Theodore Payne California Native Plant Database

Summer Planting Tips

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New Plantings
Yes, you can plant California natives in the summer! It can prove more challenging than planting in fall and winter, but if you avoid a few potential pitfalls, your plants will be just fine.

First let it be noted that for coastal gardens, it is easy to plant most native plants any time of year. Inland gardens require special attention in summer, primarily to watering. Most native plants are adapted to wet winters and dry summers, yet in order to establish new plants in the summer, they must be watered. For this reason, the easiest plants to get established in the summer are those that can tolerate year-round moisture. This includes desert plants, riparian (streamside) plants, and grasses.

  • Desert plants
    • Atriplex species (Saltbush)
    • Fallugia paradoxa (Apache Plume)
    • Sphaeralcea ambigua (Apricot Mallow)
    • Calliandra californica, C. eriophylla (Fairy Duster)
    • Encelia farinosa, E. actonii, E. frutescens (Brittlebush)
  • Riparian Plants
    • Aquilegia formosa (Scarlet Columbine)
    • Ferns
    • Carex species (Sedges)
    • Juncus species (Rushes)
  • Grasses
    • Muhlenbergia rigens (Deergrass)
    • Aristida purpurea (Purple Three-Awn)
    • Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’
    • Festuca species

Chaparral and Coastal Sage Scrub plants
Plants in this community (Salvia, Penstemon, Artemisia, etc) may be planted as well, but careful attention to watering is crucial. Deep and infrequent watering is advised. It is important to understand that roots need both water AND air, so give new plants water periodically, but do not keep the root ball continually wet. The crown of the plant is particularly sensitive to long periods of moisture, so allow this area to dry out between waterings. Check soil moisture periodically by poking your finger a few inches into the plant’s root ball, since you may find that the root ball dries out faster than the surrounding soil. In addition, while the surface of the soil may appear to be dry, it may be moist a few inches below. Water only if the root ball is very dry (about 3-4 inches or more below the surface).

How often you water will depend upon the weather, the plant, and the soil in your garden. There is no formula for watering, and different techniques work for different people. You may find yourself watering anywhere from twice a week (for very sandy soils) to once a month (for very heavy soils) the first summer.

Some advice about clay soil: Clay soil can be a blessing or a curse. On one hand, it means less frequent watering (you may need to water new plantings only once every 2-4 weeks). On the other hand, it is easy to over-water. Clay soils are made up of very fine particles that absorb water slowly, let in very little air, and stay wet for long periods of time, so always check the soil moisture before and after watering. Inland gardeners with clay soil will want to choose plants carefully and consider waiting until fall to plant all but desert and riparian plants and grasses.

Some plants can be especially difficult to establish in summer in inland gardens. You may want to consider waiting until fall or winter to plant the following: Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Ceanothus (CA Lilac), Fremontodendron (Flannelbush), and Trichostema (Wooly Blue Curls)

Signs of stress

  • Over-watering: Symptoms of over-watering can be similar to those of under-watering and often do not appear until it is too late. Look for dull and/or drooping leaves and damp soil around the base of the plant. If the plant is already dead, try pulling it out of the ground—if it pulls out easily with only a few wet, black roots hanging on to the base of the plant, it probably rotted. Over-watering is the same as suffocating a plant, since a plant’s roots must be able to take in gases as well as water in order to survive.
  • Under-watering: On Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos, look for brittle yellow leaves that fall off easily. On Salvias, look for curling, upturned leaves. On Sphaeralcea and Erigeron, look for wilting. Sometimes plants wilt in response to heat, even when adequately watered. If your plant is wilting during the heat of the day and perking up as temps cool in the evening, check your soil---it may not be necessary to water. If the plant is already dead, try pulling it out of the ground—if it pulls out easily and the root ball is completely dry and still perfectly shaped like the container you took it out of, it probably wasn’t watered deeply enough.
  • NOTE: It is easier for a plant to recover from under-watering than from over-watering.

What to expect in summer
On the east coast, winter is the harshest season. Plants stop growing, go dormant, and some lose their leaves to survive freezing temperatures. New growth appears when snow melts and moistens the soil and temperatures are more hospitable. California’s native plants respond similarly to stress, but our harshest season is summer, not winter. In summer, native plants stop growing, some go dormant and a few lose their leaves to survive extreme heat and drought. These plants have amazing adaptations that allow them survive extreme drought and heat. Leaves may be small, grey, fuzzy, or rigid. They may turn upward or fall off entirely to conserve precious resources. Imagine if we had to stand on a hot sunny slope all day in 110 degree heat without a drop of water. We would probably get a little creative too! Dormancy is also a restful time, often occurring immediately after flowering or fruiting. In late fall, cooling temperatures and rain mark the end of the dormant period and the start of the growing season.

Summer doesn’t have to be boring. If you are looking for summer interest, try the following plants:

  • Calliandra species (Fairyduster) pink or red bottlebrush-type flowers attract hummingbirds
  • Eriogonum (Buckwheat) dried flower heads are attractive from early summer into fall
  • Epilobium (CA Fuchsia) red flowers in late summer and fall attract hummingbirds
  • Chilopsis (Desert Willow) showy orchid-like flowers in early summer
  • Cercocarpus betuloides (Mountain Mahogany) shimmering seed heads in late summer
  • Sphaeralcea ambigua (Apricot Mallow) orange blossoms from spring to fall
  • Warm-season grasses

There are also many native plants that remain evergreen and attractive through the summer months. These plants make good foundation plants and can be the backbone of a garden design:

  • Arctostaphylos species (Manzanita)
  • Baccharis species and cultivars (Coyote Brush)
  • Ceanothus species and cultivars (CA Lilac)
  • Rhamnus californica and cultivars (Coffeeberry)
  • Cercocarpus betuloides (Mountain Mahogany)
  • Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)
  • Rhus ovata (Sugarbush)
  • Rhus integrifolia (Lemonadeberry)
  • Galvezia species (Snapdragon)

Established Plants
Reduce watering for established plants during summer months. Many established native plants will look better with an occasional deep water in summer. Once or twice a month should suffice for the most drought-tolerant plants, but more than this can lead to problems for some species. Beware of a few that want absolutely no summer water once established: Fremontodendron, Trichostema, and many bulbs.

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