How to Maintain a California Native Plant Garden in the Summer

So you’ve ripped up your lawn and created a garden of native plants to conserve water and restore habitat for struggling birds and insects. But summer is coming, many of your beautiful plants are starting to shrivel up, and your neighbors are making fun of you.

Welcome summer to your new home garden, where maintenance is more about mindfulness and patience than gas-powered lawnmowers and brushcutters.

The good news: you no longer have to set aside time each week to mow your lawn (or pay someone else to do it).

The bad news: you still have to weed.

The goldfields, which bloom from March to May, will go dormant during the hot, dry summer months.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Weeding is probably the biggest and most important task you’ll face, said Bruce Schwartz, a former puppeteer and artist who now works full-time tending his property in Highland Park, a wilderness of plants native to the nearby San Rafael Hills and Verdugo Mountains. .

That’s because invasive, non-native weeds are tough, fast-moving and constantly competing for light, nutrients and water against slower-growing native plants, said Schwartz, who blogs as Eric Ameria at LA Native Plant Source.

“It’s actually a really good time of year to do corrective weeding because the wildflowers are dead and you can actually see the weeds,” Schwartz said. “You can easily see noxious weeds now because they’re green when everything else is brown.”

Generally, a weed is a plant you don’t want, said Max Kanter, owner of Saturate, a Silver Lake-based native plant care company. But for purists like Schwartz, weeds are non-native invasive plants imported during European colonization.

One of the worst culprits is the chickweed (Stellaria media), an expanding Eurasian native likely imported years ago because it’s edible and has medicinal uses, “but it’s the bane of wildflower growers,” Schwartz said. “It grows through rows faster than wildflowers, and if you don’t control it, it will smother everything in New York in a second.”

Bruce Schwartz

Bruce Schwartz sits in his native plant garden.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Other native plant enemies include the field sowthistle; dandelions, which scatter clouds of seeds once their cheerful yellow flowers have dried up; large voluminous horse grass; round-leaved milkweed; purslane; and spurge that covers the ground like thick green doilies.

A photograph from 1992 shows the yard barren compared to now with lush native plants and stairs.

A 1992 photograph shows the courtyard barren compared to now with lush native plants and stairs leading up and down the terraced courtyard.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Schwartz has been battling these weeds and other non-native plants for 30 years, since he and his late husband, Joseph, first saw the property that would become their home. They bought a 1911 Craftsman-style home that day, but for Schwartz, the biggest attraction were the huge oak trees that sprawled across the bottom of their sloping lot.

Most of the grounds were covered in trash and groves of common SoCal landscape plants — jades, ivy, vinca, and morning glory — and he has remodeled the garden ever since.

Newcomers to Schwartz’ seemingly wild landscape often look puzzled as they wander its carefully constructed rock-lined paths, he said. The ground is covered in fallen leaves and a tangle of seemingly neglected shrubs; in late spring, deciduous plants are in various stages of wilting and dying as other plants prepare to bloom.

“It feels like I’ve dug alleys into a native paradise,” Schwartz said with a smile. But a visitor eventually blurted out that she didn’t think he had a garden at all.

Bruce Schwartz immersed himself in lush vegetation of native California plants at his Eagle Rock home.

Bruce Schwartz immersed himself in lush vegetation of native California plants at his Eagle Rock home.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“She said, ‘It’s just plants that grow anywhere,'” Schwartz recalled. “For her, a wild plant is not a garden, and I understand that not everyone is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but what is ironic is that it is indeed a A garden like this takes a lot of work to keep it from being overrun by weeds.

I understand that not everyone is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but the irony is that it really is a garden.

– Bruce Schwartz, Los Angeles Native Plant Source

Her late father wouldn’t approve, Schwartz said. “When I think of my dad and his garden – well, I hesitate to call it a garden, it was basically an extension of his living room, a public space where he entertained people, and it had to be clean. is not a value judgment, it’s just a completely different way of looking at a yard. His had to be perfect – no flower could be spent, no leaf could fall to the ground and stay there. It had to be all to clean. “

But in a native garden, leaf litter is a valuable nutrient because it decomposes; it also shades the ground and helps the soil retain moisture, he said. And groves of shrubs, flowers, and trees work together to provide food and shelter for insects and pollinators that help plants spread and thrive.

Name tags identify native plants in a garden.

Name tags identify native plants in Bruce Schwartz’s garden.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m not saying we have to pull out all the exotic landscape plants in Southern California, but having a lawn or deck of roses, pansies and petunias…these are really thirsty plants that we don’t have more water. ,” he said. “So for starters, maybe I suggest you cut back your lawn and have a native plant victory garden, where the food isn’t for you, but for the wild animals that live here.”

Schwartz recommends focusing on three types of plants for this victory garden — buckwheat, sagebrush, and sagebrush, all of which have many varieties to choose from and require little to no water once established. “These three plants are bulletproof, they will survive the semi-evergreen summer, and they are amazing habitat plants,” he said. He added that if you want more color throughout the seasons, incorporate other flowering plants such as bush sunflowers, California fuchsia or easy reseeding California poppies.

A California polypody in a garden.

A California polypody in Bruce Schwartz’s native plant garden will go dormant for the summer, waiting for the fall rain.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

It’s a much better way to design a native garden, he said, “than planting a wildflower meadow in the front yard and having what looks like empty land for eight months of the year. year” when the flowers die or go dormant.

When it comes to maintaining your native garden in the summer, forget your lawn mower and leaf blower and get out a rake, hand mower, pair of gloves and a watering can, say Schwartz, Kanter and Evan Meyer , executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

Kanter and his partners at Studio Petrichor coined the term “June Groom” to help native gardeners learn how to care for their summer gardens, “because by June most wildflowers and annuals are pretty much exhausted. , so it’s a great time to groom,” he said.

A bundle of weeds

Pulling weeds is a regular task in maintaining a native garden.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Leon E. Hill