Oh, no! Your native plants look dead. Here’s what to do

A man pulling weeds.
Pulling weeds is a regular task for Bruce Schwartz in his native garden, which is more about creating habitat than traditional landscaping.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

So you’ve torn out your lawn and created a native plant garden to conserve water and restore habitat for struggling birds and insects. But summer is approaching, many of your beautiful plants are starting to shrivel and your neighbors are giving you the stink-eye.

Welcome to summer in your new native garden, where maintenance is more about mindfulness and patience than gas-powered mowers and whackers.

The good news: You no longer have to carve out time every week to mow your lawn (or pay someone to do it).


The bad news: You still have to weed.

Goldfields, which bloom from March to May, will go dormant during the dry, hot summer months.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Weeding is likely the biggest and most important task you’ll face, said Bruce Schwartz, a one-time puppeteer and artist who now works full-time maintaining his Eagle Rock property, a wilderness of plants native to the nearby San Rafael Hills and Verdugo Mountains.

That’s because invasive, nonnative weeds are tough, quick-growing and constantly competing for light, nutrients and water against slower-growing native plants, said Schwartz, who blogs under the name Eric Ameria at L.A. Native Plant Source.

“This is actually a really good time of year to do remedial weeding, because the wildflowers have died back and you can actually see the weeds,” Schwartz said. “You can easily see the pernicious weeds now because they’re green when everything else is brown.”

In general, a weed is any plant you don’t want, said Max Kanter, owner of Saturate, a native plant maintenance business based in Silver Lake. But for purists like Schwartz, weeds are non-native invasive plants imported during European colonization.


One of the worst culprits is chickweed (Stellaria media), a spreading Eurasian native probably imported years ago because it is edible and has medicinal uses, “but it’s the bane of wildflower growers,” Schwartz said. “It grows in rank mats faster than wildflowers, and if you don’t control it, it will smother everything in a New York second.”

Bruce Schwartz
Bruce Schwartz sits in his native plant garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Other native plant enemies include sow thistle; dandelions, which spread clouds of seeds once their cheerful yellow flowers dry up; tall bulky horseweed; round-leaved cheeseweed; purslane; and spurge, which blanket the ground like thick green doilies.

A hand holds up a 1992 photo showing the barren yard in front of the current landscape of lush native plants and stairs.
A photograph from 1992 shows the barren yard compared to now with lush native plants and stairs leading up and down the terraced yard.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Schwartz has been fighting these weeds and other non-native plants for 30 years, ever since he and his late husband, Joseph, first saw the property that would become their home. They bought a 1911 Craftsman style house that day, but for Schwartz, the biggest attraction was the huge oaks that sprawled across the bottom of their sloping lot.

Most of the grounds were covered with refuse and thickets of common SoCal landscaping plants — jades, ivy, vinca and morning glory — and he’s been reshaping the garden ever since.

Newcomers to Schwartz’s seemingly wild landscape often look puzzled as they wander his carefully constructed rock-lined paths, he said. The ground is covered with leaf litter and a tangle of seemingly unkempt shrubs; in late spring, deciduous plants are in various stages of wilting and dying as other plants are preparing to bloom.

“It looks like I hewed walkways into a native paradise,” Schwartz said, smiling. But one visitor taking the tour finally blurted that she didn’t think he had a garden at all.

An oak tree towers over a lush landscape of native plants.
Bruce Schwartz has immersed himself in a lush growth of California native plants at his Eagle Rock house.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“She said, ‘These are just plants that grow anywhere,’” Schwartz recalled. “To her, a wild plant is not a garden, and I understand not everybody is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but the ironic thing is, this is very much a garden. A garden like this takes an enormous amount of work to keep it from being overrun by weeds.”


I understand not everybody is ready to give up their hydrangeas, but the ironic thing is, this is very much a garden.

— Bruce Schwartz, LA Native Plant Source

His late father would not approve, Schwartz said. “When I think of my dad and his garden — well, I hesitate to call it a garden, it was basically an extension of his living room, a public space where he entertained people, and it had to be clean. This is not a value judgment, it’s just a completely different way of looking at a yard. His had to be perfect — no flowers could be spent, no leaves could fall on the ground and be left there. It all had to be cleaned up.”

But in a native garden, leaf litter is a valuable nutrient as it breaks down; it also shades the ground and helps the soil retain moisture, he said. And the thickets of shrubs, flowers and trees work together to provide food and shelter for insects and pollinators that help the plants spread and flourish.

Name tags identify the native plants in a garden.
Name tags identify the native plants in Bruce Schwartz’s garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m not saying we need to rip up every exotic landscape plant in Southern California, but having a lawn or a terrace of rose bushes, pansies and petunias ... those are really thirsty plants we don’t have the water for anymore,” he said. “So as a start, I suggest maybe you reduce your lawn and have a native plant victory garden, where the food is not for you, but for the wild animals who live here.”


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Schwartz recommends focusing on three kinds of plants for that victory garden — buckwheats, sages and sagebrush, all of which have many varieties to choose from and require little or no water once they’re established. “Those three plants are bulletproof, they will survive the summer semi-evergreen, and they’re incredible habitat plants,” he said. He added that if you want additional color throughout the seasons, weave in other flowering plants such as bush sunflowers, California fuchsia or easily reseeding California poppies.

A California polypody in a garden.
A California polypody in Bruce Schwartz’s native plants garden will go dormant for the summer, waiting for fall rain.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a much better way to design a native garden, he said, “than to plant a wildflower meadow in the front yard and have what looks like an empty lot for eight months out of the year” when the flowers die back or go dormant.

