In Southern California, It’s Never Too Late to Plant

Question: Is it too late to revamp our garden and do annual as well as perennial plantings? Our yard needs extensive work, not just a few plants here and there. I am concerned that it is getting too late with the heat upon us.
– Suzan Martin,
Maybe I will need to wait until fall to ensure new plantings won’t die and I won’t have to water more than city regulations allow. For sure, though, I should wait to sod the lawn until fall, right?
Answer: In Southern California, it is never too late to plant. The only contingency is the weather, which dictates how frequently you will need to water after planting.
Plant in the late afternoon, after the heat of the day has passed. That way, roots have ample time to absorb water and the plant will be fully hydrated prior to arrival of the following day’s heat. It is a wise practice to first dig your planting holes, fill them with water, allow the water to drain all the way through, and then plant. You should also thoroughly soak your new plants before extracting them from their containers for planting.
At this time of year, and even in cooler weather, you should water every day during the first two weeks that follow planting.
This assumes that your soil drains well. It is also a good idea to use Superthrive, a product that contains plant hormone and stimulates root growth. Even with the city of Los Angeles water regulations, you can water by hose seven days a week as long as you do so before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. The regulations stipulate that conventional sprinklers can only water two days a week and for no more than 15 minutes per area. However, these regulations do not apply to drip irrigation. You can water by drip irrigation any time of the day or night, seven days a week, for as long as you want. Most plants grown in containers, also known as container stock, can be planted throughout the summer as long as you pay attention to water needs.
Summer is actually the preferred time of year to plant succulents and cactuses, tropical fruits trees such as citrus, mango, guava, and papaya, as well as palm trees. Las Pilitas Nursery ( encourages summer planting of California natives, based on 25 years’ experience. As for a lawn, you are correct in thinking that it is sensible not to plant one until the fall, at least where a cool season grass, such as tall fescue (e.g. Marathon) is concerned. However, warm season tropical grasses such as Bermuda and Kikuyu are more amenable to summer planting.
Q: Huge ugly brown patches have blighted our normally green lawn this spring. I have tried punching holes in the sod and drenching the spots with water. I have tried soil busters.
– Jerome V. Posell,
Nothing seems to help. The soil is compacted, but this is the first year in over 30 that this scourge has plagued us. Any thoughts?
A: The presence of cutworms may explain your problem. Cutworms are easily identified by their tendency to curl up, resembling the letter C. They are, in fact, fat, brownish-gray larvae that pupate in the earth before metamorphosing into any of several different types of night-flying moths. Cutworms are more typically encountered in vegetable beds, where they cut down young seedlings.
However, they may also be found in lawns, especially in moist, compacted areas. As you indicate, they are not often seen but this year’s late rains and cool temperatures have encouraged their development. Cutworms are active at night and in early morning.
Look for them before the day gets hot. Unfortunately, I have found them difficult to get rid of in lawns other than through the use of chemicals. Biological control products such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) and spinosad are recommended. Usually, you just reseed dead spots. Introducing a bird feeder into your garden might be beneficial, since birds are eager consumers of cutworms.
Q: Our 3-year-old birch tree has a lot of fruit weighing down the branches. Is it OK to remove them by hand? Is there a homemade remedy to get rid of caterpillars on petunias?
– Russ Gilmore,
West Hills
A: The fruit to which you refer are small, seed-containing cone-like structures. You can certainly remove them by hand, although birch has a naturally weeping growth habit which may or may not be affectd by removal of cones. As for caterpillars on petunias, you can apply either BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad. Both are biological control products and should be available at most nurseries. Regarding homemade remedies, some people steep cigarettes in water to extract nicotine, which is an ingredient of certain insecticides. You pour the nicotine solution into a spray bottle and apply it to your plants. Be aware, however, that nicotine kills beneficial insects along with the pests.
A few long-bloomers you might want to consider for your summer garden are: Coreopsis grandiflora, a drought-tolerant bedding plant that flowers practically non-stop for up to two years; Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’, that has a minimal water requirement and seems to be nearly always in bloom; and sky flower (Duranta erecta), in purple or white, requiring regular water and pruning while growing into a tall, somewhat drooping specimen plant, hedge, or screen.
Tip of the week
One of the best plants for deep shade is variegated dwarf umbrella plant or Hawaiian elf (Schefflera arboricola ‘Variegata’). Its patches of foliar gold light up dark corners of the garden. As for Hawaiian elf companion plants, consider cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), lily turf (Liriope), and dwarf mondo grass, an elegant ground cover. Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria), although popular as an indoor plant, also grows well outdoors in deep shade.

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