How To Deceive Smart Seeds

Some seeds need help to germinate.

Plants could not proliferate as they do if they were as unintelligent as they seem to be. Actually, much of their activity would be considered quite ingenious if it could be observed in a more ‘human’ perspective. From their exploitation of pollinators to their aggressive tactics for competition with other plants, the behavior of plants is obviously very deliberate and purposeful.

Because they are so reliant on the weather, pollinators and so many other environmental factors, the life cycles of plants are on strict schedules. They must also adapt to diseases and all sorts of other pathogens. Fires and grazing animals are problems for many, but advantages to most.

Most seeds develop during summer and autumn. When they fall to the ground, they need to know to delay germination until spring to avoid frost and the likelihood of getting eaten. Seeds of many plants, particularly those from more severe climates, germinate only after being ‘stratified’ by a specific duration of cold weather. Such seeds need to be artificially stratified by refrigeration in order to germinate any differently from their natural schedule, or where winters are not sufficiently cold.

Many seeds require ‘scarification’ by digestion by animals that naturally eat them, or by the quick heat of a wildfire, to break or soften a hard outer coating that otherwise inhibits germination. Seeds that need to be digested actually rely on animals for distribution. Seed that need heat want to be the first to regenerate after a wildfire, before competing plants recover.

Goldenrain tree, and many maples and pines produce so many seeds that even if less than one percent germinate in the garden, they seem to be prolific. However, for more reliable germination of a majority of seeds, they should be scarified. The seeds of many pines that crave fire can be heated briefly in an already hot oven to simulate fire, just enough to heat the seed coat without roasting the seeds. Some people actually prefer to spread them on a piece of paper, and then burn the paper. Seeds that only need their hard outer coating to be damaged slightly might need only to be sanded lightly on sandpaper. I actually prefer to rub my canna or Heavenly bamboo (nandina) seeds on a brick or bit of sandstone.

Arid Climates Can Be Challenging

Some plants shrivel in arid warmth.

‘Mediterranean’ translates as an adjective that describes being at the middle of the Earth. Those who inhabited that region many centuries ago considered the Mediterranean Sea to be central to their World. That was long ago and far away. Nonetheless, climates here and now are somehow Mediterranean. Maybe semi arid climates of Italy are Californian.

Mediterranean climates are temperately warm with dry weather through summer. Rain is almost exclusive to a rainy season between autumn and spring. Although rain can briefly get abundant during the rainy season, the average annual rainfall is modest. Humidity is minimal for much of the time. Arid warmth is more comfortable than rarely humid warmth.

Desert climates accumulate less than ten inches of rain annually. Local climates receive more than fifteen inches of rain annually. They are therefore not sufficiently arid to qualify as desert climates. Technically, they are only semi arid chaparral climates. This climactic designation is perhaps more appropriate than the regional designation of Mediterranean.

Native plants and plants that are native to other chaparral climates are naturally pleased with the local climate. However, some initiate at least partial dormancy to survive through the long and arid summers. They may bloom early, but then partially defoliate for several months. Some delay dormancy if watered. A few dislike watering. It is unnatural for them.

Most plants in home gardens are not native to chaparral climates. They require watering to compensate for aridity during summer. Minimal humidity accelerates evaporation from foliar surfaces, which increases the demand for moisture. In conjunction with warmth and wind, aridity can desiccate foliage. Like people and pets, plants must maintain hydration.

Humid warmth that is less comfortable for people and pets is more comfortable for plants than arid warmth is. Humidity inhibits evaporation from foliar surfaces so plants consume less moisture. Incidentally, most pathogens, such as fungal diseases, bacterial diseases and most insects, also prefer warm humidity. People and pets seem to be in the minority.

Give Plants What They Want

Flowering crabapples are generally reliable for profuse bloom, but some varieties might perform and grow better where winters are cooler.

Dogwoods are certainly pretty as they bloom this time of year. They are rare, but seen often enough in nurseries to make one wonder why they are even more scarce in local gardens. Those that got sold in previous years should now be prominent features around town. The problem is that because they are not happy in local climates, dogwoods become dogwon’ts. They won’t bloom. They won’t provide good fall color. Many won’t even grow. Dogwoods prefer more humidity, so in local gardens, want to be sheltered from full sun exposure and drying wind by larger trees or buildings.

Nurseries generally stock plants that are appropriate for local climates. A few nurseries also have a few plants that would rather be somewhere else, but can be grown with certain accommodations. Reputable retail nurseries are generally careful to divulge which plants need more attention, and what their requirements are. However, many of the big garden centers in home improvement stores are more interested in selling what they can rather than selling what is actually appropriate, particularly since they thrive on turnover and replacing plants that do not survive.