When it comes to maintaining your native garden in the summer, forget your lawn mower and leaf blower and pull out a rake, hand clippers, a pair of gloves and a watering can, say Schwartz, Kanter and Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

Kanter and his partners at Studio Petrichor invented the term “June Groom” to help native plant gardeners learn how to maintain their summer yards, “because by June, most of the wildflowers and annuals are pretty much spent, so it’s a great time to groom,” he said.

A bundle of weeds
Pulling weeds is a regular task for maintaining a native garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Cut weeds rather than pull them

Some weeds come out easily, especially when they’re small, but if they’re well rooted and interspersed with plants you want to keep, Kanter recommends cutting them at their base so you don’t disturb the soil and the roots of the other plants.


A caterpillar phacelia in a native plants garden.
A caterpillar phacelia grows in Bruce Schwartz’s native plants garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s really important during a drought to have well-structured soil with lots of layers, like the carbon layer on top where there’s lots of microbial activity, and then the topsoil where there’s lots of nutrients for the plants. If you pull out a substantially rooted weed, that disturbs those layers and dries out all the moisture, so it’s better to keep the soil intact.” Weeds cut at the base might grow back, he said, but if you keep cutting them, they will eventually die.

The one exception, Kanter said, is black mustard (Brassica nigra), a tall, airy plant with yellow flowers that actually creates a toxicity in the soil that native plants don’t like. It’s important to remove the entire plant, roots and all, to keep it from spreading in your yard.

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If you have a lot of weeds and can’t get to them in time, at least mow or whack them down to remove their flowers, which quickly turn into seed heads. “If you keep the weeds cut, eventually there won’t be enough resources for the plants to push up more seeds [after the winter rains],” Kanter said.


Collect seeds from your spent wildflowers

Don’t pull out native wildflowers at the first sign of wilting, the experts say. Let them get good and dry, so the flower heads produce the seeds necessary for the plants to reseed and bloom again — and provide food for birds and other creatures.

Snip off a few branches to scatter seeds around the garden, or save them for fall planting. Meyer and Kanter recommend storing seeds in paper bags, labeled with the plant name and date and keep them in a cool, dark place safe from rodents.


Schwartz said he waits until all the seeds have matured on his dried-up native annuals and grasses before he cuts them down as a fire prevention tool.


Once seeds are collected, start ‘grooming’

Vintage furniture is placed in a native plants garden.
Bruce Schwartz has placed vintage furniture around his California native plants garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s where your gloves and hand clippers come in handy. Wander your garden and gently crumble dead leaves on your perennial plants by sliding your hand up and down the stalks. Some dried-up annuals — plants that just live for one season — will break off easily and can either be crumbled by hand or quickly chopped with hand clippers into garden mulch.

If the dead plants don’t easily break, cut them at the base, leaving the roots intact. This is a particularly good technique with California poppies, Kanter said. “If you give them a little soak when you cut them, a lot of times they will bloom again in July or August.”


Prune suckers and overgrown limbs blocking pathways

Meyer said summer is a good time to lightly prune trees and large shrubs to remove suckers — unwanted new growth — and dead branches from trees and large shrubs.


Some shrubs like white sage can also send out long limbs that can block walkways or crowd out other plants, but be careful how you cut them, said Kanter. Don’t remove more than 25% of the plant, and don’t trim them from the outside, like a hedge. Instead, go deep into the plant and cut the branches inside, where the cuts will be less noticeable.


Keep new native plants watered

A sunflower in a native plants garden.
A sunflower, helianthus annuus, grows in Bruce Schwartz’s native plants garden.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Once established, most native plants use little or no water in summer. But if they’ve been planted this year, they will need deep watering to get through the summer.

Schwartz recommends using this watering technique a couple times a month: Create a soil basin to catch the water around your plant, fill it once, wait until the water sinks in and then fill it two more times the same way. “I’ve found you want the water to penetrate at least 16 inches,” he said, and filling the basin three times seems to do that.”

Schwartz also recommends investing in a long moisture probe (about $15 on Amazon) to check the dryness of your soil, since it’s hard to tell from the surface how much water is underneath.


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Finally, Schwartz said he learned a trick from Mike Evans, owner of the native plant Tree of Life Nursery near San Juan Capistrano, to refresh native plants during the hottest days of the year. “Just pour yourself a beer at the end of the day and give your plants a refreshing little sprinkle,” he said. “You’re not trying to water them deeply, just dampen the ground to cool them off a little.”


Check your drip irrigation system for leaks

It’s always best to water in the early morning or at night, to reduce evaporation, but that means problems aren’t often seen with your irrigation system because you may still be asleep At least once a season turn on your irrigation system and walk the line to see if you have any leaks or clogged emitters.

Walking your garden is important too, Kanter said, because the growth of certain plants or weeds can be a tip-off to a problem with your irrigation system. For instance, if you see a big patch of St. Augustine grass, there’s a good chance that you have a leak in that area and that the weeds are taking full advantage.

Also, adjust your irrigation system as your perennial plants and trees grow. You don’t want water dripping directly on the trunk of a tree or the crown of a plant, Kanter said. “That’s the easiest way to make them susceptible to a fungus — phytophthora — that can kill a plant almost overnight.”

Steps lead up and down Bruce Schwartz's terraced yard full of California native plants.
Steps lead up and down Bruce Schwartz’s terraced yard full of California native plants.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)