Gardening in California Successfully

dry summer garden
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California's climate is generally called "Mediterranean."  Yet it ranges across the state from the hot deserts, as in the case of Death Valley, to the sub-artic, dry, mountain regions of Western California.  

But what does a Mediterranean climate consist of and why is it harder to garden in California than in other parts of the United States?

What is a Mediterranean Climate?

A Mediterranean climate is characterized by dry summers and wet winters. These particular climates can be found on

  • coasts that have a large body of water to their west and
  • are found in latitudes between 30-45 degrees North and South of the equator

Examples of these aside from California are obviously, the Mediterranean coasts, South Africa, Chile and the Western part of Australia. In permaculture and ecology, all these different places with similar climates are called "climate analogues." It's handy to learn what might grow in your area by comparing it to existing climate analogs around the world. 

Weather And Mediterranean Climate - Silicon Valley Seeds throughout California Map Of Koppen Climate Classification - Map of USA District

What is different about gardening in California's climate?

We often hear, "It never rains in Southern California. " But the truth is that it never rains in Southern California during the summer.

California's climate is characterized by the presence of South Pacific High-Pressure Zone. And that is primarily due to the North Pacific Subtropical High-Pressure System (pictured below), which I'll refer to from now on as the North Pacific High.

gardening in california North pacific high_LI

The North Pacific High is a semi-permanent high-pressure system which buffers or thwarts all potential storms that come in its way. Because of this, Southern California experiences dry summers and falls. During the wintertime, however, it moves and is displaced by the 'Aleutian Low.' So it does rain (and sometimes snow) in California during the winter.

What this means for California gardeners:

  • Grow crops during the winters into spring!
  • You will have a shorter "sweet spot" period during which your temperature is both warm AND wet. This will occur during the early spring and in some places, late summer. As a result of this prolonged dryness and heat, it is harder for plants to decompose and increase soil fertility. This is partially why a lot of California soil, especially along the coastal sage scrub ecosystems are rocky, dry and predominantly shale. These kinds of soil compositions generally tend to have an alkaline pH (7.5-8.5).
  • Plants that are native to Mediterranean climates will have adaptations that can handle these changes in weather. Examples of such edible plants are herbs like sage, thyme, and rosemary and trees like pomegranates and pears.

What is different about gardening in California's climate?

Given this backdrop of the California climate, it is interesting to note that California gardens on a mere 10% of its total land area but uses a whopping 80% of its water! That's down from its state-water use in the 1960s which was at 90%.



California garden lemons


Manage your Water Use

    • Capture the water especially during the wintertime

Prepare to capture rain during late fall through spring. And when it does rain, make sure to channel that water to your growing spaces

    • Capture water passively


Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands is famous for promoting passive water capture in arid climates such as his hometown of Arizona. In the following video, he shows us how he has retrofitted his house using low-tech solutions. He passively captures greywater and water from his roof into vegetative systems around his homestead and teaches others to do the same on their properties.



Mulch your garden

Mulching is essential, especially in drylands. Never leave your soil exposed so that it loses what little moisture it receives. Mulching reduces the need for watering by 25%. For gardens in California, you can mulch in a variety of ways. Here are some methods:

mulch helps California gardens

Chop and Drop

Chop and drop your trimmings and pruned leaves and stems directly onto the bare ground. Do this unless your plant is diseased. 

There are certain plants in permaculture called "dynamic accumulators" that act as green fertilizer for your garden. 

Use Dynamic Accumulators

A dynamic accumulator is a plant that will absorb and retain, in the leaf, at least one nutrient at levels that are at least many times higher than the average plant. (From Garden Myths)

Some plants will bring up huge amounts of specific nutrients. For instance, wherever you find lambsquarters, you are sure to have a lot of potassium available. Pigweed specializes in calcium. Yet other plants such as dandelion, and comfrey act as generalists and draw up a broader range of smaller amounts of all the micro and macronutrients available in the soil and store them in their leaves and bodies. 

When you chop and drop the leaves from these particular plants, you are sure to fertilize the soil around them.

To find out which plant brings up what kind of nutrient, Dr. James Duke, a botanist from the USDA put together this extensive list of accumulators which you can use for your own soil amendment needs. 

Note that "chopping and dropping" does not pertain to the weeds that you want to eliminate from your garden. You want to make sure that when you pull out these unwanted weeds, you do so from the root and do not introduce them back into your garden bed by "dropping" them as mulch there. You probably should put them in a compost pile where they can degenerate and turn into rich organic soil. More on composting below.

Use straw, hay, leaves and grass clippings

You can mulch with dried clippings, straw, or leaves. As mentioned above, remember to compost those weeds! We hope that after time and weathering, these organic materials will decompose and "build up" the nutrient profile of your soil.

Grow living mulch

Growing something on bare soil is also another form of "mulching." These living mulches not only hold the soil in place through their roots but cover the soil over a longer amount of time as they do not decompose at once.

If you can choose perennial ground covers such as "creeping thyme," strawberries or even sedum this can lessen your need to cover the soil.
Some farmers will choose to use "cover crops" during a fallow season on the soil that they are trying to rejuvenate. These cover crops (mainly legume types) can also be a good choice for living mulch.

