Sunday, October 29, 2017

Dead-footing

I’m home, so now I can fuss over my native garden.  Yippee! 
Diligent gardeners “dead-head” roses and other repeat-flowering ornamentals— removing spent flowers before plants use energy setting seed instead of making more flowers, and making the garden look more manicured.  I do deadhead, but usually only the empty seedpods that have already fed the birds.  
Woe to my poor gardener friend who promptly deadheaded his Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) in May, leaving a sparse, homely bush for six months instead of these cool flying saucers…


In early fall I “dead-foot” some of my shrubby native plants.  I just made up that term, “dead-foot.”  Maybe you prefer “pedicure.”  I simply run a gloved hand down the stems to remove dead and dried leaves that give the bush in question a shaggy appearance.  This is an approved, though unnamed, technique in the wonderful Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O'Brien, Betsey Landis, and Ellen Mackey, regretfully out of print.

Plants from sage scrub and chaparral habitats can lose most or all of their leaves each summer.  Watering them to try to keep them in full leaf can lead to untimely death due to root rot.  Repeat after me: no summer soaking. Ever.  Sparingly watered, stress-deciduous native shrubs are no more sickly than Eastern deciduous plants that lose their leaves in cold weather.  But we non-natives don’t expect to see dead leaves in August; we think the gardener has killed the poor dears.  And they can look, well, motley.  Wind and winter rains may eventually knock off most of these leaves, but I am not willing to wait.   

California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is amusingly stress-deciduous.  No water and full sun for a month or two and it looks dead. Sprinkle it just a bit, and a week later it's covered with fine new leaves.  It can be cut back hard occasionally, or left shaggy.  But since I can’t resist putting it in the front of the garden, I find dead-footing particularly effective for the species and ‘Montara’ cultivar.   The ground-hugging ‘Canyon Grey’ cultivar looks quite ropy when dead-footed, and should just be cut hard every couple of years. A little water and Sagebrush grows back, usually even from a very hard cutting.
The rare Island Sagebrush, Artemisia nesiotica, has long lacy foliage on twisted stems that want to be revealed by dead-footing. It's a personal favorite.

While stunning in spring bloom, California anemone (Carpenteria californica) insists on looking unkempt the rest of the year by hanging tightly onto old brown leaves.  Force is required to part those unsightly leaves from their stem!  Or just whack off the whole stem. It will grow back soon enough.
This Catalina silverlace has been in a pot for four years and needs an occasional dead-footing.

The rare and elegant Catalina Silverlace (Constancea nevinii), after a bout of drought, can look truly hideous, with fat mats of dried rosettes evoking the thick cobwebs of a horror movie.  Wait till they’re good and dry, then they will strip off to present an elegant stem from which the growing tip can bush out again.

Dead-footing doesn’t work well on most California Buckwheats.  Their stems look as motley as their dead leaves, only more bare and spindly. The exception is St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum.)  Its sparse stems look smooth and elegant when stripped of dried leaves.
I keep my St. Catherine's Lace in a pot so it doesn't take over my whole pocket garden.  And I dead-foot it of course.

Coyote bush (the tall species, not the stubby dwarf cultivars) can be dead-footed, and totally bare branches can be removed.  Do this cautiously, though; you may go from a well-filled out bush to something pretty spare or asymmetric.  Like Sagebrush, Coyotes can be trimmed almost to the ground, and they will usually regenerate, sometimes a better option.  Coyote is an opportunistic filler-in of bare spots in the wild and for the gardener; I planted one to quickly screen the kitchen window from the house. Too deep in shade, it may be ready to yield its place to a Coffeeberry.

Dead-footing is part of the pruning regimen of a native garden that is more manicured rather than wild.  Early fall is the time for pruning most natives.  Sterilize your shears: I prefer using rubbing alcohol; it's easier on clothes than bleach.  Consider the effect before embarking on wholesale fall pruning of a native garden.  (And avoid pruning bushes that want to display blooms or berries in winter-- toyon, ceanothus, manzanita.)  You want to prune back bushes and perennials that will otherwise overgrow paths and other plants in their winter-to-spring growing season.  But removing every dead stem or leaf may leave your garden unnaturally bare; proceed cautiously.  Whatever you do, don't invite your garden-variety gardener to prune.  He will butcher your natives, trimming them bare up to three feet so the nonexistent sprinklers can work well. Or pull them up altogether, thinking stress-deciduous means dead.  If you know of a gardener for hire who trims natives right, regard that person as a living treasure.  While I'm able, I'd rather fuss over my natives myself.

Gotta go deadhead the sage now!  

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