The Summer-Dry Project is an all encompassing mission to help gardeners have success in summer dry climates.

California hills, chapparal ecosystem coastal hills range – Mt. Diablo

The project has evolved from a catchy phrase to redefine 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”.

Wildflower meadow at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden with Santa Ynez Mountains

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.

Agave americana, Century Plant with yellow flowering tree, Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’ at Los Angeles Natural History Museum

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.

Winter solstice, the California landscape comes to life.

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.

California summer-dry hills, Oak savanna; Mount Burdell State Park, Novato

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.

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

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).

Albers Vista Garden, Seattle Washington

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.

Mature summer-dry California garden with Phormium and Arbutus ‘Marina’; design Ground Studio Landscape Architecture

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 summer of 2020.

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.

The Celebration Garden, in the summer-dry California Garden at Huntington Botanic Garden

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.

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

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.

Summer-dry and sustainable, Santa Maria, California. design Arcadia Studio

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.

Photos from the original, EBMUD, Summer-Dry Gardening book are available royalty free.

*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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. There are hardly words to convey what you’ve captured here, Saxon. As a 70 year old native Californian, your eye and your story has memorialized what has been feeding my soul since I was knee high in wild mustard grass in the Pajaro Valley. Your new book will become part of the legacy I leave for my grandson and granddaughter. Beauty as glimpsed by Noni, captured by you!

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