Thursday, April 2, 2015

A California Garden Aesthetic

WARNING - This is going to be a somewhat philosophical post. I'm going to stick photos between some of the paragraphs to illustrate my points, but it is going to be very wordy. I'm writing this on April 1, 2015. Today Gov. Brown announced 25% mandatory reductions in water usage throughout California in response to the drought. He said "It's a different world, we have to act differently." So how do we garden in this kind of world?

Recently I was talking with an acquaintance who said that because of the drought people were just going to have to get used to not being able have pretty gardens any more. She thought that was actually okay. I think her viewpoint is terrible, but I didn't argue with her.

I think it is terrible because it is both the wrong message to be sending out in response to the drought, and it is factually incorrect. However, if she had stated it differently I might have agreed with her. The way I think it could be accurately stated is that we Californians must develop a new gardening aesthetic that accepts our limited water resources. If done well, this kind of approach can be both realistic and beautiful. I know for a fact that that can be done because I have done it myself for over 20 years. And I know many other people who have done the same thing.

Generally those of us who have done this kind of gardening have done so under the banner of the California Native Plant Society or the more generic label of drought-tolerant gardening, but it is often hard to put a label on what we do. I think we need a catchy name for the type of gardening that I am describing, so I am suggesting that we call it the California Garden Aesthetic. That's my whole point right there. Now I'll spend the rest of this post and the next explaining what I mean and why it's important.

I didn't make this up entirely on my own. I have borrowed a bit from the description of Craftsman-era homes of roughly 1900-1929, and most specifically the description of the Gamble House in Pasadena, now an architectural museum. Their web site ( describes how the architects Charles and Henry Greene developed a new style which the Gamble House refers to as the New California Aesthetic. I won't go into the details, but it was a new blending of elements that had been around for some time. And it really was revolutionary. A quote from Charles Greene shows his thinking. “The style of the house should be as far as possible determined by four conditions: First, Climate; Second, Environment; Third, kinds of materials available; Fourth, habits and tastes — i.e., life of the owner." (Charles Sumner Greene, in The Western Architect, July 1908). Clearly, these principles are equally applicable to gardening today.

Note: this is the Rideout house, not the Gamble House
Gardeners of that period did not typically use native California plants or even drought-tolerant non-native plants in their gardens. However, their philosophy seems to fit very well with our present need for a gardening philosophy or aesthetic. There was an interest in finding the ideal California garden, with various ways of looking at it. Historian Kevin Starr in his book Americans and the California Dream briefly touched on this in one chapter, in which he described early attempts to fashion a cohesive approach to gardening in the state 

Many others since then have thought about this and described it, but not in the exactly the same way or same words. The effort to define an ideal garden for California has gained momentum in recent years, due largely to our water woes. For example, the East Bay Municipal Utility District has published a booklet that promotes Summer Dry Gardens ( The Surfrider Foundation has their own approach which they call Ocean Friendly Gardening. I think that name confuses some people, including me. And while the approach is strong on water conservation and rainwater retention, it seems weak in terms of plant selection. A Los Angeles based organization called Green Gardens Group (G3) appears to be linked with Surfrider and has similar strengths, plus a bit more emphasis on proper plant selection. I think they call theirs California Friendly Gardening.

Calochortus sp. among other plants

The closest I have seen to my approach is a blog called Mother Nature's Backyard by the Board of the Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve. They promote what they are calling Your New California Garden. It is essentially the same as what I am saying, but I like to include the word Aesthetic because I think we need to convey that this new approach to gardening is not just new but also beautiful. If we don't get across to people that it is beautiful then there will always be a reluctance to accept it, 

even when the situation (like now) demands it.

So, you may ask, what are the elements of my California Garden Aesthetic? I am still developing this, but  here is what I have so far:

1.     The garden is a mini ecosystem and should be managed as such. It is not merely a decorative addition to the exterior of the house. It functions as a place where not only plants but also animals (birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates) can find either a permanent home or temporary refuge, where there is food and water available to them, relatively free of unnecessary disturbance and hazards.

2.     No use of pesticides. The insect life of the garden is one of its key elements. Minimal or no use of herbicides to control weeds.

3.     Water conservation must be a consideration of every aspect of garden design. In my view the ideal is to have no automatic irrigation system. The alternative is to have a very high quality irrigation system that wastes no water and is programmable to recognize varying weather conditions. The point of watering is to keep plants alive and healthy without wasting water. It’s something we must think about constantly.

4.     Retain rainwater onsite. This principle is very well covered in the material from Surfrider, G3 and other organizations, so I won’t dwell on that here.

5.     Use primarily plant species that are native to the region of California in which you live. This is the one I want to spend more time on because I think it is the critical piece that gets left out of some other programs. It is critical because it ties back to point #1. At the same time it raises the question of Aesthetics, i.e. can a native plant garden with minimal irrigation actually be beautiful? I intend to answer that question in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. What you're saying is true. Just because we're in a time of austerity and droughts, doesn't mean we can't have lush gardens. There's a way to do something; one of which for your case are rainwater tanks. That allows you to circumvent the water consumption limits while letting you make the most out of fluctuating weather as well, since heavy rainfall usually follows or precedes these droughts.

    Bert Aguilar @ Rainfill Tanks