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Prime planting season: Fall is ideal time to nurture natives

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Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
The winey-scented flowers of western spice bush, above, are pollinated by beetles.

Fall is a good time to reassess your garden and re-examine your gardening goals.

Once the rainy season starts, it’s prime planting time for natives. The soil is more workable, the roots will have all winter and spring to start getting established before the next dry season, and plants are more widely available. When you choose plants, consider not only how they look in your landscape, but also what wildlife they support, what maintenance they need and what other ecological services they provide.

Less water? If you’re concerned about water bills or need to revamp an irrigation system, it’s the ideal time to think about choosing more drought-tolerant plants. A good place to start is the Arboretum All-Star Plant Database ( These 100 plants have been vetted for best performance in gardens around the state. If you select “California Native and Very Low Water,” the list of 22 plants includes Island Pink yarrow, Western spice bush, bush anemone, deergrass, chaparral currant and Ray Hartman ceanothus. You can narrow down the choices by flower color, bloom season, size, sun exposure and wildlife value. Choosing “Low Water” gives you 11 more choices, including Margarita BOP penstemon, Canyon Snow Pacific iris and toyon.

More pollinators? Plant choices are important, but design and maintenance matter more than you might think. Birds and butterflies are attracted to a succession of blooms from early spring until late fall, a water source and places to shelter from wind and predators. But did you know that keeping a light hand during fall cleanup also can help pollinators? Many butterflies rely on a healthy layer of fall leaves to survive the winter, especially as eggs or pupae. To help them out, gently rake leaves under shrubs, and keep a good layer of leaves under trees to nourish them and protect the roots. Be careful not to pile leaves against the plant crowns. And never use a leaf blower on planted areas!

More bees? The Urban Bee Lab has extensively studied which bees like which plants, and you can see the research at Native bees nest in the ground and in dry plant stalks. Mulch is one of the most effective garden strategies, but be sure to keep some sunny, unmulched patches for the native ground-nesting bees. During fall cleanup, leave some dry plant stems in place wherever you can. You also can bundle up dried sunflower stems and place them out of direct sun and sheltered from the rain. Even a front-yard garden can look cared for without looking obsessively tidy.

More birds? Leave some dried seed heads for a month or two, until the birds have had their fill, instead of cleaning up too soon. In the spring, baby birds need to be fed a prodigious number of caterpillars to make it to adulthood. They can’t digest seeds and berries. You can sustain the baby birds in your neighborhood by planting natives this fall. Google “Calscape butterflies” and enter your ZIP code to find out which plants will be the best “bird feeders” in your garden. Needless to say, you need some tolerance for leaf munching.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at [email protected]

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