Clover can be used as a cover crop because it is leguminous

Not only do "cover crops" such as alfalfa, clover, buckwheat and peas hold the soil in place, keep the moisture in the ground and lessen evaporation, they are also nitrogen-fixers that reintroduce plant-soluble forms of nitrogen back into soil that may have been depleted by growing "heavy-feeding" crops such as tomatoes and corn. This leads us into the next main thing that's required for successful gardening in California and that is "Building the Soil"

Lasagna Gardening

If you are just starting to grow your food and want to build a garden bed you can ensure that the soil building process occurs over time, you can do "lasagna gardening." soil by building your gardens in layers. These layers break down over time and increase the natural fertility of your soil while keeping the weeds at bay.


You can mulch with dried clippings, straw, or leaves. As mentioned above, remember to compost those weeds! We hope that after time and weathering, these organic materials will decompose and "build up" the nutrient profile of your soil.

A beautifully finished compost pile


Composting is so important for any garden. We have written about composting in the past, and plan to deal with it more extensively in the future. There are refinements to how good compost is created but in general, make sure to: 

Have a good Carbon to Nitrogen (C: N) ratio in your compost bin and your soil!  

The required composting ratio is 25-30 (Carbon):1(Nitrogen).

One personal mistake I've made in the past is that because our family generates a lot of food scraps, I tend to put vegetable scraps in the compost, without adding (3) three to (4) four times the amount of carbon for every kitchen scrap I add.

Carbon-rich materials are often found in leaves from trees dropped during the fall, straw or hay cut after it has gone to seed. When I don't have this carbon, I often have enough scratch paper that my children have used around the house or in school. I shred these and some paper junk mail (with the exception of glossy ads) and have the kids add those to the compost bin outside to increase the carbon content of my pile.

Introducing and Cultivating Life


An easy way to cultivate life is to cultivate the apex predator of the soil world: the red wriggler worm, "Eisenia foetida." You can do this in any virtually any container:

  • a plastic bin with holes in them or 
  • a hole-drilled pipe pushed into the ground
  • an old dairy creamer
  • an old bathtub
    • As Geoff Lawton says in the worm composting video above, the gut of the composting worm contains millions of beneficial bacteria that will build the soil.


Another component of good soil is mycorrhyzal fungi. These are a type of fungi that "colonize the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis." (New York Botanical Society). You can easily add mycorrhyzal fungi into your soil by sprinkling your soil with this powder:

Nitrogen Fixers

Nitrogen fixing bacteria such as Frankia and Rhizobia are bacteria dwll in the roots of legume plants and form symbiotic relationships with them. These bacteria have the uncanny ability to "fix" nitrogen by breaking the atmospheric nitrogen bonds so that they can become plant-available.  

As such, it's always a good idea to plant a few legumes such as peas and beans into your garden or as cover crops during a time when your soil is not being used. Other plants of the legume family include clovers, the autumn olives, and honey locusts.

Avoid Chemical Fertilizers

After having cultivated the life in your soil it would be ridiculous to spray this lovely ecosystem down with chemical fertilizers. There are two main reasons gardeners do this:

  • They wrongly believe that the fertility of their crop depends on chemicals.
  • They want to reduce weeds.
  • The pests and bugs pose a threat to crop loss, health or are deemed a nuisance in the garden.

Chemical sprays, even though they may initially boost production will eventually:

  • kill the entire soil biology (earthworms, bacteria, microarthropods, and everything!) 
  • wipe out the good bugs as well as the bad.  
  • promote weed growth
  • lead to cancer and other chemically-induced human diseases


What is a "permaculture edge?"

An "edge" in permaculture is the meeting of two (or more) different media or substrates, such as the meeting between water and the sand. Or the crossover from prairie to forest.

These edges, much like port cities are a conflux of elements from both media and serve as hubs for diverse flora and fauna species to thrive. Some species that will not survive in one kind of ecosystem will only survive on edges. And those that can survive in both can extend their survival into edge zones.

How to observe different "edges" in California ecosystems

California has such a diversity of species because of the different climatic zones and ecosystems that overlap with one another. Check out this marvelous video by Dr. Erica Zavaleta below where she takes us through an 11 Ecosystem Walk from the beach to the mixed conifer forests!  

This diversity of edges in California gardens results in a diversity of life! Whether you live in California or other northern parts of the temperate climate regions take a few moments to observe what edges your property has.

You may find yourself living in between a coastal sage scrub and chaparral region where certain drought-tolerant plants will go dormant in the spring.

In the chaparrals, you may find more evergreen shrubs that are adapted to hold on to their nitrogen because there's a little less of that available in the soil.  

Whatever it is that you observe, work with the signs that the plants are giving you and do not force plants into places that they do not naturally like to grow.  

Floodplains: Where the Water Meets the Land

California also has many excellent examples of floodplains. Here is video one in which Erik Ohlsen of Permaculture Skills Center observes and analyzes the occurrence of floodplains and the subsequent species that they bring:

I hope that this article has been helpful not only to those gardening in California but around the world. And that it serves as a reminder that

every successful permaculture garden begins by observation and everything in it is interconnected.

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