Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Going Low Water

It all started in Oaxaca – Water is scarce in Southern Mexico, and the plants that most people grow in gardens there are adapted to living under local ecological conditions.

Ethnobotanical garden - Oaxaca

When we returned home I thought, “Why am I trying to maintain a lawn, whose concept originated with the estates of England, and why am I trying to grow flowers that are naturally adapted for Europe and New England…? These plants need moist soil and constant attention under our California conditions.“ So I started looking at plants found in Northern California that are adapted in this environment.

Our back yard garden mid summer

My garden books identified my area as a Mediterranean climate (which is determined by temperature patterns, a wet winter, followed by a long dry summer) There are several places in the world with similar conditions – the Mediterranean coastal areas of Europe, Coastal areas of Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. Over long periods of time each of these areas has naturally evolved plant varieties that grow well with those conditions. Many bulb producing plants are adapted to long dry summers. I found a few books with information about Mediterranean plants. My favorite is “Mediterranean Gardening” – Heidi Gildermeister <>.

Foot step pathway through our garden - May

Once I knew what I was looking for, the next question was finding the plants. My local nursery had very few; every time I visited other nurseries I looked for more…They were hard to find. I discovered in the SF Bay Area specialty nurseries with only native California plants but they were generally pricy. Then I discovered e mail order companies… One of my favorites is "Goodwin Creek Gardens" They offer good prices and plants arrive in excellent shape, although they are a bit smaller than most nursery plants.

Father and daughter shopping - San Francisco Botanical garden plant sale

My absolute favorite source are the monthly plant sales held at the Botanical gardens in San Francisco. These are plants that volunteers start from the garden collection, or brought from personal collections. Profits support the Botanical Garden.

In the last few years, low water plants have started catching on - and they are now more available in local nurseries.

Cactus garden in patio - it continues to evolve in composition and layout

Three warnings: (1) If a plant is identified as native – it undoubtedly is native to somewhere – but is it native (or adapted) to my location? There are water intensive natives that I steer away from. (2) I discovered some wonderful acclimated plants but very quickly they grow way too tall – out of proportion to what I want in my garden… or they spread quickly by runners and become invasive… So read about each plant before you buy it and add it to your garden. (3) Low water plants need a regular good water supply the first couple of years until their roots are established.

View toward the southwest

Two years ago we made the big commitment and took out the last piece of lawn ( the grass in front of our house). With the help of our son Peter, we rototilled the soil, shaped the ground into an agreeable contour, covered it with weed guard to prevent weed germination, and covered it with 1-2 “ native gravel and stones… making holes at natural intervals for the new plants…

After 2 years growth - Front yard - stone garden

As my sister-in-law Deb says, all new plants should come with wheels, so that you can move them when you get to know their characteristics better – I did a lot of fine tuning until every plant seemed happy with its sun and water location. My planting goal was to establish the same natural planting distances found in a semi arid natural location. I still grow a few favorite flowers and vegetables that need water – for convenience I try to keep them in one part of the garden so that I am not carrying hoses all around the garden.

Typical mediterranean growth patterns

A great advantage of many Mediterranean and California native plants is the ability to propagate desirable plants by breaking off a portion and planting it directly in the soil ( usually during the cool/naturally wet part of the year). Many varieties will root easily. If you buy a plant you like, within a few years you can establish off-shoot plants. If I see a plant that I like in someone's garden, and if it seems appropriate, I may ask for a cutting - I break off a piece from the back - low down near the ground so not to distort the mother plant.

View toward SouthEast

My additional reason for going with low water was to minimize garden maintenance work. There is one major pruning in late fall, another minor pruning in mid summer. There is very little summer watering, no lawn to mow… so overall I have reduced my garden work… it doesn’t look like a new England garden with daffodils and zinnias… but it has a natural "wild" beauty that we like very much – plus we attract a multitude of hummingbirds, butterflies, and friendly birds and insects.

Follow Up Note: After the blog 2 weeks ago about my mother in China two people wrote to recommend the book "City of Tranquil Light" by Bo Caldwell - The book was loaned to me - and I like it so much that I want to recommend it to you - Fascinating account of life in China in the pre war early party of the 20th century. Read more about it here: