Our season of record rain amounts is drawing to a close. At Tree of Life, we recorded an unprecedented (nearly) 25” of precipitation, and these copious rains of 2022-23 have been very kind to native plants everywhere… in wild places and in garden spaces… abundant flowers, on both spring annuals and shrubs, and lots of new growth. This month we continue the enjoyment as we begin to methodically prepare for summer.
Current events, history, review, and notes
By review, we recognize six seasons in a year’s natural cycles.
Fall – October, November – rains commence, many garden tasks, fall flowers.
Winter – December, January – rain, short cool days, calming dormancy, winter flowers.
Spring – February, March, April – more rain, birds, butterflies, life abounds, abundant flowers.
Pre-Summer – May – farewell cool and moist, hello hot and dry, transition month.
Summer – June, July, August – judicious watering, long hot days, seeds, summer blooms.
Post-Summer – September – farewell hot and dry, hello cool and moist, transition month.
We are entering our one-month season called Pre-summer.
Start thinking about irrigation. This summer you will resume the recommended hand watering on new plants complimented by our now famous “Deep Soak with Refreshing Sprinkles” Method. If your garden soils are starting to become a little dry on the surface, an occasional Refreshing Sprinkle might suffice through May, thus delaying your first Deep Soak until June. Every garden is different… soil, exposure, weather, plants, theme, objective. If we get any decent rain in May, the date for your first Deep Soak of the season will be delayed until even later.
Related to Watering
We’ll write more about watering as we get into summer, but here’s a quick review of the terms so you can be thinking about it, as you mentally prepare for hot days ahead.
Deep Soak: Applying the equivalent of 1-1.5” precipitation over the entire garden, usually with a sprinkler system or hose end mini sprinkler. Typically this is achieved by watering on 2 or 3 consecutive days in the early morning, so that the water soaks deep into the soil. Usually you run the sprinklers about 20–40 minutes a day for 2-3 days in a row. Deep soaks are done approximately every 4-6 weeks on established gardens, dry season only.
Refreshing Sprinkles: Applying water, by hand, only to the leaves and the surface of the soil, in a quick “spray down,” late in the afternoon, thereby cooling the overall environment, washing the leaves, and refreshing the plants at the end of the day. Refreshing Sprinkles can be done by spraying down the garden for 5-10 minutes, once or twice a week, or as often as necessary, especially during hot weather in summer.
After so much rain, and as the days grow longer and warmer, we’re seeing abundant new growth on just about every plant. In gardens, this may result in overloaded, top heavy, or out of proportion top growth. May is the ideal month for thinning and heading back, to shape and prepare the plants for summer. By pruning now, you will promote one more flush of new growth before the plants start hardening off for the hot season. And you will be preventing broken branches and floppy plants by removing excess weight. By pruning now, you are reducing the overall leaf mass, so the plants will not have to support such luxuriant growth during the long hot days of summer.
I’m assuming you have been keeping up on the weeds (weeding)… You have been keeping up on the weeds, right?… so, if you have been weeding diligently throughout the wet season, then you can skip to the next section. If not, you know what to do. Pull weeds. It’s getting critical. Don’t wait until after they go to seed.
Mulching / Top Dress
As you know, our number one favorite organic mulch is the natural leaf litter that accumulates as various plants lose and replace their leaves during their growth cycles. Our second favorite organic mulch or topdress is any clean, bark product that is basically ”chunky,” i.e. 1/2-5/8” redwood bark chips that can be imported to your garden from an outside source. Place it approximately 1 to 2” thick and do not mound it up around the stems.
Also, don’t forget mineral (inorganic) top dress materials like decomposed granite or stone aggregates. Place mineral mulches about 1” thick. Consider using various materials with natural earth tones and colors to make your soil surface look like nature, complimenting your garden’s narrative.
May is a good month to bring in a new mulch or to freshen up an old topdress, as needed. Do so after pruning and a thorough weeding, after feeding, and before your first deep soak of the season.
While many natural gardens receive no supplemental fertilizer, ever… and do quite well… we are not proponents of the “Hey they’re native, so just plant ‘em and leave ‘em alone,” philosophy. We believe that the reciprocal relationship, gardener with garden, is strengthened and both parties are basically healthier, when we take extra care to make our plants thrive. This month is a great time to spread some all purpose, dry, organic fertilizer on the surface, and scratch it into the top inch or so of soil with a three prong cultivator or your tool of choice, even a stick.
Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases
Lush leaves may attract various insects as the days get longer. Gophers are out(?) (hidden underground) in force this year. Plant diseases are in check during this season, but we need to keep our plants deep rooted so they will be resistant to root rot in August/September. If you have any specific problems with varmints, pests, and disease, please write to me.
If you planted seeds or plants a few months ago, the show is at its prime now, and maybe it’s just starting to fade. As the wildflowers finish blooming and start to dry, leave them in place as long as possible. When the flowers are done and seed is setting you can sort of crunch them up in handfuls of broken plants and lay them around to finish drying. In a few weeks you can either crunch them up even more and/or remove the totally dry stems and leaves, leaving all the seeds to fall to the earth.
Meticulous people have been known to collect, clean, label, and store wildflower seeds from their own garden, for sowing next fall. Others do this only with certain species, like lupines, which are easy. Most people just let the seeds fall in place for next year. Whichever method you choose, your own personal super bloom will be assured every year if you simply leave some seed behind at the end of spring.
Adding New Plants
Though the perfect season has passed, it is not too late to add new plants. May gray and June gloom allow for excellent plantings, but the key is to hand water the new plants through summer to get them to take root. Come on over. We have new plants and new plant types at Casa La Paz every day.
Note: If you’re going to do everything recommended for May you will first prune, then weed, then add a few new plants, then feed, then mulch. Then keep enjoying everything until you crunch up all the dying annuals in preparation for your first Deep Soak in June.
You know how little kids and puppy dogs (mostly) try to do well and please us because they like to be recognized and praised for good behavior? Well, plants are no different. I feel sorry for the common non-native plants in most landscapes that only get hacked back on a regular basis, this being their only contact with humans. How sad!
Our natural gardens, however, are much different. Our plants are happy. We get to walk among them and talk to them and touch and water and prune and feed and care for our plants, and they in turn get to show off and make us happy. So this season, after such amazing good plant weather, take time to recognize and praise your plants for a job well done. It will make both of you feel good.
May is Pre-Summer
Start thinking about summer watering
Prune to get ready for summer
Never. Stop. Weeding.
Mulch to get ready for summer
Feed to get ready for summer
Let your wildflowers go to seed
Plant new plants, hand water through summer
Say, “Good job!” to your plants
Over the last few weeks, the internet, news feeds, and social media have been filled with extreme photos and stories of California wildflowers in the 2023 super bloom. This is all fine and dandy, but our natural gardens, and our lovely natural areas are not to be judged all the time against a flowering phenomenon unique to a certain region in a particular season in a given year. Nature passes the test of time, and is constantly changing.
As the flowers fade, and everyone’s cameras point elsewhere, our experience in the natural world will be heightened as we observe the next cycle of dying flowers. We won’t see many headlines or selfie posts of people standing in dead flower fields. Crowds won’t gather to watch seeds setting under a hot sun, but we can be celebrating life through death. Sooner or later, maybe next year but more likely many years from now, dormant seeds will come to life and the cameras will reappear to record the next event.
I suggest we get out during the next few months to celebrate the super death and super seed set of our California wildflowers. Our memories of the super bloom are fresh and our hope for the flowers of the future is alive and well.
Hey, it’s whatever it is Let’s keep makin’ it!
From the MAY Natural Garden,
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