By Charlotte Torgovitsky

We are well into the fall season as I write this article, and even though my garden is looking just as dry as the surrounding wild lands there are still some beautiful flowers and other resources to support the wildlife.

California Fuchsias (Epilobium species) are in full bloom, and regularly visited by Anna’s Hummingbirds. One cultivar that I really like is ‘Sierra Salmon’ with peach colored flowers and plants that grow in a nice self-contained drift. Some other Epilobiums, especially the straight species, tend to wander freely, and are of variable heights depending on which plants they mingle with; sometimes five-foot-tall spires of orangey flowers ‘show up’ amongst large grasses and in between St. Catherine’s Lace.  

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Click on the thumbnails to display the images. Photos by Charlotte Torgovitsky.

In the fall I always notice a lot of Skippers; at my place the most common is the Woodland Skipper. They are a small butterfly and prefer small flowers to nectar at; one shrub in particular, a Mexican native (Salvia mellisadora), looks as if it is draped in tiny orange flags with all these little creatures skipping from one fragrant lavender flower to the next!           

The Northern Flickers are back in Marin for the season. I have been hearing their calls in my woodland for a few weeks now but have yet to actually see the birds. When the rains start they become obvious since they often forage on the ground. Though they are woodpeckers their favored food is ants, and discovering an ant hill would be a real bonanza! White-crowned Sparrows have also just returned; their return is most often in the last week of September. Listen carefully; the juveniles are practicing the adult song, and it takes them a while to get it right.

The Chestnut-backed Chickadees are residents here, and many nest in an assortment of nesting boxes hung throughout my oak woodlands. I have noticed a particular Chickadee who is a very regular at my feeder. Instead of a chestnut back and lighter greyish flanks, this little bird has a white back with black markings, white flanks, and a mostly white tail! Perhaps this Chickadee, who sports much more white than usual, was born and bred right here on Cherry Hill.

Although there are still plenty of visitors in the gardens to distract me, I do get a good start on clean-up chores in late August. I often start with the native Salvias. After I have harvested some of the seed (finches take quite a few also), I cut the plants back by about one third. Next, I move on to the sub-shrubs like Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) and trim them back by at least one third. After a hot and dry summer, plants of the chaparral have very few and often very small leaves remaining, so one can really see the structure of the plant. Old salvias can develop interesting gnarly wooden trunks and branches, as well as colonies of colorful lichens on this wood!

I incorporate a variety of native bunch grasses in all my various garden areas. In the oak woodlands, natural drifts of Melica torreyana bloom very early in the rainy season; then this delicate plant all but disappears until the rains come again. Melica harfordii is a much bigger, bolder grass that is also a cool season bloomer, but it remains very apparent with a nice tall structure and flowering stalks that persist all through the year. California Fescue (Festuca californica) is probably my favorite; it is more of a mid-season grass, blooming in late spring. This bunch grass appreciates part shade but can take some sun if it also gets additional water. Its flowering stalks can be impressive, reaching well above the plant itself. California Fescue is very beautiful when large drifts form on north-facing slopes, cascading downhill under the tree canopies. That is exactly what I discovered on the north slope of our hillside, and where I collect seeds.

With most of the bunch grasses I rarely do more than cut out the old flowering stalks and remove some of the old thatch with a small hand rake.  With the really large specimens I hesitate when cleaning up the thatch, because I’ve noticed that it provides cozy dry hideouts and nests for small creatures even during a very wet rainy season. 

We are lucky here on Cherry Hill to have an abundance of Purple Needle Grass (Nasella pulchra) in the open sunny meadows between the wooded spaces. It seeds itself readily into my tended garden areas, and mostly I let it grow where it wants to! This is a bunch grass that I do cut back twice a year: once just after the first spring bloom and seed set; and again in the fall. The first trim is high to allow the forbs and wildflowers to grow in with the grasses. The second trim is low to invigorate the plants for the next season. To my delight I have noticed that the needlegrass will set even more flowering stalks after that first high trim!

The late summer grass that fits well into large gardens is Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Blooming in early fall, it is really impressive when planted in drifts but also effective as a specimen plant. I also just take out the old spent flowering stalks and some of the old thatch that builds up; but I do not cut the whole plant back because it never seems to retain a natural shape after a severe cutting back. I’ll trim them sometime in spring after other grasses start to ‘green up’ again.

Late in November is a good time to divide old established clumps of Douglas Iris and the hybrids. Iris clumps tend to grow outwards from a center, which over time starts to look barren. I dig up the whole plant and carefully pull it apart into smaller clumps, looking for nice pinkish new growth within each clump. I also cut back the old leaves by about half. If you want to hold them a few days before planting out again, put them into a bucket of water; do not let them dry out!  

By December it is often time to start cutting back herbaceous perennials like the Epilobiums. It is a much easier to do it well before new growth starts again with the lengthening of the daylight hours.

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