Not all plants are as easy to grow as junipers and oleanders are. Japanese maples and rhododendrons like at least some degree of shelter from direct sun exposure and dry heat; but the California fan palm thrives in wicked heat. Plumerias and coleus can be damaged by even slight frost; but many apples and pears want more frost. Spruces like even moisture; but many yuccas rot without enough dry time.

This is why it is important to know how to accommodate plants that may be less than ideal for local climates. Those of us who choose to grow plants that have special needs should at least give them what they want if we expect them to perform as we want them to.

Warmth Accelerates Early Spring Bloom

Deciduous fruit trees should remain dormant.

Unseasonable warmth and dryness has been great this winter. Such weather is often an advantage of this locally mild climate. Chill never gets too harsh. Rain does not continue for too long. However, even by local standards, the weather has been unusually dry and warm for quite a while. Although appealing to people, it can get disruptive horticulturally.

Obviously, a lack of rain eventually becomes a lack of moisture. Some evergreen plants, potted plants, ground cover plants and lawns may already need watering. Although rain, or lack thereof, does not affect availability of water from municipal sources, it determines when irrigation with such water becomes necessary. It will be sooner than later this year.

Obviously, warmth accelerates this process. It draws moisture both from intact evergreen foliage and the soil below. (Dormant deciduous plants still do not lose as much moisture without foliage.) Unseasonable aridity (minimal humidity) and wind intensify the effect of unseasonable warmth. Desiccation is not the worst consequence of the weather though.

Unseasonable or premature warmth might stimulate premature spring bloom and growth. This can be very disruptive for plants that rely on sustained chill to maintain their minimal dormancy requirements. Peonies that are marginal where they normally experience their minimal chill requirements might be dissatisfied with inadequate chill through this winter. 

Even for plants that do not require much or any chill, premature bloom can be vulnerable to normal aspects of wintry weather if and when it resumes. Flowering cherry trees might bloom during sustained warmth. Such bloom would be quite susceptible to damage from resuming winter rain. Resumed chill might stall premature magnolia bloom until it molds. 

Prematurely developing fruit, accelerated by unseasonable warmth, is also vulnerable to resumption of wintry weather. Heavy rain, which is still possible through the remainder of winter, can dislodge freshly pollinated flowers, or small fruit as it begins to develop. More developed fruit is vulnerable to rot or mold during cool and damp weather prior to spring.

Frost Damage Is Not Cool

Frost damage is a cold reality.

Frost happens. It may not happen every winter. It may not happen everywhere. For a few of the mildest climates, it may not be a major concern. For some climates though, it might have potential to cause significant problems. The best means to avert frost damage is to avoid plants that are vulnerable to a degree of frost that is normal for a particular climate.

Of course, that is not as simple as it sounds. Even in mild climates, angel’s trumpet might get shabby from chill that is not cold enough for frost. Where weather gets cooler, familiar plants such as bougainvillea, avocado, lemon, fuchsia and pelargonium may experience frost damage. Such plants necessitate certain precautions, and must assume innate risk. 

Some plants that are susceptible to frost damage can live in portable pots that can move to sheltered situations prior to frosty weather. Some might be houseplants that live in the garden for part of the year, but come inside at least for winter. Eaves, particularly if above walls of heated buildings, may be adequate protection for marginally susceptible plants.

Plants that are susceptible to frost damage, but live in the ground or are too big to move, may need temporary protection from frost. Such protection might consist of tarps, burlap, old sheets, plastic trash bags or cardboard, suspended above by stakes and string. Thin materials, such as sheets or trash bags, can freeze through, so should not touch foliage.

Protective tenting materials should not remain over sensitive foliage for too long. Ideally, they should be in place immediately prior to frost, and then gone immediately after. Since frost occurs at night here, protection is useful only overnight. During daytime, it obstructs sunlight, but collects heat to stimulate new growth that is more sensitive to frost damage.

Many plants are too big to protect. Fortunately, bigger plants are less susceptible to frost damage than smaller plants. If possible, outer foliage that succumbs should remain until the local last frost date. Although unsightly, it shelters inner growth. Moreover, premature removal of frost damage stimulates new growth that is even more susceptible to subsequent frost damage.

Frost Is Different From Chill

Frost has already stricken some regions.

