As ‘appropriate’ gardening takes root, there’s still room for ‘wow’
It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that Southern California has so many natural gifts — a blissfully temperate climate and accommodating soils — to offer the gardener. Early settlers undoubtedly looked at their new surroundings and saw a blank slate.
From the Mexicans and Spanish to Easterners and Europeans, new arrivals unpacked their garden vernacular from wherever they hailed and set to work re-creating the lands they had left behind. Despite periodic droughts, gardens grew big and blowsy, accompanied by wall-to-wall carpets of lawn more suitable to Kentucky than semi-arid California. In the early 20th century, the arrival of plentiful water from the Owens Valley did nothing to curb the appetite for gardens that looked nothing like their original environment. And although various waves of newcomers experienced periods of drought, they often went back to their old ways when the rains returned.
Today, however, there is a growing consciousness that we possibly have strayed down the wrong path. The word “appropriate” is entering the gardening conversation on a regular basis. There is growing interest in native plants and less-thirsty alternatives — plants and gardens that do just fine whatever the local conditions.
Will this moment truly change the look of Southern California’s gardens in the years to come, or will the next decent rainstorm wash away all those good intentions? We asked three experts to weigh in with their predictions.
Kitty Connolly, executive director of the nonprofit Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants
My vision for the future — what I expect and hope will happen — is that natives will become a larger portion of the garden. Our tradition is largely based on the English tradition. If the Spanish had been the dominant settlers, we would not look like this. We would never have had lawns.
People are beginning to garden [according to] where we live. As natives become a larger portion of the garden, that will bring a number of benefits. One, of course, is less water use, but there are non-native plants that can do that too. What native plants do is create a real sense of place.
Another thing native plants bring is the wildlife that depend on them. If we bring those plants back into our environment, [the animals] will follow.
I’m not talking about replicating the natural environment in your yard. You have to select plants so they look good. [But] gardeners are not as familiar with the native flora, so they don’t know how to keep them looking good. We are starting a professional development program to help deal with this issue.
My ultimate vision of Los Angeles, though, is a smell. We will smell like California. Having [that] will make this a particular place.
Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia Nursery and a member of the Royal Horticulture Society, the California Assn. of Nurserymen and the American Nursery and Landscape Assn.
One of the things that will define Southern California gardens in the future is the cultures that plant them. We have this incredible diversity of people from all over the world. They will have their own types of plants that they love. And you will also see the integration of edible gardens worked into these landscapes in a seamless line.
I also think we will continue to see a lush California landscape. [But] right plant, right soil, right irrigation is a thought really worth a good long consideration.
As I drive around Southern California, I see we are doing a rip-roaring job of wasting water. Gardens can be a mix of all things and a mix of plants that grow in a Mediterranean-type climate around the world. Too often I’m seeing gardens today that are being slapped in, a lot of rocks that reflect heat, succulents that don’t work together. After a couple of years, we’re not getting out of the garden what we are expecting.
People want emotional fulfillment. We still want to go out to our gardens, have our hearts go pitter-patter and say, “That’s so beautiful.” Yes, there are a lot of natives out there, but how many are visually desirable and work in our gardens?
Developing cultivars of natives is a great opportunity to create plants that are more floriferous, more compact, more disease-resistant, more emotionally fulfilling. If we could create a more compact, more evenly growing toyon, that would be the cat’s meow, wouldn’t it?
Nancy Goslee Power, principal, Nancy Goslee Power and Associates landscape and garden design firm and an authority on Southern California landscaping
I’m in my 70s now, and what I learned in the beginning I’m still applying. But it’s more layered now. There is a general awareness that it’s important to plant plants that will thrive here with less water.
With a huge population, every piece of green will become more precious. There are places where grass is appropriate and places where you can cut back on the amount of grass you have. There are wonderful California native grasses that we can mow and they end up looking terrific.
I think a garden with only natives, though, there’s no “wow” factor. It just looks too messy. We have wonderful plants from all over the world that grow in conditions like ours. They blend with our natural habitat colors of blue-greens, olives, dark and fuzzy grays.
You have to be optimistic when you garden. There’s no bad plant, it’s how you use it. There is a place for impatiens in a garden with a little shade. I believe in appropriate but also in trying something for the hell of it. I’m positive about the future. Things will come up. I’m not a whiner. Find a way.
Contemplating an environmentally appropriate change in the garden? Our experts share their wish lists:
Kitty Connolly: Plants that smell like California
Nicholas Staddon: Plants that are surprisingly water-wise when established
Agapanthus Baby Pete
Hibiscus Red Darling
Laurus Little Ragu
Pittosporum Golf Ball
Punica Angel Red
Nancy Goslee Power: California’s native color palette
Fox Tail Agave
Pacific Wax Myrtle
California Field Sedge