Friday, April 15, 2016

Doin' it right...

My views about gardening changed after a visit to Oaxaca Mexico – Water is scarce in Southern Mexico, and the plants that most people grow in gardens there are adapted to living under local ecological conditions.  Now we are told that La Nina ( a dry winter) is very lively to return next year - so we can't get too smug about our average rainfall this year.  

If you dont particularly enjoy frequent watering, or paying high water bills, or consider it your social duty - consider making a change in your landscaping.  It doesn't have to be a huge all at once change.  The first step is to determine  what plants would adapt normally to your climate - educate yourself by reading and talking to experienced people - A good place to begin is with this book: (its a bit expensive but you can find it in your library)
Arid culture plants ( cactus, many succulents ) require less care and less water... But Natives also have a special charm.

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?  Why am I trying to grow flowers that are naturally adapted for moist regions of Europe and New England…? These plants need constant attention and lots of water under our California conditions.“ So I started looking at plants found in Northern California that are adapted in this environment.  Several years ago I starting ruthlessly pulling out thirsty plants and replaced them with natives.

Our climate is pretty much a classic 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 southern 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. I found a few books with information about Mediterranean plants. My favorite is “Mediterranean Gardening” – Heidi Gildermeister <>. 

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.  One of my favorites is Ruth Bancroft Gardens:  Its worthwhile to become a member for discounts and special classes.  Another 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.  You do have to be careful though, because many of the plants they sell are not low water plants - but if you know what to look for they are great. In the last few years, low water plants have started catching on - and they are now more available in local nurseries.

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.

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…

I do my best to place plants with the right sunshine needs, but sometimes it is necessary to 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. 

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.

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 much less  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.The current over all trend in my garden is to move more to succulents and certain cactuses... they have their own beauty.  My final advice is - dont think that planting a garden is a once and forever thing - I constantly pull things out and plant new things  - with the beauty and character I desire...Good luck!