This winter’s glorious rainfall is a poignant reminder of the life-giving potential of water after several years of lower-than-average rainfall and emergency drought declarations. Water pouring off the front ranges cascades into waterfalls that haven’t been seen in years, and the mountains behind town are bursting with wildflowers. The second year’s growth in the burn zones, fed by abundant rainfall, is lush with annual, fire-following species such as phacelia, primrose, bluebells and wild cucumber buzzing with native pollinators like solitary bumble bees recently emerged from winter’s underground hibernation.
We begin to see the process of plant succession (change) that follows fire as well: shrubs such as ceanothus, sumac and elderberry—blackened stumps last spring—now sport several feet of new growth which will ultimately overtake and shade out sun-loving wildflowers. The delicate balance of sun and shade shifts daily on the mountainsides, following historic patterns first created by the Chumash via controlled burns. The Chumash understood and wielded the invigorating powers of fire and the years of transition that followed to assure abundant supplies of food, medicine and cultural materials.
If you walk along trails near water at this time of year, step carefully: California newts awakened by the heavy rains are flocking to aquatic breeding sites. The newts’ chunky bodies move clumsily on land, bumbling into fallen logs and tripping over stray sticks, but once they slip underwater they become sinuous, graceful creatures found in still pools under the shadows of rocks. Listen also for the calls of frogs as they begin to breed, especially if you walk trails near day’s end. Frogs and toads are particularly threatened by drought, so this winter is a joyous occasion for them.
Resident and migratory birds are abundant and active in the lengthening days, broadcasting for mates from the tops of trees, shrubs and telephone poles. Last week’s vernal equinox, the moment when day and night are in perfect balance before the lengthening of days into summer, is a cue for many birds to begin building nests and raising young. Look for telltale signs such as birds winging through the air with sticks and twigs and parent birds kicking up a fuss when flocks of curious crows are nearby. The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is a hot spot of bird activity, with spring’s full moon tides bringing fresh flushes of nutrition to plants and terrestrial and aquatic animals alike.
Spring’s awakening echoes in our home gardens as well. Every good gardener knows that best results come from working with the seasons. In Southern California, this includes taking full advantage of winter rains by building gardens and home spaces designed to capture water. Tactics include building topography into gardens via raised beds (berms) and sunken pits (swales) covered in a thick layer of wood chips. Mulched depressions in the garden are spaces where water slows and sinks into the ground, recharging groundwater levels and building healthy soil. In more conventional landscapes which lack the topography and organic material to capture rainwater run-off, water can be a force of erosion and pollution instead, with fast-moving water picking up pollutants from road surfaces before sheeting into ocean drainages.
Consider bringing plants from the mountains, marshes and coastal bluffs into your yard. So many of our unique and beautiful pollinators—butterflies, birds and animals— are threatened by habitat destruction and the consequences of human-caused climate change, such as the drought conditions that may well re-assert themselves next winter. Incorporating native plants in your landscape provides food and shelter for the other-than-human world, as well as being much more drought-tolerant.
The lengthening of days near the full moon after so much rain is also an auspicious moment to begin a spring and summer vegetable garden. If you are new to edible gardening, start small. Even one raised bed lined with wire to protect from gophers, or several pots on a sunny patio, can provide an astonishing abundance of fresh produce. Growing even a part of your household’s fruits, vegetables and herbs is a meaningful way to connect to the seasons and your own health.
Spring crops that flourish at this time of year include salad greens such as lettuce, arugula and spinach; cooking greens such as collards, kale and Swiss chard; root crops such as turnips, beets, carrots and radishes, and herbs such as parsley, cilantro and dill. All of these crops are easy to grow planted directly in the ground as seed, saving you money on plant starts. If you have a little more room, you can also grow bigger veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Now is the time to plant strawberries for fresh, sweet fruit all summer as well.
If you have a warm and sunny windowsill, begin plants indoors for hot-weather crops such as eggplant, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and peppers. Our coastal California summers can prove challenging to some heat-loving veggies—make sure to look for cool or short season tomatoes or stick with cherry tomatoes for best results.
This spring is a particularly lovely celebration of the seasons. While copious rainfall has filled several reservoirs and recharged groundwater, it is essential to respect natural processes that require their fair share of water by using it wisely in our home landscapes. Growing your own food is a particularly satisfying way to use water wisely, by keeping food production local and personal. For more tips and tricks to beginning a home garden, stay tuned to upcoming classes at the Carpinteria Garden Park designed to provide you with the tools to participate more fully in the seasons.