The Dry Garden: Rain may stave off the hose, but it also triggers the weeds


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With the first rain of the season fast evaporating from the tree leaves outside the window, it feels as if I may never again enjoy perfect gloom. So much rain in Los Angeles fails to come at all; other times it comes down too hard, and so often it falls at night. By contrast, this week water met daylight. From morning till night, the atmosphere was like gray milk, making visibility down among the plants incomparably good. Without its normal cover of glare, the garden stood for inspection.

It was tempting to plant seedlings or strew wildflower seeds and shout some pastoral equivalent of ‘Whee.’ But euphoria is the enemy of the gardener unless followed by calculation. With Santa Ana winds forecast for the end of the week, it was too early to sow wildflowers. If I sowed now, poppy seedlings would fry before they could drive their tap roots down into the clay earth.


By Wednesday afternoon, it was time to admit a knuckle-scraping truth. The job that needed doing was weeding.

There, at the roots of a coyote mint and newly awakened by the showers, was a tuft of grass. Then, everywhere I looked, there they were, sucking and swelling as if by the second, vampiric little clumps -- crabgrass, rye grass and Bermuda grass. These noxious weeds will never be eradicated from an urban garden. They survive with ease in neighboring lawns, then their seeds blow in and they germinate with the first rains. Controlling them gets easier if you stay on top of it, particularly at the onset of rainy season.

To those telling yourselves, “It’s not so bad,” and “I’ll wait,” a warning. Think how much crabgrass there will be after those few tufts go to seed and another rain comes.

Allowed to spread as weeds in native-plant gardens, lawn grasses do double damage. By glomming onto what little rainfall comes, they sap the life out of the native stoics. When it comes to wildflowers, if you don’t weed competing grasses out before you sow poppies, the flowers will be choked out as seedlings.

It still feels wrong that the best rain I may ever know was not one for planting, but for scraping along on my rear in a rocky bed with a gardening fork in one hand and a knot of Bermuda grass in the other. But it feels good to know that after I sow poppy seeds in two weeks, and further rains come, the seeds will result in flowers.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on drought-tolerant gardening appears here weekly. She also writes on water issues at