The Summer-Dry Project has an all encompassing mission to help gardeners have success in summer-dry climates.
The project evolved from a catchy phrase attempting to refine mediterranean gardening techniques, to books, a website, and now The Summer-Dry Project is part of an upgrade to the California WUCOLS* plant database. There is even a new Instagram account, @summerdry.gardens “dedicated to gardeners who want to have success in climates where dry summers are not drought – they are normal”.
I have fallen in love with the California landscape. As a gardener I want to honor the land and encourage environmental, holistic gardening as small acts of climate mitigation. As a photographer I want to show what I have discovered – summer-dry gardens can be beautiful.
I did not start gardening in California, but rather under the tutelage of my parents who insisted I do chores as a kid. I had no genuine appreciation for the climate in Virginia where I grew up, that awareness began in college with the first Earth Day, but I have always loved plants, to watch them grow, and marvel at their beauty. I became a gardener by osmosis I suppose.
As a Californian, now more than 40 years, I have truly fallen for this summer-dry climate, the landscapes, and native plants. Here, the aesthetic is entirely different from what was imprinted in me as a child, even the seasons are redefined. When summer brings dormancy, and winter rains begin the cycle of regrowth, a gardener has to adjust.
A successful gardener here, as anywhere, has to work with the climate, not conquer it. First you have to learn to appreciate the climate and the aesthetic from where it comes. You have to get out in it; hiking and camping is best. It is not a mediterranean climate; it is californian. It is summer-dry. It is beautiful.
I began to explore gardens as a photojournalist and gradually began to rethink my pre-existing East Coast aesthetic, realizing the garden media has an obligation to support regional success and to encourage sustainable practices for the health of local habitats, local watersheds, and local biodiversity. At the same time I began to appreciate that beauty should not be defined simply in human terms, that a beautiful garden was one where all creatures could prosper.
And now, in the midst of tumultuous climate change, we realize it’s all the more important that gardeners be stewards of the land, attuned to the local environment on behalf of all creatures. Every small act we do adds resiliency.
So this is the mission of the summer-dry project – to help gardeners find those plants that will contribute to the health of the planet, redefining beauty that honors the summer dry climate.
The more I travel up and down the Pacific Coast the more I realize summer-dry is not just a term for California. The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for being rainy but in fact, the summers are dry, and getting drier. Southern California may have nine or 10 months of completely dry weather and the Northwest may only have three or four, but many of the challenges are the same; only, the appropriate plants are different (along with the amount of rain that come in the season of winter wet, the corollary of summer-dry).
A big part of the summer dry project then, is to identify plants that are available in nurseries and show them in garden settings so that gardeners can see real life examples. Part of the challenge is to find mature gardens where the plants have been maintained long enough to give an accurate idea of sustainability.
As I find them, photos will be uploaded to the WUCOLS* database, stories will be posted here on gardens to visit, and individual photos will be uploaded to Instagram, with plant profiles on the summerdry.com website. My new book, with Nora Harlow, Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates is due out from Timber Press in the winter of 2020-21.
Plants from the five summer dry climates of the world are naturally adapted to work with one another, and there are lots of plants. It is the gardener’s craft to figure out which ones play well with others.
Broadly speaking, native plants are the best ones to use, but the Pacific coast is a huge region, “native” becomes almost a useless descriptor. A redwood tree from the north coast has no chance in the inland valleys, and desert plants would rot in the fog of many coastal regions or the long wet winters of the Northwest.
Plant selection needs to be site specific and adapted to the microclimates of topography and towns. Gardeners certainly take inspiration from the habitats around them, but in reality we live in cities and suburbs and our gardens live between streets and fences. Our gardens are oases, wildlife corridors, and arks of biodiversity – that is beauty.
Deciding on which plants to use is fun and creative, full of failure and unexpected successes, but ultimately we want our gardens to be sustainable and to contribute to the health of the planet. And we want our gardens to be beautiful.
Of course no garden is sustainable beyond the energy of the gardener to work in it. That is a given. But by using climate tolerant plants summer-dry gardens can certainly work to support healthy ecosystems, provide plants for insects and birds, cultivate healthy soils, and give us places to replenish our own souls as stewards of the earth. That is beauty, soulful beauty.
The Summer-Dry Project will be a resource for gardeners and hopefully an inspiration, promoting harmony of plants and people for the benefit of all creatures in this very special climate.
*WUCOLS is the Water Use Classification Of Landscape Species database that is part of the California Department of Water Resources, and the fourth edition (2014) provides evaluations of the irrigation water needs for over 3,500 taxa (taxonomic plant groups) used in California landscapes.