Here in California, we hear rumblings about gardens wasting water. In an era of limited resources, can we afford to have water for gardens ?
Isn’t the native habitat beautiful enough? Do we want to have gardens here?
Well of course I am biased – I am a gardener. And yes, we certainly do want to have gardens; indeed, we need gardens for so many reasons. Not only are gardens urban and suburban oases that provide habitats, living soil, fresh air, and carbon exchange, they provide so much peace for so many. Gardens are important in a civilized society.
So yes, we do want to gardens. Not only do we want gardens, we must have them. But in this summer-dry climate how do we sustain them? Dry summers are not drought, it’s normal. How much water can we afford to allocate for gardens in the summers when the plants need it?
Californians have been suffering through years of drought, and while this winter we have had good rains to store water in the snow pack for the reservoirs, we need to be mindful that it only rains in the winter and we cannot waste water in the hot days of summer.
Fortunately, there are many plants that are adapted to dry summers. Not just our California natives, but plants native to other summer-dry regions of the world such as the Mediterranean and Western Australia. In order for these plants to look good in gardens throughout the summer, many of them need some supplemental water, but the little bit they need is a fair use of our overall water resources.
Agriculture uses 80% of California’s stored water, and is certainly a vital and key component of the economy, but I hope no one questions the need to allocate some water for gardens too. We do want gardens here.
There are many styles of garden that can fit comfortably and aesthetically with little water, assuming we choose plants adapted to summer-dry climates. However, not all of California can be classified as summer dry.
Much of southern California is desert with less than 10 inches of rain a year. There certainly can be beautiful gardens in the desert (hooray for succulents) but it is a much different aesthetic from the coastal regions of California with most of the population. Desert gardeners should not rely on the plant palette of the summer-dry regions.
I am a member of the California Native Plant Society and advocate for using our beautiful natives in gardens. I think these are our first choice for gardening, so long as the gardener chooses a native that is actually native to their region.
Consider trees. Redwood trees are from the wet Northwest coastal forests and Joshua trees in the southern deserts – both California natives but neither would survive in the others’ habitat.
I am a huge fan of Oak trees, the most sustainable of trees which are native throughout the state and. A well sited oak tree can be the signature of a great garden. In this garden of native plants, the oaks were precisely planted in the garden to frame the views.
In this next garden, a small bog pond is planted with reeds and rushes to create a lush oasis under the native oak.
Next, native summer-dry shrubs are pruned in a somewhat formal fashion that provides privacy in this front yard garden in southern California.
I think the most adventuresome gardens are a of mix plants from the summer-dry regions of the world. One of my favorites is the nurseryman David Fross’ garden (Native Sons Nursery) who has advocated for summer-dry, adapted plants for many years.
And there are plenty of bold choices to using non-native plants. This red flowering Grevillea is from Australia, the beautiful Leucodendron against the wall is from South Africa, and the magnificent silver foliage Agave is an American desert native.
Many wonderful Mediterranean natives are splendid in California gardens and we could hardly do without such herbs as thyme and lavender.
And of course anyone who knows me knows I love the grasses, here next with lavenders under native oaks.
I have done two entire books about grasses, The American Meadow Garden with John Greenlee and Grasses with Nancy Ondra, so I need not to get started touting grasses for California gardens. But there is no doubt they fit into the aesthetic of summer-dry gardens.
So yes, gardens certain can be adapted to California. I do think they require some supplemental water, but everything any of us do in California requires supplemental water. If we can use plants that are adapted to summer-dry conditions, then the gardeners’ share of the water resources is just as important as farming and flushing. It sustains the beauty of nature we all need.
Gardens? Here in California ? Oh yes !
Follow more blog posts about plants for summer-dry gardens and find a searchable photo database at Summer-Dry.com, and keep abreast of water issues for gardens in California at the California Center for Urban Horticulture.