‘Chill’ could almost be a pleasant euphemism for ‘frost’. Both words describe cool or cold weather that occurs during winter. The obvious difference is that one is good, and one is bad. Chill is a minimum duration of cool weather that some plants require through winter to maintain their schedules. Frost is weather that is cool enough to damage some plants. 

This technical difference is that chill is at or below forty-five degrees Fahrenheit (≤45°F), and frost is at or below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit (≤32°F). That is a difference of only thirteen degrees Fahrenheit (13°F), just above the freezing temperature of water. Climate and weather are simply not cooperative enough to comply to such precise technicalities.

Climates that provide sufficient chill for many plants that require it are also likely to inflict frost on occasion. Where chill is sufficient for most plants that need it, frost is likely much too severe for plants that are sensitive to it. Climates that lack frost are unlikely to provide enough chill for plants that need just a bit. High chill apples and oranges should not mix.

Of course, just as various chill dependent plants require various degrees of chill, various frost sensitive plants tolerate various degrees of frost. Some orange cultivars can survive frost as cold as twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit (25°F) within climates that low chill apple cultivars are happy with. Angel’s trumpet though, succumbs as soon as ice crystals form. 

It is helpful to know which plants are sensitive to frost, even in frostless climates. Tropical plants might get rather pallid when the weather is too cool for too long, even if frost is not a direct threat. Potted plants are more susceptible to frost damage than they would be in the ground, but can migrate to sheltered situations. Some can be temporary houseplants. 

Frost naturally limits the selection of plants. Various tropical plants that are appropriate to frostless climates are not appropriate for climates with harsh winter weather. That can be confusing with so many distinct climates within such minimal proximity. Coastal, inland, mountain, and all climates are so very different from each other.

Chill Helps Plants Distinguish Seasons

Spring bulbs know what chill means.

The Santa Clara Valley was formerly famous for stone fruit orchards. The San Fernando Valley was formerly famous for citrus orchards. The Wenatchee Region of Washington is still famous for apple orchards. Many variables influence which agricultural commodities grow or grew in each region. Of these, one of the more obvious is temperature and ‘chill’. 

Citrus could not be productive in the Wenatchee Region because it could not survive the chill of winter there. Although productive in home gardens of the Santa Clara Valley, it is not quite as productive as it is where winter is warmer in the San Fernando Valley. Citrus appreciates warmth but not chill. Many tropical and subtropical plants feel the same way. 

However, many of the numerous cultivars of apple that are so famously productive in the Wenatchee Region would be unproductive in the Santa Clara Valley. Only a scant few of these might produce relatively meagerly in the San Fernando Valley. Unlike citrus, which dislike chill, apple trees need chill for production. Some cultivars need more than others.

Chill regulates the schedules of many plants that are originally endemic to climates with cool winters. It confirms the occurrence of winter, which is a convenient time to finish one annual cycle and begin another. Some plants require only a minimal chill. Those that are from climates with harsh winters require coercion by more significant and sustained chill.  

One of the primary reasons that spring bulbs are available for planting early in autumn is that some benefit from spending winter in a cool and damp garden. Although, most bulbs are chilled prior to marketing. Some previously chilled spring bulbs bloom splendidly for their first season, but then bloom unsatisfactorily if chill is inadequate for them afterward.

Most plants that need more chill than they can get locally are simply not available locally. Some are available online though. A few locally popular plants that are marginal for mild climates get confused by the seasons. This is why some flowers such as torch lily, bloom randomly or out of season. Daphne and some late winter flowers may be blooming now, and could get damaged by frost later.

Plants Know What Time It Is

Deciduous trees will eventually begin to defoliate.

Even without significant cool weather, the garden knows that it is now autumn. Most of the late summer blooming flowers are finishing their last bloom phases. Leaves of some of the deciduous trees, shrubs and vines are changing color, and some are already falling. Perennials that are dormant through winter are starting to deteriorate.

One of the several difficulties of living in a climate with so few difficulties is that autumn and winter weather is so very mild. Just as so many warm season annuals and vegetables want to continue to perform when it is time for them to relinquish their space to cool season annuals and vegetables, many other plants that should go dormant in autumn really want to stay awake as long as they can. Some semi-deciduous perennials even start to regenerate new growth before they shed their old growth.

Where winters are cooler, such plants generally shed the growth that developed in the previous year; in other words, they die back. They then stay dormant through the coolest part of winter, to break dormancy and regenerate late in winter or early in spring.

