Getting Ready for Spring

Lampranthus productus, photo by Sara Siskin

Spring can turn the most casual observer of plants into a suddenly enthusiastic novice gardener.  Blinding displays of flowers are everywhere.  Who can resist them?  Just take a look at Lampranthus productus, for example.  It’s an unusual iceplant since it flowers on and off throughout the year, although it blooms most plentifully, and with a brilliance unmatched by any other plant, in the spring.

The beginning gardener may run to the nursery and bring home a load of heavily flowering beauties, only to see them quickly stop blooming once they are planted in the ground.  The reason for this is transplant shock.  Garden conditions do a poor job of imitating the pampered  life of nursery specimens, which have been imported from growing grounds where liquid fertilizer was delivered in the irrigation water, where full sun, protective shade cloth, or greenhouse protection was provided, depending on each plant’s sun and humidity requirement, and roots luxuriated in a container’s designer soil, a far cry from the new environment of ordinary garden dirt.
In order to extend flowering, experienced gardeners would rather take home plants that are not yet in full bloom but are showing lots of buds.  They know that, soon enough, there will be plenty of flowers to enjoy.  Where perennial plants are concerned, you would rather choose a flowerless specimen with a symmetrical branching structure and stout stems than an asymmetrical or leaning specimen that is covered with flowers but appears otherwise spindly and weak.  Plants under stress, especially in containers, may flower more than usual, a kind of botanical swan song as they hear the grim reaper’s footsteps and desperately try to produce flowers and seeds — their ultimate purpose in living, after all — before their impending demise.
Soil preparation can cushion, if not eliminate, the blow experienced by container plants that are newly planted in your garden.  For regular garden ornamentals, vegetables, fruit trees, and roses, Amend is a product that consists of compost and rice hulls and is highly recommended, at up to 1/2 of the soil volume to a 6 inch depth, when preparing the ground for planting.  The most important property of any soil is drainage capacity and rice hulls, mixed into your soil along with compost, will enhance this capacity significantly.  For especially heavy or clay soils, a healthy application of gypsum will also improve drainage.  Whenever planting, it is wise to mix slow release fertilizer into the top two inches of soil that fills the planting hole.
Where California natives are concerned, attention to soil preparation may also be necessary.  While some natives are said to tolerate clay soil, you would be taking a risk by planting in a slow draining soil of this type.  You may need to completely replace your soil, to a depth of one foot or more, with fast-draining soil or decomposed granite.  Do not add sand to clay soil since the result will be a cement-like, impermeable mixture that does not drain at all.  All plants, whether conventional ornamentals or natives, benefit immensely from a 1-2 inch layer of mulch.
Tip of the Week:  Not long ago I visited the Israeli town of Kohav Ya’akov, a suburb of Jerusalem.  There I encountered the largest lavender plant, five feet tall and seven feet wide, that I had ever seen.  In Jerusalem, nearly all rainfall comes in the winter.  Jerusalem does receive 50% more annual rainfall (23 inches) than Los Angeles (15 inches), yet this particular lavender plant, I learned, does not receive any supplemental irrigation the rest of the year, despite summer heat that is often in the 90 degree range.  This lavender proves that once a plant or plants have taken over an area, especially if they are low-growing ground covers or compact shrubs, their thick foliage and dense growth habit will provide a living mulch, strictly limiting evaporative water loss from the soil surface beneath.  This lavender also grew up as a volunteer seedling and may simply possess the toughness that such seedlings are known to display.

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