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GARDENING : Planting for a Dry Decade

<i> Singer, host of The Garden Show on KCRW (National Public Radio at 88.9 FM), is a horticultural consultant and a contributing editor to Southern California Home and Garden magazine</i>

As we move into “The Decade of the Environment” and the fourth year of serious drought, Southern California gardeners’ priorities are shifting. Water-hungry plants fall out of favor and local landscapes take on a new character. Softer, less flashy plant palettes emerge, consisting of low maintenance, drought-tolerant plants--creating gardens more suited to present-day lifestyles and to the dry, Mediterranean climate in which we live. Unfortunately, practical guides and references specific to Southland gardening and the changes at hand are scarce.

With a glut of gardening books hitting the market monthly, book-buying can be an expensive, and often disappointing, venture. Few books earn a spot on my already overstuffed shelves.

Hooray for Henry Art’s The Wildflower Gardener’s Guide: California, Desert Southwest, and Northern Mexico Edition (A Garden Way Publishing Book/Storey Communications, Inc.: $22.95 cloth, $12.95, paper; 176 pp., illustrated). It beautifully fills a cavernous gap. This new book is a well researched and comprehensive handbook for growing stunning, colorful annual and perennial wildflowers of the dry Western regions. Art, a biology professor from the East, came West and did his homework. He enlisted the guidance of Southwest experts, commissioned the work of talented illustrators, asked lots of questions and compiled the answers neatly into an accessible and much needed guide.

This reasonably priced, oversized paperback is a necessary companion to Bob Perry’s “Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes,” the current standard reference on backbone plants for water-conserving gardens. Where Perry’s book neglects the fanciful, Art spotlights the whimsical, sometimes ephemeral beauty of wildflowers.

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The design is clean and relaxed; the type face very graceful and easy on the eye.

The book begins with explanations of basic botany, culture and propagation in straightforward, friendly language, accessible to lay gardeners. Various horticultural treatments are suggested, including the use of wildflowers in beds and borders, rock gardens, meadows, chaparral gardens, and firescaping.

Splendid charts make it easy to cross-reference between species and to compose plant communities, respecting important characteristics such as plant color and size, flowering progression, light conditions, hardiness, soil composition and soil moisture. Design aspects, technical planning, irrigation and conversion to “xeriscape” (desert terrain), however, are more completely covered by recently published Ortho and Sunset books. Indeed, this book should be used in conjunction with other resources. (Be sure to check out public gardens and agencies which sponsor xeriscape workshops.)

Southwestern wildflowers are featured in a gallery of color photos. Effect falls a tad short of intent, as dual photos of each species do not always portray the contrast between a bug’s-eye view of the flower and growth habits of the plant in a landscape situation.

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In the end, however, the book shines again. Beautiful botanical illustrations by Hyla M. Skudder are coupled with complete descriptions of each species. This section is chock full of horticultural history and amazing facts about life cycles, culture and uses, and propagation techniques, including tips for companion planting with these wonderfully resilient plants. Incidentally, in addition to English and Spanish common names, the author quite properly includes Native American names.

“The Wildflower Gardener’s Guide” is representative of new, evolved, realistic thinking in horticulture. Henry Art encourages gardeners to know and understand their local ecology (climate, soils, pH, and other environmental factors) so that they can choose plants which will be most successful in these conditions. This essential book helps gardeners learn how to work with nature, not against it.

Another entry in the new wave of dry-landscape books is Taylor’s Guide to Water-Saving Gardening (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95, paper; 440 pp., illustrated). Latest in a long series of well produced Eastern-generated gardening manuals, I found the information too general and too wide in its geographical emphasis. Introductory details on preparation, planting and water-saving fundamentals are adequate and well written. Myriad plant subjects are showcased, in an encyclopedia with line drawings and in a section of color plates.

Most lacking, however, in this and other books that canvas plants for the entire country is a system of regional notation. All areas of the country would be better served by a simple key to uses in various ecological zones, as opposed to classification solely by USDA hardiness zones. Gardeners are too often left confused and frustrated, searching for good plants only to find they are unsuitable for their soils or climate.

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Taylor’s Guides are handy-sized paperbacks, always well researched and richly illustrated. This one makes a noble stab at addressing a national need for water awareness. But what Southern Californians really crave are locally produced books which focus on species best suited to our many unique environments.

As local as local can be is The Los Angeles Times Planning and Planting the Garden by Robert Smaus (Harry N. Abrams: $29.95, cloth; 176 pp., illustrated).

