As the deadline approached for publication of the EBMUD plant book, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, I found myself without an introductory chapter, nothing to set the tone or communicate to readers our intentions for the book.
Consumed with a growing sense of panic, I headed off for the southern California desert, where I tend to go when I need to rest and recharge.
Staying with a friend in Twentynine Palms, I spent mornings hiking in Joshua Tree National Monument and afternoons on the guest house deck staring at my laptop. Days passed and no words came.
Every now and then I would set my computer aside and wander through the garden, intent on puttering and ending up marveling at how little was needed from me. Just as in the surrounding desert into which the garden seamlessly blended, every vignette was perfect, every vista complete.
I ached to take that garden home with me, to reproduce it plant-for-plant and rock-for-rock in northern California, hundreds of miles away. I actually got as far as imagining where I would plant the desert willows, where the chollas and yuccas would go, and how the huge pots of barrel cactus would be artfully displayed.
One unforgettable afternoon, out on my daily patrol, the truth suddenly came unbidden to me. If I wanted that garden I would have to pack up and move.
At my home in northern California, surrounded by bays, buckeyes, maples, and coast live oaks, most desert plants would require herculean efforts to force them to thrive. The shade, clay soils, dripping fogs, and winter downpours would ultimately exact their deadly price. The garden itself would look foolishly out of place against the views of grassy hills and the constantly changing blue-gray surface of a distant reservoir.
I went straight to my computer and typed these words: Gardening Where You Are. The rest of that chapter tumbled out as if writing itself, and in a few short days it was done.
If only my garden would proceed as quickly and with as little effort. But words are not plants, and books are not gardens. Words, for the most part, stay where you put them, and deer ignore them entirely.
Gardening where you are is a constant challenge. We are tempted to buy plants we love, those we’ve seen in garden books or admired on forays to other parts of the world. We try, mostly in vain, to change the fundamental nature of our native soils. We lavish water on plants that can’t take our dry summers, fight off mildew on those that dislike winter fogs, blanket frost-sensitive plants or bring them indoors, and cage those with flowers the deer adore.
How much easier it would be to revel in the singular beauty of our local environment, celebrate the natural world that still, against all odds, remains. That doesn’t mean we must plant only local natives, though that is one lovely way to go. It does mean that we would do well to slow way down, take a good look at our surroundings, note which plants thrive with little or no care from us, touch, feel, and smell the soil, and listen to the heartbeat of our own garden.
For most of us, learning to garden where you are takes time, patience, and a willingness to learn from our mistakes. It also sometimes requires a ruthless approach, a straight-on evaluation of what we really must have, as gardeners and as occupants of this planet, as compared to what our summer-dry climate requires.
We should never feel guilty if we struggle to keep that rose from our grandmother’s garden. We should not feel remorse if we simply must have that Japanese maple that suffers in the wind and drops leaves if we don’t water it more than the law allows.
As Thomas Church said, many years ago, gardens are for people. They are, of course, also for wildlife and for the environment as a whole. There are so many plants from summer-dry climates throughout the world — Chile, Argentina, Greece, South Africa, and anywhere else where summers are dry. Some will do well in any summer-dry climate. And some, for various reasons, will not. We would love to hear from readers throughout California and elsewhere. What plants have you tried and which have done well, which not, and why?
More comments welcome
Hello from Madrid, Spain.
We have a very dry summer and we aere investigating about native and no-native plants.
You are welcome to our garden
To my mind the best flowering plants for summer-dry gardens in the Los Angeles basin and surrounds are Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’, Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’ and Cleveland sage, all natives, with complementary colors in the inflorescences. They are planted ad nauseum but they work and look good most to the time. You need to cut them back occasionally.
I would like to see more pictures of pretty summer-dry gardens in southern California, although I must admit that good-looking ones here are few and far between.
Thanks for your comments. I have all three of those in my garden, and they are among the best, most reliable performers. The deer do munch the penstemon flowers, and my Cleveland sages are going over after about eight years, but I will keep on planting them. I also love a peachy colored bush monkeyflower cultivar, which I find only at North Coast Natives in Petaluma. We will be posting photos of southern California gardens. Saxon has found many that look quite wonderful over the years and will be photographing more.
Like Jane, I live in summer-dry Southern California but I ordered your book and found it inspirational. When we acquired our current house and garden 4 years ago, I threw in all those plants I’d never been able to try, much less grow, in my former shady, postage-stamp sized garden. Many didn’t survive and, over the past 2 years, I’ve invested more in Mediterranean and Australian plants, as well as succulents and California natives. Leucadenrons and Grevilleas are my current obsession.
I love grevilleas! There are so many different kinds you could do a whole garden with them. Leucadendrons I have not tried in my garden. They do so well in Santa Cruz though. I wonder if they prefer more coastal conditions. What other Australians and Mediterraneans have you had success with? And which plants did not survive?
Other plants hailing from Australia or New Zealand in my garden include Anigozanthos, Correa, Leptospermum, Phormium and Prostanthera. South African plants include Gazania and Osteospermum, as well as Freesia, Sparaxis and Watsonia bulbs. I’ve had the most trouble with Phormiums (P. tenax species have performed the best for me) and Correa (for reasons I have yet to understand). There are almost certainly more Mediterranean and Australian plants in my garden but, off-the-cuff, those are the genera that come immediately to mind.
For me the problem with phormiums (other than their unpredictable size!) is that many seem to prefer more water than I get around to giving them. They tolerate dryish conditions but do better with moisture, especially away from the immediate coast.
Salvia Mexican Sage. We have one planted at the curb and haven’t watered it since it was first established. It comes back year after year. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and bees.
Mexican Sage can be tender. Where is your garden?
I have no excuse for not planting Mexican sage. I plan to do that. I see it looking quite wonderful everywhere around me. Why on earth have I not yet planted it? Thanks for the reminder. I’m off to the nursery tomorrow!
There are many things I’m also planning to do. I often wish I could survive on 4 hours a night. Alas, I’m an eight-hours-or-I’m-grumpy kind of gardener. Life moves on. :-)
Well Alys, I didn’t get to the nursery today, I stayed inside mostly and listened to the rain! But I still “plan” to try the Mexican sage. And, of course, a whole lot of other things . . .
We live in San Jose, California. Very few frosts, and the plant survives when we do.
Hi Nora, I’m so happy I came across your post! I can now thank you for your opening chapter to Plants and Landscapes, which had such an impact on me when I read the book 11 years ago: Thank you, thank you. In fact I just wrote a post about reading your post…
(Also btw – I borrowed Saxon’s photos, with attribution – hope that’s OK.)
Thanks for the great review and you are most welcome to use the photos from the site so long as you link back to the site. – Saxon
Absolutely – always give attribution and credit where it’s due! Thanks!
I’m thrilled you found my post and that you liked my opening chapter. It was both painful and glorious in the extreme to write, as any writer knows. I still believe every word I wrote and think the sentiment is even more timely now, eleven years later. Thanks so much for letting me and Saxon know that you saw, appreciated, and used this piece.
Looks very interesting & informative. I want to get a copy & read for myself.
Thanks for your comment. The paperback is out of print, but I believe Saxon still has a few copies available at Photobotanic.com.