middle of spring! Let’s keep makin’ it!
From the MARCH Natural Garden,
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