By Jane Gates
Santa Clarita has its unique challenges for gardeners. It has variable microclimates with hot inland summer temperatures, dry air, and lean soil. The lack of rain over recent years, combined with rising water prices and occasional restrictions, has encouraged us to be more creative in how we garden. For those who move here from other areas, it may take a bit of adjusting to see all the possibilities in our landscapes. But the truth is that you can grow great gardens here in Santa Clarita. And you can even do it in the hot summer. Here are some tips on how to enjoy gardening here – even in mid-summer.
Let’s start by admitting the best time for gardening in our area is in the autumn and winter when temperatures are milder and there is a greater chance of rain. Yet anytime is a good time to garden because it offers healthy exercise, a powerful way to balance your mind and body, and a fine excuse to work together with friends and family. It’s also a way to improve your lifestyle, expand your living space, and increase the value of your property.
Summer can be extremely hot in the SCV. So the first thing you want to do is take care of yourself! Work outdoors when the sun is low in the sky and temperatures are mild. Early morning is best. Wear a hat, gloves, insect spray and sunblock. You will not only be more comfortable, but you’ll ward off bites from mosquitoes and no-see-‘ems. Long sleeves will protect you from scratches and bruises as well as sunburn. Slathering on a good sunscreen will keep your skin healthy now and long into the future while your body absorbs healthy vitamin D from sunshine. It is also wise to drink plenty of fresh water whenever you are outdoors working in heat.
The hot days
On really hot days, spend gardening time indoors working on garden improvements. Whether you are starting a new landscape or want to improve the one you have, this is the perfect time to work on plans. Even a garden you love can always be improved. Sketching out ideas on a piece of paper or on a simple computer program will help you think your ideas through and save you from making expensive mistakes. With a plan, you can create or change things a little at a time by yourself, or present an illustration of what you’d like so potential landscape installers are all bidding on the same project.
For summertime maintenance of existing gardens, water very early in the morning (preferred) or after dark so the water has time to penetrate soil before the sun evaporates it away. Mow lawns less frequently when it is hot. Longer blades will help shade and protect roots. Since lawns are high-maintenance water-guzzlers, limit them to where they will be most useful. Other spaces can be filled with decorative drought-tolerant gardens, colorful stone or pavers, or used for productive vegetable, herb or flower-cutting gardens.
Keep things clean
Keep gardens weeded and clean. Wildfire season is now all year long. Keeping brush removed, trees and shrubs trimmed away from all structures, and pruning out dead branches will reduce fire fuel. Remove fallen leaves, sticks and other litter from your garden and house gutters so a traveling spark won’t find tinder to ignite. And design your landscape with non-flammable/non-living material that will enhance your outdoor living, increase your safety and comfort while being low maintenance with minimal water consumption. Consider sport, entertainment, or play areas, or grow dedicated gardens of edibles or flower-cutting gardens that will keep water focused where it will pay you back.
You can still plant vegetables from already started plants in containers. The only vegetables that merit being planted from seed in mid-summer are root crops like beets, radishes and carrots. Crop zucchinis frequently — before they get too big and drain the parent plant of energy. Buy a mature tomato plant in a pot if you want to try your first experiment with edibles. Fresh picked tomatoes are the best! Avoid planting cold-weather crops like cabbage, peas, lettuce, and fava beans. (But get ready; you’ll be able to seed them in September.)
Keep a sharp lookout for insect pests. If you spy them early, try hosing them off with a stream of water. If the unwanted critters have already turned into an infestation, wash or spray them with organic insecticidal soaps or Neem products. Keeping toxins low in your garden is good for you and your family and essential when growing edibles.
All flowering plants will bloom more and longer if you keep them deadheaded. This means you should cut off wilting flowers before they set seed. Setting seed will drain the plant of energy. Annuals typically want to keep blooming in order to set as much seed as they can before they die. Annuals are short-lived plants that will only last a single season anyway, so they will keep blooming in the attempt to set more seed if you keep spent flowers removed.
Prune plants lightly for shape and to cut out dead or crossing branches. Summer is not a good time for heavy tree or shrub trimming. Save that job for after October when most woody plants are going into their winter sleep. Native plants are an exception since they will start reviving in the autumn after their summer snooze, but most natives require little pruning.
If you do any new planting, water the newcomers daily for at least a week or two while they settle in, especially if they are in sun. And if you can shade them for the first few days, they will appreciate it. You can plant at this time of year, but even tough natives and succulents will have to be coddled.
These are just some of the jobs you can do to maintain, improve or plan your landscape even in the middle of the summertime. There are so many ways you can create gorgeous, water-wise gardens in Santa Clarita, and you can get to work on yours now.
Jane Gates, owner and designer at Gates & Croft Horticultural Design, is a licensed landscape contractor, garden book author, national lecturer, horticulturist, and practicing artist. She’s written regularly online for the Home Depot ‘Garden Club’ and as the eHow.com Landscaping Expert. Jane is a resident and avid gardener here in Santa Clarita.