Tropical storm Hilary gave us a few days of anticipatory clouds and one day of solid rain, but, locally anyway, we escaped catastrophic damage. It seemed that everyone just wisely battened down the hatches and patiently rode out the storm. It felt like a throwback to spring 2020 when we all stayed inside.
Just as with the atmospheric rivers that devastated NoCal over the winter, San Diegans were again fortunate to be on the edge of the phenomena. Gentle, steady rain replenished the water throughout the soil profile, making optimal conditions for plant growth. This pattern made for a phenomenal winter, particularly for newly- planted landscapes, that went nuts!
I often reassure my clients that the first year is about survival, the second is about establishment, where the action is all underground, and it's only by the third year that things take off and you start to see the realization of the garden design. But this past season was all three in one year!
A frenzy of wildflowers, May 2023. Native landscape planted May 2022.
If you have an established landscape, my post-Hilary rx is to turn off the water until Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly known as Columbus Day, Oct. 10). As the soil dries, roots will follow the available water and grow deeper into the soil, building resiliency. If you planted your garden this Spring, you should be able to hold off watering until mid-September, but check your soil water levels after Labor Day.
If you are in the design phase and/or preparing your landscape for a Fall install, you can anticipate a great new bunch of weeds to kill before we plant. Conditions should be perfect in three weeks for the most environmentally benign weed control method that I've talked with you about. Killing the weeds before they set seed reduces the soil seed bank and will make your landscape maintenance a bit easier in the coming years.
It looks like we're looking at another El Nino this winter. If our luck holds, that portends another year of excellent conditions for establishing a new native landscape. This is a great time to plan (design) your garden for a November planting date, in hopes of more favorable weather to establish a native landscape that will be resilient to the inevitable weather extremes that we will face from our rapidly-heating global climate.
In recognition of Earth Day, I'm inviting you to take a short self-guided wildflower walk around my University Heights neighborhood.
This is a lightly-edited version of my "Nature in the Neighborhood" column for the May issue of the University Heights newsletter. Wildflowers are ephemeral wonders, and the flowers have already changed a bit since I wrote the article, so this is a good reason to share this a bit early.
With so much to lament about the state of the Earth, here's a little bit of joy.
Wildflowers – native plants that grow from seeds or bulbs and flower, seed, and die (or die back) in one year are getting harder to find. A century ago, wildflower fields could still be found near Pasadena; by the 1940s, the Inland Empire was the place, and since the 1970s it takes a trip to the desert. So, seeing wildflowers in our own neighborhood is a treat. Let’s take a tour to see these remnants of California’s past.
Please look don’t’ pick, so others can enjoy and they can reproduce.
Start your tour with a native garden at 4510 Campus Blvd, just north of Monroe.
There's a lot going on here, but look for a native bulb, Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum), with clusters of light purple flowers at the tip of long, narrow stems looming above the other plants.
Next head over to another great native garden, at 4480 Cleveland Ave. Two more native bulbs are growing in the yard. Wild Onion (Allium haemochiton) has balls of tiny white flowers and erect linear leaves (they do taste like onion). Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) has purple flowers with a yellow center. It’s not actually a grass, but a member of the Iris family.
Two native bulbs are growing in the yard. Wild Onion (Allium haemochiton) has balls of tiny white flowers and erect linear leaves (they do taste like onion). Blue-Eyed Grass has purple flowers with a yellow center. It’s not actually a grass, but a member of the Iris family. Finally, look for the deep blue flowers of Grand Phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora), the showiest of this diverse genus of small shrubs and wildflowers.
Heading over to the corner of Meade and Cleveland (passing lots of native monkey flowers on the way), you’ll find a semi-wild patch of natives on the northwest corner. Look for the Wild Hyacinths springing up here.
Continuing on the way to The Point you’ll pass a bed with California Poppies (Eschscholtzia californica), the ubiquitous (but delightful) exception to the rule about wildflowers being scarce. As you walk in the Open Space Park, you’ll see lots of yellow and orange flowers – these are all invasive weeds, and why wildflowers are in decline. Rancher’s Fireweed (Amsinckia menziesii) is the exception – it is indeed weedy, but it’s a native. It’s related to the Phacelias: both have flowers that emerge as a “fiddlehead” unrolls. Look for it around the Olive in the center.
End your tour by stepping into the wild just beyond the fence on the trail. Take the path left and continue about 20 feet. To your left, look for the delicate purple flowers of Nuttall’s Snapdragon (Antirhinnum nuttallianum). The crust of mosses and lichens indicate ground that hasn’t been disturbed for a while – let’s keep it that way. To your right, you may see more Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum).
Native wildflowers are a wonderful addition to any drought-tolerant garden. Inevitably, most commercial wildflower mixes are going to contain a mix of quick-germinating common species from different habitat types. You'll probably get something to come up, but these are generally lowest-common denominator species. Tree of Life Nursery in Orange County (https://californianativeplants.com/blog/wildflowers-seed-mixes/) offers wildflower mixes for species habitats or uses, and this is a big improvement.
I include wildflowers in some of my landscape designs, particularly for areas without a bark mulch. In addition to being able to specify a particular wildflower seed, I've created my own custom seed mixes featuring plants with similar flower colors that geminate at different times in the spring and summer. This lets me create specific effects in a garden that can complement the pattern of the native shrubs.
It may not match the thrill of finding a delicate wildflower peeking out from an open spot during a hike in the local hills, but bringing wildflowers into your personal landscape may be the next best thing.
Monarch Butterflies are amazing and in trouble. People who are trying to help them can actually do more harm than good if they’re not careful. Let's take a closer look at the weird, wonderful world of Monarch Butterflies.
