The summer garden in Southern California requires attention, but not a lot of sweaty back breaking work – we did that in May and even June when it was cooler. Summer plants went out then and got their roots well established. So, grab a lemonade – ok, a mint julep, find a shady spot and admire your excellent work before you slip into a nap or a good book.
You say your garden is not all that cheery? You have bare spots and something has died? What will you do? Any act of planting as July slips into August is an act of deeper desperation. As summer warms, it’s harder to coax plants to a good start. The key is to make sure the roots stay moist – not soppy wet, but not dry either. Especially on windier days – the combination of our low humidity and the hot dry winds, sucks moisture out of plants just as badly as it does your skin. If your skin is crinkling because of dryness, you can bet your bottom bass string your plants need an extra shot of water.
Some plants should not be put out at this time of year no matter what. Planting California Natives this time of year is akin to planting basil or violets in New York in the middle of winter; there it’s the cold that knocks ‘em dead, and here it’s the heat and lack of water. As summer wears on, the chances of getting summer annuals to survive and flourish gets more dicey. You can set them out, even in August or September, but at what cost? You’ll need to water profusely and they will croak in a few months once cooler weather approaches. Most long-lived plants need to have a few cooler months to get established before they are sent into the heat of a Los Angeles summer. If you are closer to the ocean’s influence, all this is mitigated. As you get further from the sea breeze, the harshness of the summer is more pronounced.
The next time to plant in Southern California is late September. To mitigate the heat, put down a lot of mulch. "Mulch" is a protective covering put over the soil. It can be anything from plastic (shudder) to cocoa shells. When I speak of mulch, I am referring to some sort of plant material like rotting leaves, shredded bark, or compost. There are all kinds of products you can buy in bags at the nursery or home improvement store labeled compost, planting mix or mulch. Cover your garden as deeply as you possibly can (two inches or more) with this stuff and you will do yourself and your plants a big favor. The longer you procrastinate this important step the hotter it will be when you finally get around to it.
This is all part and parcel of a good gardener’s ethic – that green thumb comes from paying attention to our place in the world – the cycles of our climate and the needs of the plants we put in the ground. In Los Angeles we have such a mild climate that we cut corners and still slide by, but that doesn’t mean your plants LIKE it. And using excess water to correct for bad timing is still a waste of a valuable resource. Just because we can, doesn’t make it acceptable.
We could pave the Los Angeles River, and at a point in the past, we did. Now Friends of the Los Angeles River are busy remaking that river a viable ecosystem that contributes to the entire city by fostering nature within the urban landscape and revitalizing the plant and animal communities that have existed in the LA basin long before any Europeans arrived. I’m not suggesting you only need to plant California Native plants, although I am a big proponent of them, but even if we are going to garden with plants from other areas, we can be mindful of their impact on the environment.
A lot of the American folk music tradition is devoted to the 1930’s and the hardships of the farming families that were uprooted in the dust bowls and the drought that wrecked havoc on much of America’s farming communities. The drought would have come anyway, but the practices of farming at that time were as much to blame for the dust storms that killed hundreds of people and millions of animals. We have fallen into that same hubris and arrogance in our relationship to our native land.
Pick a few of those Meyer lemons from your neighbor’s tree (they won’t mind) and with a sip of homegrown lemonade, sing along with some local song crafters, like Fur Dixon and Steve Werner, about life in Southern California. Let’s be ever mindful of the need for stewardship in this landscape we call Los Angeles and honor the place we call home.
Grandson of a Great Plains farmer, David King is the Garden Master at the Learning Garden, on the campus of Venice High School. He shares his love of the land and music through teaching, writing and playing in a folk/country band.