By Marcy Nielsen-Berruezo, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
It happens every year. There's a moment when suddenly I notice that the light has changed. Days are shorter and shadows are longer. Chinese pistache trees begin to turn color and the squirrels in my garden go nuts.
This is the time when savvy California gardeners perk up as it's prime time for planting in our Mediterranean climate. Planting in September and October, while the ground is still warm and rain is on its way (we fervently hope), allows new plantings to establish roots. By settling in now, these new plants will be ready for the flush of growth in spring.
Many California native plants are actually dormant in summer. Fall planting lets you enjoy their emergence from dormancy into winter growth and bloom.
I tend to use my own garden as a laboratory, researching plants and testing them to see how they do. As the drought lingers and we become more aware of the need to support the ecosystem in our gardens (and not just in the wild), I've been increasingly going native.
My goal: A garden that offers year-round beauty with minimal use of resources (water, fertilizer and the sweat of my brow). I also want a landscape that maximizes support for local native flora and fauna, including me.
I've made mistakes. I've underestimated how big a happy native plant can get and I've misjudged what happens when I over- or under-water a native. But I love seeing the change of seasons, the buzz of life and the splashes of color in my garden all year. All I need to do to nurture that rhythm is to clean up twice a year.
Many of us have responded to drought by reducing irrigation or eliminating turf in our landscapes. But drought or no drought, California has arid summers and probably always will. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, more than 50 percent of residential water use takes place outdoors. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that half of that water is wasted by inefficient and unnecessary delivery.
Plants adapted to our rainfall and temperature patterns need little or no irrigation once they're established. The University of California, in collaboration with top landscape professionals and horticulturists, has developed the Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. This online database is a useful tool for determining the actual water needs of the plants commonly used in California landscapes, grouping them by region and type.
The database gives most of our native plants two irrigation designations, one for the cool season and one for the warm season. California mountain lilac (Ceanothus species) is classified as M/L, for moderate water in winter and low water during the warm months. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) is classified as L/VL, adapted to low water in winter and very low water in summer.
In most settings, an established native plant needs (and wants) no additional water unless winter rain is scarce. Wet soil in summer can trigger oak root fungus (Armillaria mellea) and other soil-borne pathogens that can kill a stressed plant or shorten its lifespan.
A few native plants can tolerate or even benefit from occasional supplemental water in summer, and some enjoy a light hosing off (think summer shower in the foothills) or a deeper drink once a month or so. But don't overdo it. When planting, try to group plants with similar needs for sunlight, drainage and water.
In deciding where to place natives in your garden, picture where they grow in the natural landscape. California has a wide range of habitats and ecosystems, elevations and soils. A plant adapted to a shady streambed or redwood forest will have different needs than one adapted to open oak savannah or dry chaparral. Finding or creating the microclimate they like will help native plants live a long, healthy life.
Native plants have evolved to resist local pests and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides or other interventions. In fact, beneficial insect species have evolved along with the natives, timing their egg-laying and brood-hatching to munch on pesky invaders.
You may need to put up with a few chewed or distorted new leaves until the beneficial species tie on their little capes and swoop to the rescue. A little toleration goes a long way in letting a garden find its ecological balance. If you must intervene, use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices for the least intrusive approach. Look online (http://ipm.ucanr.edu/) for the University of California's IPM recommendations.
Consider leaving some seed heads, berries and dormant vegetation to provide food and shelter for over-wintering birds and beneficial insects. You'll enjoy the life and movement in your garden and nature will thank you.
Choose plants that bring year-round interest, varying bloom times or offering winter leaf color and berries. Know each plant's mature size before planting. Less pruning means less work for you, less stress for the plant and less waste in the recycling stream.
Include a diversity of species to more closely mimic nature and make it less likely that pests will thrive. Notice what thrives in your area. If a plant is happy in nature and you can replicate that environment in your garden, you can bring the feel of nature home.
Native Plant Sale: U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa will have an information table at the California Native Plant Society Napa Chapter's plant sale on Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Skyline Park in Napa. The preview party for CNPS members and guests is Friday, October 14, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Skyline Park.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.