The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a truly wonderful creature, famously migrating thousands of miles to the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico where they spend the winter and breed. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (sometimes even to the 5th generation) work their way back north to their ancestral summer homes, following the sun as a compass, using an internal (Circadian) clock in their antennae(!) to adjust for the daily movement of the sun across the sky. All this with a brain the size of a pinhead!
They take it relatively easy on the return trip, timing their journeys so they can lay eggs on emerging milkweed that the caterpillars then feed on as the spring rolls northward. This in itself is amazing, because Monarchs have evolved to feed on otherwise toxic plants (the “milk” in milkweed is a cardiac glycoside), which makes the juicy caterpillars thoroughly disgusting to any bird that dares to take a bite.
Monarchs west of the Rockies prefer to spend the winter on the California coast, where they can make direct flights, rather than the multi-generation roundtrip to Mexico. But they’re no less amazing and in just as much danger.
Overall, Monarch populations are down about 80% from where they were in the 1980s, mostly due to changes in farming, but also from habitat loss and (coming up fast) climate change. Farmers used to leave hedgerows on the edge of their fields (a remnant of the response to the 1930s Dust Bowl) that provided habitat for weeds, including milkweed. These have largely been eliminated to maximize production and profit.
Western Monarchs have declined as much as their brethren. The first count by the Xerces Society volunteers (https://xerces.org/monarchs) in 1997 found 1¼ million butterflies; this was likely already significantly down from previous decades. In 2020, fewer than 2,000 western Monarchs were spotted; they’ve bounced back to nearly 250,000 this winter, but the trend is bleak.
The huge masses of Monarchs that cover trees are found mostly between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, but ten thousand used to hang out at UCSD, with thousands more at sites from Carlsbad to La Jolla, and even hundreds in Balboa Park. This winter, none of these places counted in the double digits, except for Torrey Pines (91), and strangely, a tomato field at Camp Pendleton, with a thousand.
The #1 thing you can do to help the Monarch butterfly is to eat (and wear) organic, thus reducing the acreage of agriculture fields using neonics and providing more safe places for the caterpillars to feed. But most of us want to do something more direct, where we might actually see the butterflies we’ve saved flying around our yard.
So head right over to your local garden supply store, buy some milkweed plants, and wait for the Monarchs to show up, right? It’s a bit more complicated.
More striking than Mesa Verde is Chaco Canyon, the apparent ceremonial center of the Puebloan culture and hub of a trading network that extended from today’s Los Angeles to Mexico City. Jared Diamond, in Collapse, discussed the viscous cycle of deforestation, drops in groundwater levels, flash floods, deepening arroyos, and crop failures that brought about their gradual, but inexorable decline.
It apparently took about 400 years for people to completely abandon Chaco Canyon. It must have been like the proverbial lobster in the slowly heating pot. Of course, they weren’t dealing with global warming that’s turned the burner up to High. In the meantime, I'd love to help you to respond to our changing climate, and create something beautiful at the same time.
In talking with people about native plant landscaping, I often encounter folks who assume one or another drought-tolerant species must be a native plant. They’re surprised when I tell them that the plant comes from Australia or South Africa (for example). It’s a common mistake to equate drought-tolerant or “California friendly” plants with California natives*, but they’re not the same and can have very different impacts beyond the garden.
Kangaroo Paw is a drought-tolerant native -- of Australia.
I usually won’t include drought-tolerant non-natives in your design unless they’re already established in your landscape. I’ll say something like “I haven’t studied that species, so I don’t know how it fits in with the other natives I’d use in the design.” I select plants based on having compatible light, water, drainage, and flowering periods, as well as how they work together aesthetically, and I lack the same level of expertise with other species. But I could have devoted some attention to get to know these plants’ niches in the landscape, yet I haven’t. That’s because I fear that many so-called “California friendly” plants might turn out to be quite unfriendly to our natural environment in the long run.
To understand my thinking, you need to know that I’ve spent a couple decades doing botanical surveys in natural areas around southern California and I’m familiar with the devastating effects invasive species have on native plants and wildlife. Many species that are now choking out natural habitats were deliberately introduced for some reason – giant reed was planted for erosion control, eucalyptus were introduced for railroad ties – without considering their long-term effects.
Giant reed and tamarisk replace native willow forest.
These invasive species typically aren’t a problem for a few decades then the population just seems to take off, with higher densities where they’re already established and rapid spread into new areas. Suddenly, the species is everywhere and can only be controlled with massive, expensive effort (which doesn’t materialize on underfunded public lands). How does this happen?
When non-native plants are introduced into a new environment the insects and microbes that feed on them are not. This gives the novel species a competitive advantage over their native neighbors, which only grows with each new generation. Seedlings that spend less energy on defenses against their herbivores and parasites (who are no longer in the picture) can devote more energy to growth and seed production. Over several generations they lose more and more of these metabolically expensive defense mechanisms and use the energy to grow and spread faster. Then they escape the garden and we realize that we have a problem.
Pampas grass, popular in the garden, also thrives in meadows and near streams.
In southern California, the worst habitat degradation so far has been in riparian (stream side) areas, where water-loving ornamentals, such as Pampas grass and Mexican fan palm have displaced native trees, shrubs, and vines. Intact coastal sage scrub and chaparral have fared better so far (except when non-native grasses invade after fire), but a look at any local canyon and will show invasive species eating away at the habitat from the edges.
I fear that with widespread planting of drought-tolerant ornamentals we will repeat the same devastating process in upland habitats that has already occurred along our streams and rivers. So, I avoid “California friendly” plants because I don’t want future nature lovers to curse me with the same vehemence that I’ve used on the benighted people responsible for the invasive species that currently plague us.
Mexican Sage -- in the garden today, in the canyons tomorrow?
*Note: Be Water Wise’s Top Ten California Friendly plants are all native; The Garden’s list contains both native and non-natives.