The description of the upcoming garden symposium in Santa Rosa, California, Changing Times, Changing Climate: Summit 2016 begins with this introduction: “As our climate changes, so must our gardens”.

California Coastal Range with Oak trees (Quercus lobata) and rolling hills on Mt. Burdell State Park, Novato, California

California Coastal Range with Oak trees next to the city of Novato, California

Whether in California or anywhere in the world that we garden, this message must be heard. Whether or not we agree on the causes, or the timetable, it is hard for anyone to deny the climate is changing, rapidly. We are not going to stop it, and there is no going back.

We must do something. We must change.  Really, there is no choice.  We cannot wait for government action, scientific solutions, miracles from God, or hope it will go away and we will awaken from the nightmare.  Time has run out to prevent climate change, now we must plan for an uncertain future.

Perennial border with pollinator plants - Frey Garden

Perennial border with pollinator plants – Kate Frey Garden

Gardens are proof of our adaptability.  While not necessarily comfortable with change, gardeners understand that gardens always change, that plants can adapt, that for better or worse we can shape the land, gently – or too often brutishly, redefining whole ecosystems.

We must live in these altered landscapes and adapt, looking to what does survive so that we can forward. There is no going back.

Surviving tree among burned tree trunks, white after fire against blue sky, El Dorado National Forest, California

Surviving tree among burned tree trunks, after fire Dorado National Forest, California

Native American burned the prairies, subsistence swidden farming (slash and burn) has long been practiced throughout the world, and rain forest deforestation continues. It is only in our very recent history have we begun to realize we have altered the planet, much less that it threatens our very existence.

Grass prairie meadow at Hornbek Homestead Colorado, historic building in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Grass prairie meadow in Colorado

Indeed by almost all standards mankind’s unprecedented alteration of the earth has led to an entirely new geological Epoch, the Anthropocene.  Yet it seems me we have ushered in a Period of climate change and mass extinctions so much that we have created a new Era.  Shall we call this Era the Catastrophozoic ?


For anyone hiding from such thoughts I urge you to read The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, the calmly written Pulitzer Prize winning book about the climate train wreck unfolding every day. Sixth-extinctionIf you are a gardener, you might actually be prompted to action to help us save us from ourselves.

Gardeners tend to be optimists. You sort of have to be to think you can grow something. Gardeners will even try to grow things they can’t grow, several times, often denying the climate zone to try something for the sake of proving we can do it.

I am not being judgmental here, I am guilty myself, as anyone who sees my collection of species Rhododendron will know. If it is beautiful and healthy and green it must be good, right? Now don’t get me started about lawn reform….

Yet in truth, almost any plant, sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen while living in the soil that nourishes billions of tiny bacteria, nematodes, and fungus is better than barren land and concrete – or lava rock mulch. Again, don’t get me started about gardening trends in the wake of our California drought, and all the more reason to attend any event sponsored by Pacific Horticulture.


Barren soil is no good for for the earth.

In gardeners, there is hope for the Earth, so let’s garden – for goodness sake.

Penstemon heterophyllus 'Catherine de la Mare', California native wildflower in bee-friendly, pollinator garden; Kate Frey Garden

California native wildflower in bee-friendly, pollinator garden; Kate Frey Garden

Gardeners have eternal optimism, believing that no matter what happens in the garden it is “all good”, that the process is more rewarding than the results.  Things will work out in the end.

Yet this optimism has allowed some gardeners to ignore the apocalyptic implications of climate change. Things will certainly work out “in the end” – whether humans are part of Earth or not. So come on gardeners, let us become the Action Committee on Climate Change. Let’s apply our acceptance of change into actions.

Yet, too many are not able to accept the full reality of climate change.  More than one gardener friend could not finish reading Bill McKibben’s “eaarth – Making a Life on a Tough New Planet” when it came out in 2010. The book is too scary for some, though it does finish with McKibbens’ optimistic hope that at least some humans will figure out a response to the changed climate.

I think that response must involve gardeners more actively promoting new landscapes prompted by change, and promoting sustainability, a word I hope we never tire of using. For however lightly it might be used by marketers, greenwashers, and cynics, in a single word it encapsulates the only way we can manage our future.

Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) accent grass and wildflowers in Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) sustainable lawn meadow garden, design by Judith Phillips

Sustainable New Mexico lawn meadow garden, design by Judith Phillips

Gardens are only sustained by human intervention and I am afraid we must look at the whole world as a garden now, to be sustained with our help. So it is heartening to see many new garden books to help show us the way to embrace change.

Thomas Rainer, the author (with Claudia West) of Planting in a Post-Wild World will be a speaker at the Changing Times, Changing Climate Symposium (book review). (The symposium is almost sold out register now.) We need to acknowledge that the world is no longer wild, that humans have touched nearly every habitat in one way or another. The world has become a garden – by default.

Oak trees (Quercus lobata) on Mt. Burdell State Park, Novato, California

Non native annual grasses in California Oak Savanna

Rainier and West understand the best gardening practices look to nature.  They maintain gardeners should be creating designed plant communities, which may not sit well with native plant purists but acknowledges that the world is changing, native plants are being displaced, and plants we once considered weeds may be quite useful in the novel landscapes of the future.

Oehme Van Sweden drought tolerant demonstration garden with grasses and agave at Cornerstone

Mexican Feather Grass, here with Agave, is currently banned for sale in California

I tend to be one of those native plant gardeners who nevertheless loves all plants, and in California that means using plants from other summer-dry climates of the world.

At the same time, I want to keep adapting my garden to native plants and trying new ones, perhaps from zones slightly drier than my current microclimate. We must change, we must test things out in advance of complete climate change.

Naturalistic gardens are already oasis for the surrounding degraded habitats and we need to think of them as reservoirs of biodiversity. I am afraid it is only too true that we will have to think of the whole world as a garden and help nature along, as we had been “helping” all along without understanding the consequences.

A trio of manzanita Arctostaphylos ‘Dr. Hurd’ in the background and a deep blue/purple pool of Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ and Penstemon ‘ Catherine de la Mare’ in the foreground of garden bee-friendly border. A few Crimson Salvia darcyi blooms enliven the scene; Kate Frey mixed border Garden

Native shrubs and non native perennials in insectary garden, Kate Frey.

In another new book helping to adjust to change, Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner works nearly exclusively with native plants, encouraging garden ecologists to develop a “cooperative venture between gardener and nature”. A well prepared site will naturally propagate and evolve.

Connecticut meadow garden with native wildflowers; Larry Weaner Design

Connecticut meadow garden with native wildflowers; Larry Weaner Design

More on Larry Weaner’s garden style and his upcoming visit to California.

Both Ranier’s and Weaner’s books are best adapted to large sites where ecosystems can be maintained but, unfortunately for Californians, nearly all of the examples shown are from the East Coast. This is an ongoing problem for those of us in the West. Even the groundbreaking books by Ken Druse (The Natural Garden) and Rick Darke (republishing and illustrating William Robinson’s revolutionary 1870 book The Wild Garden) are based on East Coast experiences.

But no book, however targeted to our own region, can give some sort of magic solution gleaned from book learning.  That must be done by hands on gardening, learning, and changing by doing.  Gardens should no longer be isolated personal landscapes but leading outposts of a new paradigm, hope for the future.

Fortunately the Changing Times, Changing Climate symposium is squarely aimed at the future and there are plenty of designers here who understand our unique climate where dry summers are not drought, it is normal.

Grasses and succulents in California summer-dry meadow garden

Grasses and succulents in California summer-dry meadow garden

All climates are changing and gardeners everywhere need to work with local challenges, try new things, and report actively on successes. We have no choice but to adapt, so let us be proactive about gardening and actively seek gardens that will support changing times.

"The Hermit's Garden" by Kate Frey and Ben Frey at The Late Show Gardens

“The Hermit’s Garden” by Kate and Ben Frey

When all is said and done, the earth will still be with us.

Modern home with stone patio overlooking Pacific Ocean with California native plant garden and Carex pansa lawn substitute in late afternoon light, Santa Barbara,

California home overlooking Pacific Ocean with California native plant garden.

You can still register for the symposium on October 15 and 16th. (register now.)