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Putting A California Garden To Bed In Late Summer


Snow does not fall in my back yard. The last time it snowed, and hit the ground and remained, was probably 1960. So the seasons do not put our gardens to bed.

Instead, we do it ourselves. And, our dormant time, whether the vegetation knows it or not, is late summer. When the lavender is done and the camellias are hinting at winter buds.


We know the time has come by a thinning of light and yellowing of leaves. Believe it or not, along with Californian informality we develop a sensitivity to the shift of seasons. Otherwise we might believe life never changes. Immortality is tempting.


I cut back my grasses. Briefly, I imagine topiary rabbits. I settle for introverted turtles.

I chop down the lavender. This year I succumbed to visions of Provence, bought purple raffia and tied up bundles for kindling.


This embarrassed me. Too Fauxvence for words, or certainly for High WASPs. I hid the bundles on the hearth, behind our very large television. But large televisions also embarrass a High WASP, what to do? I think I’ll keep on bundling. Maybe with brown raffia next time. Or orange. Life is too short to hold on to childhood taboos.

In truth, lavender may burn badly, but the astringent scent by the fireplace compensates for sputter and flare in the fire.


Abelia drops its flowers discreetly, leaving red leaves behind like mothers and fathers at a high school soccer game, “Wait, hey, is the game over?”


I could also cut back the milkweed and sage in my butterfly garden, but as these are natives, in a side yard, I’m letting them do as they will. Go to seed, die, return, make a mess. I like gardens for their death as well as their life. Besides, I’m still kind of mad at the neighbors for adding on a second story and concomitantly cutting down their screening hedge. “Take that, neighbors! Just watch my milkweed yellow and fry! ”

High WASPs are about as good at vengeance as they are at rustic crafts.


My containers will bloom all winter. I might relent and bring them inside for the occasional frost. The thunbergia vine, by the way, is going gangbusters. The fuchsia is flowering.


And then, of course, those white roses. They never really seem to get a clue. Keep on blooming, and thorning, and flouncing about way past bedtime. Like when you throw a dinner party for some other families with children, and one by one the little ones drop off, on the sofa or in their parents’ arms. Then down the hall comes a small voice, and you tiptoe to follow it, and find one little girl, playing alone, animating a pack of plastic dogs.

“You don’t want to go to bed, do you?” she says to the spaniel. “No, I don’t,” she answers herself.


OK. OK. We won’t prune until January. When even roses know the time has come.



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44 Responses

  1. Re lavender bundles – maybe if you used plain sisal twine you wouldn’t feel so silly. The only thing I’ve used lavender for is making woven sachets with the young unopened flowers and stems.

    1. @AK, That would be much more dignified – good idea. That said, my living room smells pretty dang good at the moment;).

  2. Lavender smells so good and you are lucky to have it. Not sure why but I’ve not been able to grow it successfully in my garden.

    You are so right about the subtleties of our seasons. I sorely missed England’s four seasons for about the first ten years after moving to California but now I’m able to see the changes clearly and look forward to them, everything from the obvious temperature drop, to the softer light and longer shadows, and the sleepy garden. Not exactly sure what is happening this year though as I recently spotted a blossom on my pear tree. Topsy turvy mad!

  3. I noticed yesterday, that a miniature red leafed Japanese maple, that’s in a large pot, look starved for water. No, the leaves are shriveling and getting ready to drop. First sign of autumn here. It’s a good time to both prune and also to plant.

    1. @kathy, I mistook the browning of some shrubs under my oak tree for water debt, until I read up and saw they are decidous! Autumn is a great to plant, I think I’ll wait until November, though. So as to know a little more about El Niño and whether it will bring rain or no.

    1. @kathy, I planted the madrone and olive trees this spring – but I’m kind of wishing I’d planted older specimens, or else just gone straight for a big ol’ hedge.

  4. Lisa, you write so beautifully. Yes, here it’s the heat and dryness of the late summer/early fall that seems to wither everything and send it napping. Counting the weeks until we can begin to expect rain.

  5. Last few days I’ve been seeing the Canadian geese doing their preps. A very melancholy sight. So elegant yet sad. Sad because it means summer is almost over and the cold will be starting. Having said that I actually like having four seasons. Guess I’m indecisive today.

    1. @kathy, Marie, I find it much easier to evoke feelings in writing if it’s a feeling I’ve felt strongly, involving all the senses at once. Almost like the original experience writes the post, if that makes sense.

  6. Also, don’t feel too bad about planting smaller shrubs and trees. It seems like they actually do better in the long run than more mature specimens, and after a few years they’re caught up with the larger plants. Maybe they have better tolerance to planting shock.

    1. @AK, Yes, this is my understanding too. I’m just really impatient. And I do have bamboo elsewhere, as Kathy suggests above, I could have used it, but I had a bee in my bonnet about native/Mediterranean plans in this space.

  7. from my San Francisco days: My boss at the time coming in to work and announcing, “It’s fall. The light changed today.” Yes. California is like that.

    1. ah, I live in Oregon now. But I do remember those California days….

      Putting the garden to bed is a real thing here. Do I dig the dahlias, or leave them be? When’s the best time to transplant? etc etc etc. It has been a challenging summer for us–unusually hot. If this is the way things are going, thanks to climate change, then parts of the garden need to be completely rethought.

  8. Dear Lisa, What a lovely metaphor and wonderful description of small, not-sleepy children. Enjoying my garden here in Western Norway in an ‘indian summer’ before a complete rest from it from October til April. The contrast between summer and winter garden makes both seasons special.