Beard tongue (Penstemon) can really look bad as the last flower spikes deteriorate, and the foliage gets spotty and grungy. It will be tempting to cut them back early. If possible, it is better to prune off only the deteriorating flower spikes, but wait until later in winter for major pruning. Premature pruning stimulates premature development of new growth that does not mature as well or as fast through winter as it would in spring. Such growth can be discolored, sparse and less vigorous until it gets obscured by later growth.

Marguerite daisy, ginger, canna, some salvias, most begonias, the various pelargoniums and all sorts of other perennials will likewise seem to be rather tired this time of year and through winter, but do not necessarily need to be pruned back just yet. Simply plucking or shearing off deteriorating flowers should be enough for now. Ginger and canna should not need to be pruned back until the foliage deteriorates enough to be almost unsightly. Begonias and pelargoniums, particularly common zonal geraniums, will be better insulated from potential frost damage through winter, and may not produce so much sensitive new growth if not pruned early.

Cooler Weather Is Slower Weather

Cooling weather can damage new growth.

Weather is not quite as warm as it had been. Warm days do not last quite as long as they did earlier in summer. Afterward, the longer nights get a bit cooler. Technically, autumn is only a few days from now. Although seasonal changes are mild, and a bit later here than in other regions, they eventually catch up. Plant activity has already been getting slower.

Seasonal changes keep gardening interesting. Plants that are now growing slower than earlier may need less attention. However, some need more attention, precisely because they are growing slower. Some of the work that was so important through summer should conclude until spring. Some of the work that will be important through winter begins now. 

Although evergreen, photinia and pittosporum hedges do not do much between now and next spring. If shorn too late, new growth develops slowly, and may become shabby as a result of cooler and rainier weather later. Late pruning of citrus stimulates vigorous newer growth that may be sensitive to frost through winter. Lemons are particularly susceptible.

Conversely, dormant pruning can begin as deciduous foliage starts to fall. Although most roses and fruit trees supposedly prefer to wait until winter, they may soon be too dormant to notice if pruning is a bit premature. This is partly why autumn is the season of planting. Mostly dormant plants are more resilient to discomforts than they would be while awake.

New Zealand flax, lily of the Nile, African iris and other rugged perennials are conducive to division now. They will soon be about as dormant as they get, but will want to disperse roots for winter anyway. They resume growth before winter ends, so want to be ready for it. Once rainier and cooler weather resumes, they will need no watering until next spring. 

Fertilizer should be passe soon also. Most plants consume less nutrients through cooler weather. Besides, many nutrients are less soluble, and therefore less available to plants while the weather is cool. Turf, cool season vegetables, cool season annuals, and some small palms are a few exceptions that could benefit from minor applications of fertilizers.

Humidity Is The Other Weather

Some delicate foliage prefers more humidity.

It is difficult to always ignore the weather. Regardless of how pleasant it typically is here, it sometimes gets warm or cool. It occasionally gets hot or cold. Rain is wet and perhaps messy. A breeze is comforting while the weather is warm. Strong wind can be damaging. However, humidity is one major component of local weather that gets little consideration. 

Humidity gets more consideration in climates that are either uncomfortably humid or arid. Some parts of Florida get famously humid and hot simultaneously during summer. Some flora and insects enjoy such weather. Unfortunately for the rest of us, humidity enhances the already unpleasant heat. Locally, hot or warm weather is rarely bothersomely humid.

Similarly, local weather is rarely unpleasantly arid (lacking humidity). This is a chaparral climate, which is ‘semiarid’. Relatively minimal humidity makes heat a bit more tolerable than it would be with more humidity. Yet, humidity is generally sufficient to sustain foliage that would desiccate in a more arid desert situation. Actually, this is an excellent climate.

Although, it is not perfect. Flora and fauna have different standards for exemplary climate and weather. The relatively minimal humidity that makes uncomfortably warm weather a bit more tolerable for people and animals is much less appealing to some plants. Except for those that are native to desert or chaparral climates, most plants prefer more humidity.  

Many popular plants are understory plants, that naturally live in the partial shade of taller vegetation. With shelter from desiccating arid wind and harsh sunlight (to enhance heat), most do not mind heat. Otherwise, foliage might roast. Those with finely textured foliage, such as astilbe, ferns, grasses and some Japanese maples, are particularly susceptible.

Some tropical and subtropical plants, such as split leaf philodendron and fuchsia, prefer to be understory plants here, even if they would prefer more exposure within their natural ecosystems. The shelter provided by more resilient vegetation compensates for deficient humidity. Furthermore, adequate irrigation promotes healthy hydration of delicate foliage.