As garden editor of The Times, Smaus is prolific and dedicated to sharing the latest in garden design, technique and taste. His current book recounts personal forays into Southern California gardening. It is a good beginner’s book--non-intimidating and working the new gardener from a macro to a micro view of building a garden from the ground up.

The book especially glows when Smaus explains the basic principles of design--perspective, proportion and balance. He stresses the need to leave plenty of room for plants to grow and the importance of using green plants for structure and contrast with seasonal color.

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He elucidates many of the quirks of gardening in this part of the world. However, considering the recent vintage of the book, there’s a surprising paucity of information and illustration relevant to water-conserving landscapes. The photographs are exquisite but, with few exceptions (like the medieval-ish “No Lawn at All” design by Chris Rosmini), we’re looking at very thirsty landscapes.

The book’s greatest poetry is found in sections entitled “Plant Portraits” and “Garden Visits.” The plant portraits are lovely, anecdotal snippets, some from Smaus’ own gardening journal. Writing of his grandfather’s delphiniums, Smaus takes us on a sweet remembrance. “More Bulb Stories” recaptures every gardener’s delight at the treats we reap in spring, six months after planting those odd little brown nubbies in the cooling autumn earth.

Many of these pieces have been seen as part of Smaus’ regular work in the paper. For those who missed them, or those who didn’t save them, these features are preserved in a handsome clothbound volume. I’ll aways be eager to get another peek at Nancy Goslee Power’s secret sunken garden.

I’ve little time for Gardening America: Regional and Historical Influences in the Contemporary Garden by Ogden Tanner (Viking Studio Books/Viking Penguin: $40, cloth; 255 pp., illustrated), which left me unsatisfied. According to Tanner, the “roots” of American gardening are no deeper than the arrival of settlers on the North American continent. A poshly pictorial travelogue fleshed out with words, Tanner’s idea is to show how native landscapes and plants blend with imported cultural and horticultural histories to create distinct garden styles in each region.

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My question: How can this book purport to explain a synthesis of culture and the land when no mention is ever made of the Native Americans whose plains and hillsides were invaded and ravaged? Not once does Tanner mention their medicinal use of native plants. We do not learn, even in the chapter on edible landscapes, that as far back as 5000 BC, Native Americans began domesticating native plants, planting edible greens, berries, nuts and roots in their gardens; that by 2000 BC, they were planting and harvesting corn (maize), beans and squash, brought up from Mexico; that by 1000 BC, these expert horticulturists had hybridized a corn that is the precursor to varieties we grow and eat today. Nor does he make reference to Native American beliefs in nature as God itself--a concept surely antithetical to Puritan belief systems.

The photos are marvelous and some of Tanner’s prose is captivating: “Agaves . . . seem to sprout from the sand like frozen fountains.” But in the end, “Gardening America” is a pricy tome which Western gardeners will buy only if they happen to be nostalgic for the East, or the past.

A Gentle Plea for Chaos--the title alone catches the attention. Mirabel Osler’s book (subtitled “The Enchantment of Gardening”; Simon and Schuster: $22.95, cloth; 176 pp., illustrated) grabs the reader with a hook stronger than steel. There are no fancy new ideas here, no important revelations on gardening in a dry climate. Simply the unself-conscious musings of a hands-on, hard-working plant lover.

Short essays tie together each central chapter, five in all--Trees, Water, Walls, Roses and Bulbs. Representing these are the bones of Osler’s garden. On one-and-a-half acres of land, near the Welsh border in Shropshire, England, she and her husband have created a garden where any child would be happy, with tunnels, bridges, a marsh to explore, lots of hiding places, even a tree house. Adults, we learn, find similar peace, joy, and ever-changing delights. Like her garden, her writing calls all the senses into play, evolving naturally and eschewing order and ostentation. “A mania for neatness,” Osler states, “a lust for conformity--and away go atmosphere and sensuality.”

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Osler loves to garden--not just to have a garden. She thrives on, and curses, the backbreaking work which leads to the garden’s greatest benefits. And we are privileged to listen to her musings, to hear the click and whir as she ponders the answers to her own esoteric questions.

She is opinionated, but not without humor. In her discussion of national gardening styles, she asks about the French horticultural penchant for such training techniques as pollarding, espalier and cordoning: “Why do the French torture trees?”

Frustrated often by her reference to plants that I’ve never seen, and that are impossible to grow in this part of the world, I am still thankful for her musings.

A Hobbit-like map of the house and garden, and carefully selected photographs, help the reader to put a face on this garden which Mirabel Osler built out of love. A sad irony: It is noted at the end that her gardening partner in life, Michael, died shortly after the book’s completion. Read this one on a hot summer day, and then pass it on to a friend.

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