    1. @Lesley, Thank you. I’ve never been to Norway, but I understand it’s beautiful. Are you covered in snow for the entire winter? Or simply frozen?

  9. What a beautiful garden you have! Enjoy your lavender,I like your bundles with purple raffia ,it is so lovely and I’ll say : “Frankly,my dear……”, but,understand your feelings :-). We have lavender in Dalmatia (well,I have it in my garden,but it is nothing to write here about it,together with my other attempts to remove mediterranian plants here-except figs!),and they make bundles with kind of grey rope,it looks elegant. Don’t bamboos need a lot of water? I was thinking about them for a while
    I learned through your and Une femme blogs about your climate,for me it was always sunny in (southern)California with a lot of swimming in a warm sea(I know!) and a little surfing.
    We had beautiful and proper four seasons,but lately autumn and spring tend to be shorter. And in winter we have usually snow (I hate snow in cities,it is beautiful only when it falls,and then there are only problems and slush)

    1. @dottoressa, I say “Frankly my dear” to myself these days too – it’s a learning experience. Pretty can be OK. And the bamboo I have doesn’t seem to need much water at all!

  10. It is beautiful here, Lisa. I still think this after 15 years here. West coast winters can offer everything from cold rain followed by deep frozen ground (and plants) to a good covering of snow insulating the ground. It is an exciting time each spring, waiting to see what has survived in the garden. If something dies, well it’s just a chance to replace it with another plant on my list of ‘must have’s’.

    1. @Lesley, I am waiting to see if any of the plants that seem to have died in the summer water restrictions will come back. And you get snow? Where are you, up higher towards the Sierras? If you don’t mind me asking.

  11. Hello Lisa, It’s funny how we transplanted Northerners insist on imposing our old sense of seasons on new surroundings. Taiwan (somewhat like Florida)is never cold, yet there are definite seasons, although somewhat vague and surreal by Ohio standards. And if letting sage and milkweed grow (two plants I find very appealing) is your most severe vengeance, well, I have wished worse on certain neighbors.
    P.S. Did you get my ‘Kernochan’ note?

    1. @Parnassus, I can imagine the translation of Ohio seasons to Taiwan! And oh gosh yes, I’m so sorry, I tend to be bad at responding to email in a timely manner, I’m much better here and on Twitter. To my knowledge, we have no Kernochan connection in recent generations, however, back in Scotland, I guess it’s quite likely.

  12. This is maybe my favorite post of yours ever. I love the idea of putting a garden to bed–and asking neighbors to see the yellowing of your perennial! Our neighbor (who is perfectly nice) commenced to paint his side of a fence WEEKS before we were having a home wedding reception. In that process, he was having his painters cut loose the ivy on his side (which of course was OUR ivy on our side). Needless to say, our ivy on the fence starting dying. Fortunately, I was able to run next-door and implore him to be careful. All was well.

    Gardens are so special–and in the final analysis, so high maintenance if they are to be beautiful. No one ever wants to talk about this! I try to remain blissfully calm and enjoy whatever comes–within reason.

    1. @Susan, I am so glad you enjoyed it! And I tried asking the neighbors if they might consider replanting their hedge but the woman of the house was not open to the idea:(. Sounds like your neighbor was more flexible. And yes, they are high maintenance if they are more than just lawns and bushes in the ground, and the maintenance has to be done by someone. Luckily I enjoy the work, and as you say, enjoy whatever comes — within reason.

  13. Hello LPC,

    I find this time of year unsettling garden-wise here in Berkeley. As you know, we don’t get much of a summer being directly across from the golden gate. Many days that are beautiful elsewhere are overcast and windy (late afternoon) here.

    So this late summer/early fall time of year we have sunny days because it is cooler inland, but the days are shorter, the light has an angle, and those damned spiders are everywhere. You know the kind? Do you get them on the peninsula? They are huge and stripey and will spin a web overnight right across your front steps – which, if you’re me, you will walk right into and suffer a case of the is-there-a-huge-spider-on-me willies.

    I long all year for sunny days spent lounging in my backyard, but I don’t love it so much this time of year when everything is dusty and turning brown.

    Anyway, I agree with you on pruning the roses in January. That’s what we do too, because they will keep blooming right through Thanksgiving, if not Christmas.

    1. @rb, Aaack! We get spiders, and webs into which ones walks unknowingly, lots of them, but not stripey ones. And my sister, who lives in your part of the East Bay, has some of the same issues with lack of sun over there. I think I would feel less at peace with the dust and brown if we hadn’t had So Much Sun this year.

      To roses in Christmas, then:).

  14. Lovely post. Putting the garden is always such a joy to me and I am looking forward to it this year, the first garden I’ve had to put to bed in a few years. It is not time yet in Tennessee, but the changes are in the air. The scent of the air and the earth is changing, and the morning and evening light, but not so much the daytime light as of yet. I love those moments marking the change of seasons, and those perfect moments when, yes, it is different, and a new season has begun. I think that tipping point is true everywhere, although in some places it is more marked than others, and perhaps only for certain seasons.

  15. Don’t mind you asking at all. I live in the fjords on the west coast, with a ‘mild’ maritime climate. Mountains all around but not months of stable, cold, snowy winter. And in the south so no midnight sun but no total darkness in winter either. Is completely alien for me to think of plants succumbing to drought – here things are more likely to drown or become waterlogged in the autumn and then freeze to death.

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