Weather on another planet

Even after years — perhaps a lifetime — of living in California, people still have trouble really understanding that nature does things differently here. Because the weather tends to be cold in Winter and warm in Summer, it’s easy to think that we have just a milder version of other people’s climate.

So they buy into the classic idea of weather. We all know what that’s supposed to be. We’ve seen the calendars and read the books. So we think we know how plants develop. Every basic plant and gardening book describes how they start growing when the ground warms up in Spring, mature to fullness in the Summer, and after a blaze of color, die down in Fall. In Winter, everything is dormant except the evergreen trees and a few bushes, which are invisible anyway under snow, ice or spat- tered mud.

We are reinforced in our thinking that this is the way things are when we grow exotics. The vast majority of Californians who garden engage in truly epic struggles, nursing exotic garden plants that don’t belong here, trying to cope with lack of water, fighting disease and insects, fertilizing endlessly, and never recognizing how the process works for plants that evolved here. It’s only obvious when you have the facts in hand and look around.

If you’re new to natives, put those preconceptions aside and imagine you are preparing to land on another planet. Someone gives you a briefing book about the ecology of your new home. The rules are strange, different, you read. The plant life begins growing (mostly underground) with the first rain and chill of Fall. All Winter plants gather their resources and prepare for the glory of Spring. In Summer they slow to an amble or go entire-ly dormant, staying that way until the cold and rains return in Fall.

They’re fussy, too, not having experienced decades of hybridization. They resent having their roots handled roughly, seldom appreciate trimming, don’t like to be transplanted or watered out of season and are likely to up and die on you if you violate their requirements. The soil harbors many bizarre fungi, and only the long dry season keeps the pathogenic forms — which thrive on a combination of heat and water — in check.

But they’re tough when it comes to environmental hazards. They thrive in rocky, infertile soils, handle freeze and drought with aplomb, provide hundreds of edible and/or medicinally active species, and often offer very attractive displays of line, form, foliage, bloom and fruit — all with no attention from so- called higher forms of life.

That other planet, of course, is California.

Louise Lacey, Growing Native

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