Caring for California native plants during extreme heat

The air is yellow today, plus extreme heat and dangerous air quality.  My morning garden walk was a search and rescue mission, for plants showing signs of extreme stress.  I did spot- watering, mostly overhead showers with a hose to dust off and perk up the leaves.  In two cases, I deep-watered plants that I know will tolerate the combination of heat and moisture.

How do we care for California native plants during these blazing hot days?

The answer is to keep doing what we always do — once a week deep watering of first-summer plants, along with overhead showers — adding daily observation and intervention for signs of stress.  

When CA native plants are less than a year old, and experiencing their first summer, we treat them as newborns — responding to nonverbal messages with caring and disciplined intervention when needed.  If this is the first summer for your California natives, this will be tricky depending on your individual plants.  You may lose plants, especially if you planted them only a few months ago.  But best practices will minimize these losses.  

Best practices do’s and don’ts

DO’S

DO mulch three inches deep for at least a foot radius around each plant.  This mitigates the effects of the heat and drought;

DO continue deep watering once per week, as early in the morning as possible;

DO continue to shower plants with a hose briefly, to dust off and hydrate leaves, more often than usual, every few days if possible;  

DO walk your garden each day.  If a plant is wilting (the leaves have softened up), give it a shower.  If it doesn’t perk up in a few hours, deep water it early in the morning.

DON’T’s

DON’T water everything more just because it is extra hot.  More water is not a remedy in general for drought-tolerant California native plants during heat, and can be a death sentence;

DON’T water your native treasures at all, including gray pine, manzanita, buckbrush, and oaks;  

DON’T give up in this blazing heat, throw your hands in the air and be like, “whatever…it’s too freaking hot and these plants are giving me mixed messages.”  I hear you.

Some perspective

In our Native Plants Live Here group, we learned that California native plants have a superpower, developed over thousands of years, that allows them to thrive in heat and drought.  The climate here in YLP, hot and dry in the summer, is their comfort zone.  Our native treasures – gray pine, manzanita, buckbrush, and oaks — accept and even require these conditions.  It is a mistake to water those mature plants during our area’s regular periods of heat and drought.  But our young native plants?  They need support till mature.

This past Sunday, I visited our native plant garden at the Equestrian Center at 9:30AM.  It was very hot, and had been for days.  I checked for drought stress on each plant, and found two small sages that were wilting.  After a deep watering, they perked up and will be fine for at least a week or two. Even in this extreme heat.

This is the hardest time of the year, most years, for native plant gardening in California.  Plants are dry and stressed, and so are we.  But if we accept nature’s 365-day rhythm, over time we come to enjoy and even cherish this regenerative cycle.  We accept the drought, and dream of bounteous rain.

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Leslie has been gardening with CA native plants for twenty-one years, the last seven on her cherished YLP property.  

Join YLP’s Native Plants Live Here gardening group by signing up at www.nativeplantslivehere.com.  Find us on Facebook and Nextdoor.