Book review: The Drought-Defying California Garden
The longer you garden, the more you learn. That goes without saying. But with that experience sometimes comes a certain arrogance. Usually you’re not even aware of it. It may express itself in rolling your eyes when you hear or read something that you think is obvious. Occasionally, you may also have an overinflated sense of how much you actually know. In truth, you most likely know less than you think. A reality check is not a bad thing.
I had my own reality check recently when I read The Drought-Defying Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren (Timber Press Inc., 2016). I live in California and have been gardening in drought conditions for years. Plus I have a good knowledge of California natives.
At least that’s what I thought.
When I received the book, I thought I’d get a nice refresher of what I already know without learning much else. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Drought-Defying Garden is a compact book, just 207 pages, half of which are plant profiles. But it contains a wealth of information based on the authors’ many years of experience in the field. (Greg Rubin is the owner of a landscape design company and Lucy Warren is a Southern California gardening professional.) The practical information shared by Rubin and Warren is what makes this book so useful for anybody who is considering installing a California native garden. No need to make your own mistakes when they’ve already gone through it all—simply follow their recommendations.
The book is laid out in four major sections: “Introduction,” “Plant Selection,” “Installation,” and “Care and Maintenance.”
The introduction summarizes the current water situation in California and makes a case for using native plants in residential gardens. The savings in water and money alone are a compelling argument; drought-tolerant natives cost about 85% less to irrigate than a lawn.
Rubin and Warren use a “basic palette of 70-80 percent evergreen trees, shrubs, and perennials [for] native landscapes […] to look lush and colorful year-round.” The resulting design gives you a sense of place, requires minimal maintenance, provides erosion control, offers fire safety, and promotes habitat preservation.
Instead of mixing California natives with plants from elsewhere, they recommend setting aside areas in your garden dedicated exclusively to California natives. This was a concept I was not familiar with. After all, my own garden is based on mixing and matching with abandon. The reason is detailed in the “Plant Selection” section. California native plants come from harsh environments, and their primary mode of survival is to live in cooperative plant communities. They keyword here is “cooperative.” Instead of competing for resources (water, nutrients), these symbiotic communities share what few resources there are. Soil organisms (mycorrhiza) help extract, transport and distribute moisture and minerals.
To replicate this system at home, it is essential to combine plants from the same (or compatible) communities. The book lists 11 communities, ranging from the coastal strand and coastal sage scrub to chaparral and different types of forest to the desert. These communities require different organic or inorganic mulches. The book gives detailed information on what to use at home.
In “Plant Selection,” the authors recommend using plants that are native to where you live and suggest you get in touch with your nearest California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter. The CNPS also operates a handy website called http://calscape.org/ that lets you input a street address and then shows you which plants are native to that area. For Davis, for example, Calscape list 420 native plants.
“Plant Selection” is broken down into “Native Trees,” “Native Shrubs,” “Native Groundcovers,” and “Native Perennials, Vines, and Monocots.” The tree and shrub sections are further divided by size (large, medium and small). Each plant profile contains of a detailed description and indicates the plant community the plant belongs to and how it can be used in the landscape. While the size of the book limits the number of plants that can be included here, the authors did a good job listing a representative sample of California natives that are both gardenworthy and available in the trade (at last in nurseries specializing in natives).
While the “Plant Selection” section is the “meat” of the book, for me the real treasure trove of information is found in the next two sections: “Installation,” and “Care and Maintenance.” This is where I learned quite a few things I hadn’t been aware of.
Just a few examples: Don’t add amendments, fertilizers or compost to the soil. That’s the opposite of what so many of us do when planting. The goal is to create conditions that emulate nature. California natives are used to grow in low-nutrient, low-water situations. That’s what they want and need.
In addition, stay away from drip irrigation systems. While they are efficient, convenient and eminently suitable for so many other plants, they create wet zones (“localized hypersaturation”) that may cause California natives to rot. The authors recommend irrigation every 10 to 14 days using low-volume rotary sprinkler heads on 12-inch pop-up sprinkler bodies or risers. If that’s not option, an old-fashioned garden hose is a perfectly good alternative.
Other useful tips and tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book. Don’t waste money on buying larger plants, for instance. 1-gallon plants are ideal. 1- and 15-gallon plants of the same species typically reach the same size in 9 to 12 months. In addition, plants in larger pots are more likely to die. This is the kind of information rooted in decades of practical experience.
The “Care and Maintenance” section goes into topics such as watering, trimming and pruning, ant control, and weed control, including the use of pre- and post-emergent herbicides. An appendix lists useful resources such as the regional chapters of the California Native Plant Society as well as specialist nurseries.
What looked like a small book that might refresh what I already knew turned out to be far bigger on the inside than its compact format suggests.
Disclaimer: Timber Press provided me with a complimentary review copy of this book.