The Worst of Times, the Best of Times

White currant going summer dormant
Let's be honest A California summer garden that's watered very little (or not at all) is not the prettiest of sights. And while the rains last season were quite adequate, they did not even come close to making up for several years of extreme drought. I was quite struck by a talk by Jay Famiglietti this spring in which he discussed issues around water in California. And his message was clear: Water as little as possible.

California native plants have different strategies for coping with the dry season - and regrettably, summer dormancy is a fairly popular one. The white currant above doubled in size during the rains - then it was unable to hang on to that much new growth. I've cut it back, and I'm hoping it comes back in the fall.

Monkey flower semi-dormant in summer
Monkey flowers are so popular for their beautiful, profuse flowers - but even in part sun, the monkey flower above looks unsightly even after I pruned the top 50%.

Many other plants drop many of their leaves and grow a new set. For example, my Cleveland sage - they grey plant in the background behind the buckwheat - now has leaves that are much smaller and more hairy to help it through the long sunny days.

CA native buckwheat (center) Cleveland sage (left) and Pajaro manzanita (right)
So, what's a gardener to do? Here are my strategies.

Ignore it!
Yes, with the neighbors dry lawns my garden doesn't look bad at all. And while the currant and monkey flowers are more brown than I like, having enough green and flowering plants in the garden helps move the eye away from the sore spots. Below, the yellow flowers and interesting fruit stands of the bladderpod take the eye away from the monkey flower in the background.


Embrace it!
This season more than ever I've done my best to let the annuals go to seed - and that included placing little "bouquets" of dry sticks on the ground where I want more flowers. Collecting seeds requires more time and energy than I have. Let's just do it mother nature's way...

Clarkia stalks in front of perennial goldenrod
Yes, my pitcher sages really don't like the long dry summer - but they were so stunning and green last spring that I'm thinking of this as a dry flower arrangement. And with enough green in the background, it' doesn't look bad. 

I water the front garden by hand every 3 weeks, really more a rinse than a watering, so I'm actually impressed it's doing as well as it is.

Pitcher sage, summer dormant
Enjoy it!
Finally, especially in summer, location is important. While some of the monkey flowers are looking pretty dismal, others, under a shade-cloth pergola, look pretty decent - the hummingbirds are happy!

And the buckwheats are doing their best to bring some cheer to the summer garden. Not to mention the pollinators and butterflies that visit the garden all the time. For the critters, there is a difference between a dead lawn and a mix of semi-dormant and blooming CA natives!

Buckwheat in background, iris leaves in foreground
This year, we even have berries on the "Claremont" current that bloomed so spectacularly this spring. They're tasty in a mouth-puckering sort of way, and I have one or two each time I walk by. 

The greatest joy, however, is still to see the birds and butterflies come by for a visit, enjoying the garden with us. Another reason to have a garden that's a little bit messy, a little bit bedraggled, a little bit wild. 

Juncos enjoying seeds of the lavender and Cleveland sage


Ed Morrow said…
Greetings from a very smokey Carmel Valley.

Actually the garden doesn't look half bad.
Given that we're almost into August, the eriogonum, sage, manzanita combination looks pretty good. Even the pitcher sage has some visual interest.

Do you prune the Cleveland sage? If so, when?

Have you seen Olivier Filippi's "Planting Design for Dry Gardens". Filippi works in an environment very similar to ours - southern France. His book is of the "how to rip out the lawn" genre. He has some very interesting ideas. For example, establishing zones ranging from a modest use of water close in, to no water at all further away from the house. He works with a mostly Mediterranean plant palette, but I bet that someone with plant knowledge more extensive than mine could achieve the same effects with California natives. The book also has sections on establishing and maintaining a summer dry garden.

All the Best,
Ed Morrow
Carmel Valley