Native plant gardens tend to be hard to photograph.  Often the gardeners care more about the plants and habitat than the aesthetics.  This is perfectly OK – unless you are trying to photograph them.

Morning light in California native plant habitat garden next to swimming pool, with grasses and shrubs
Morning light in California native plant habitat garden with grasses and shrubs

As a native plant garden lover I want to make them look beautiful, I want others to see their beauty, and I want more gardeners to use more native plants. For me, that is best done by making photographs, and showing them to others.

I have learned to see the beauty in native plant gardens first, by understanding the plants, and then applying standard photography techniques used to tell a story.

My own eye has developed as I come to appreciate native plants and the native landscape. My “seeing” has evolved as I better understand natural systems and the importance of gardens as oases of nature and reservoirs of biodiversity.

Deck garden room under California live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia) in afternoon light of summer-dry garden
Deck garden room under California live oak trees with native plant habitat

But those reservoirs of biodiversity can sometimes be a jumble of plants, and sometimes quite honestly, I can’t find a photograph to please my eye, even though the garden itself is vibrant and alive and pleasing on an emotional level. I can get so caught up in admiring a plant that I don’t see how it fits into garden’s design.

But that is the trick of making a beautiful garden photograph – showing how a plant fits into a space designed for humans.  For those gardens that really have no design, I just don’t try to make photos but native plant gardens are suited to many of the same garden design principles as any other garden.

Entry path between Ceanothus groundcovers in Southern California front yard native plant garden
Entry path between Ceanothus ground covers in California front yard native plant garden

Walking the garden I am looking at plant combinations and how they play off of hardscape features. Gardens that are well designed pull you in and you want a photograph that pulls in the viewer. That can be done with pathways that draw the eye in; focal points that cause the eye to rest; with a carefully placed striking plant; with interesting foliage colors that dance in a composition;  or any number of garden design concepts.

Curving stone path through drought tolerant perennial border leading into small space backyard patio with and seating in California native plant garden
Curving stone path through perennial border leading  into California native plant garden

I always look for pathways. Even the most rudimentary garden has a path to lead through the space. As a photographer I can use the path to lead the eye into and through the photograph.

I especially like to look for curving pathways. Designers know to add a curve in a garden’s design to make it seem larger and add an element of mystery so that the garden cannot be seen all at once.

Benches can provide great focal points.

Bench on gravel, crushed rock patio in drought tolerant California native plant garden
Bench on gravel, crushed rock patio in drought tolerant California native plant garden

Gardeners know we don’t often sit in the benches – we put in the garden for others,  but almost in the most beautiful spot. If I can get around to the back side of a bench I like look over it to see what the gardener want some to see.

Bench by garden path in California native garden. Phil Johnson Design
Bench by garden path in California native garden. Phil Johnson Design

As a plant geek I love to see how plants are combined in the garden how they grow together.  Native plants can be used just as effectively in design as any other plant.

For instance, in a classic mixed border, a designer will use different types of plants together with different heights, bloom times, and textures.

California native plant garden with mixed border using gray foliage perennials and flowering Monkeyflower
California native plant garden with mixed border using gray foliage perennials and flowering Monkeyflower

I will look for plants that are repeated in the landscape as this will create a sense of order both in the garden and in the photograph.

Repeated plantings of yellow flower yellow Sulfer Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) in mixed beds in Kyte drought tolerant California native plant garden
Repeated plantings of yellow flower yellow Sulfer Buckwheat in California native plant garden

I look for contrasting foliage as this is a way the plants can distinguish themselves.

Artemisia californica, California Sagebrush behind Artemisia suksdorfii, Coastal Mugwort silver gray foliage perennials in garden bed by path in drought tolerant California native plant garden, Judith Lowry Larner Seeds
Artemisia californica,  behind Artemisia suksdorfii, silver gray foliage textures in California native plant garden

I always look for silver and gray foliage plants as they always create interest and separate the shapes with in the garden.

Shrub border with Ceanothus 'Julia Phelps' and silver foliage native plant Salt Bush (Atriplex lentiformis brewerii) in drought tolerant Southern California garden on hillside with oaks, daffodils and mulched path
Shrub border with Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’ and silver foliage native plant Salt Bush (Atriplex lentiformis brewerii)

We see photographs in two dimensions even though we experience gardens in three (or even in a fourth dimension when we consider the senses).  In two dimensions, shape becomes particularly important, so learning to see a garden as a combination of shapes.

Whether these combinations are blocks of foliage shapes, blocks of color, or the very shape of the plant itself, a good photograph, using the four edges of the frame, give the photographer an opportunity to create shapes to fit together harmoniously.

The frame of the camera helps to create shapes of the trees and shrubs
The frame of the camera helps to create shapes of the trees and shrubs

Many times seeing the shapes take some time to understand the various elements of the garden. This is time well spent; I love using the excuse of the camera to slow down and see the plants.

Purple Three-Awn grass in California native plant garden
Purple Three-Awn grass in California native plant garden

The plants themselves can be the focal point and a good photo is simply showing off its best features.

I will be presenting Gardening With Natives – A Photographer’s Point of View a lecture and walk at Tilden East Bay Regional Park on Saturday Oct.15

 

9 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful!
    Thank you so much , Saxon! I’ve SO much to learn…..!!
    Years ago, you and I volunteered in the library at Marin Waldorf school. My daughter Linnet and I were planning a trip to Williamsburg, Va. and you were so much fun to talk with about history, gardens, and historically accurate costumes!
    It always makes me smile when I see your name on particularly beautiful garden photos that I admire when I’m looking through magazines or garden books.
    I live in Sebastopol now, spending as much time as possible in my 2.5 year old garden right here in town. I began volunteering at Western Hills in Occidental last winter. Your work is an inspiration. Thank you!
    All the best

    • Thanks Sally and wonderful to hear you are working at Western Hills. I have visited but not photographed there in years, and it is on the top of my ‘need to photograph’ gardens. Perhaps even, I will see you there…

  2. Thank you for sharing the secrets!! For years I have gave up taking any shots of native garden – perhaps only occasionally for upclose shots.
    With your advice, I will try again, with confidence! Thank you again!!

    • Lynn- “Secrets” are meant to help in organizing your thought process for your composition, but first tip is to shoot in soft light, early or late in the day or when overcast

  3. Thank you for this — chock full of good insight. It’s not only native gardens but occasionally others, as well, that thrill or soothe my human eye but resist easy translation to my camera’s “eye.” Sometimes I try to outwit that resistance. Other times, I just put down the camera and think, in the words of the old Ram Dass book, “Be here now.”

    • Too often it is hard to make those translations. Love your choice of words. Putting down the camera does not work for me. While i night better understand the spirit of the scene and what it is I really want to capture, I need the four edges of a camera frame to help me overcome the resistance. Doesn’t always work of course….

      • Indeed, as long as I hope to get an image out of the scene I keep the viewfinder and its four edges to the eye. My Ram Dass quote was a way of saying, “Sometimes I give up on getting an image, and just try to be there.” Note I say “TRY to be there;” as one who has come to photography and art rather late in life, I am impressed by how much the camera influences my perception — often intensifying experience, but sometimes, perhaps, abstracting and limiting it.

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