Harsh Winter for Summer-Dry Gardens

– Posted in: Garden Photography
Winter landscape in California's Summer-Dry Climate

Winter landscape in California’s Summer-Dry Climate

All winter, the headlines have been dominated by the harsh winter weather throughout the East.  In New England snowfall has been measured by feet instead of inches, the nations’ capitol was shut down, freezing weather made its way into the deep South.

Easterners longed for the sunny, dry, unseasonably warm weather in California, which is the midst of an epically harsh winter, perhaps the worst ever. According to official records, the snowpack is dismally meager, the lowest on record for this time of year.

The California Department of Water Resources March 3 reports “Manual surveys of 180 snow courses this year reveal even less water content – just 13 percent of the early-March average, the lowest in DWR’s records for this time of year.”  It is now the fourth year of drought, four harsh winters in a row.


California is a summer-dry climate, sometimes referred to as mediterranean, where dry summers are not drought, they are normal.  Dry summers are not a problem, but dry winter surely are. The corollary to summer-dry is winter-wet when rains are supposed to replenish the water table and store the liquid gold in the mountain snowpack, to slowly melt and refill the reservoirs.

We have not had good winter rains for four years, and it is getting worse.

Since this is a garden report I will not get into the politically charged battles over who gets the little water that will or won’t flow in the rivers.  The Valley farmers and river fisheries, the urban industries and suburban gardeners, environmentalist and developers, all have legitimate claims and no one is happy.

California rancher opening sluice gate from irrigation canal.

California rancher opening sluice gate from irrigation canal.

But no matter how anyone looks at it, this is winter is very harsh and hidden from daily view.  Gardens look pretty normal for this time of year.


Daffodils, native to summer-dry climates, make spring seem normal

For responsible gardeners, the ones who have long lost their lawns and installed drip irrigation, who have planted summer-dry and native plants, the continued winter drought means now is the time to water.

Water wasted on sloping lawn

Water wasted on sloping lawn

We will surely be asked, perhaps required, to cut back our watering again this summer.  I strongly suggest watering deeply now when the plants most need it.

Deep watering now, when the natural wet cycle protects summer-dry gardens, is necessary because this is the time when the soils are like sponges and can best accommodate the moisture.  It is also the best time to draw municipal water when demand is not as great as it will be in the summer.


California gardens need water in winter when they are the greenest

Gardens, and I speak of my own garden, can not get through another summer of cutbacks.  I have been cutting back for the past three years and plants are already stressed and dying.  I am watering deeply now; now before the inevitable warnings that will come this summer.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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Jane Strong March 11, 2015, 11:16 am

Excellent advice. Seems counter-intuitive, but that’s the way it works here. May I make another suggestion that your watering mimics the natural rainfall pattern by using gentle overhead sprinkling so it soaks in slowly, the water doesn’t puddle or erode and cleanses the leaves as well?

TomiKM March 11, 2015, 11:44 am

Dire gardening conditions here in the SF Bay Area. Thanks for this heads up. I was just discussing turning on the irrigation with my gardening crew . We let the lawn go brown last summer and will now proceed with plans to eliminate it entirely. Work this summer will be limited to building new hardscape and keeping the existing plantings alive. No new planting until next Fall at the earliest.

Saxon Holt March 11, 2015, 12:19 pm

Thanks Jane – all suggestions welcome. Any irrigation should, of course, be slow enough not to puddle and I like your reasoning for overhead, but unfortunately most responsible gardeners are not set up for overhead sprinklers; and there is the concern that overhead watering, especially during daytime when it can be monitored, is inefficient due to sun and wind.

Saxon Holt March 11, 2015, 12:23 pm

Tom – Irrigation practices evolve and I am not an expert, just an observer. However I had an interesting discussion recently with a CSA farmer who makes the soil as sponge analogy, and waters his farm deeply in late September to activate the sponge. Now as the “rainy season” is closing, is the last chance to activate that sponge in an ecologically sensitive manner.

Steve Mullany March 11, 2015, 12:24 pm

Timely thoughts and good advice about timely watering, Saxon. Especially for trees and mature shrubs that count on the winter rains for the dry months ahead. Here in Nipomo, CA, sand plays the role of soil, so there’s even less storage capacity than most areas have. I wonder what will become of California’s massive economy that developed rapidly on the premise that the climate will never change. We live in a human-made paradise (catching and diverting snowmelt) and may be heading toward something very different that we also made.

(Sidestepping politics of the issue: wise move)

Matt March 11, 2015, 2:19 pm

Yes , I see it far to often, careless use of water. Not only on slopes but irrigation running in the rain, and even old irrigation running on areas where there are no longer plants or beds. Totally unnecessary.

Saxon Holt March 11, 2015, 4:43 pm

Thanks for chiming in Steve. Nipomo may have different soil structure, but the natives are expecting to get some moisture this time of year, no matter which part of the State. Of course, for you guys, it is a different pattern than for us in Northern CA.

Saxon Holt March 11, 2015, 4:45 pm

Yea, Matt, water waste ought to be a crime, so long as we don’t start thinning all water for gardens is somehow wasteful

Pam/Digging March 12, 2015, 12:14 am

I’m so sorry about the drought worsening instead of getting better, Saxon. We Texans understand the pain and despair of drought all too well.

Saxon Holt March 12, 2015, 1:38 am

Thanks Pam – I am on a separate crusade with the phrase “drought tolerant is irrelevant”- climate tolerant plants are naturally adapted to drought. But when the climate changes ….

Rural Landscaping September 10, 2015, 5:34 am

You’re absolutely right. Thanks for the advice I need this especially winter is fast approaching.

Saxon Holt September 10, 2015, 11:21 am

Thanks for dropping by Rural – but it seems you are in New Zealand ? Isn’t about to be spring ? 😉

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