During a summer’s day tour of the Storer Garden at the UCD Arboretum, now-retired arboretum superintendent Warren Roberts looked at the flourishing tumble of flowers and foliage and proclaimed, “Nothing succeeds like success.”
As he walked past marble-smooth agaves, waves of deep purple lavender flowers, amethyst blue sea holly flowers, furry gray lamb’s ears, and brilliant orange California fuchsias, he explained that using plants nature intended to thrive in our dry, hot summer climate gives the garden a feeling of belonging to the landscape. An added bonus: This type of garden requires less water and fewer hours of maintenance.
Still, it’s not surprising that thirsty English-style gardens remain so alluring for gardeners in California’s hot inland valleys and foothills. There’s something irresistible, even romantic, about verdant borders filled with luscious swags of fragrant roses, where spicy scented cottage pinks carpet the ground and tall delphiniums sparkle like indigo bells against moist, gray skies. Surely, creating and enjoying a garden during England’s cooler, kinder summers must be heaven on Earth.
That’s not going to happen here.
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This is the Sacramento Valley, where we measure summer, especially July, by the number of 100-degree days. Our summer skies aren’t gray unless there’s a fire nearby; they’re relentlessly, cloudlessly blue. Our natural surroundings are golden brown. The air is dry; the ground is hard and dry. A dozen days over the century mark is typical. Drought years are common, and water shortages a constant threat.
Many of our native plants survive because they are dormant in summer, not winter. They come to life as soon as fall rains dampen the ground. Our gardening season is long, often lasting 10 months with barely a pause for winter. Truly, summer is our cruelest season, and the famous California sun can be exceedingly unkind to gardens. Whether we like it or not, we live in a climate best described as Mediterranean desert – lots of heat, plenty of sunshine, no measurable rain from April to November.
We can have gardens as beautiful and luxuriant as those across the Atlantic if we use plants appropriate for our climate. The solution is staring us in the face: We must embrace plants from all the world’s Mediterranean climates, including our own California natives, instead of tying to fit one nation’s gardening style into another without a thought for climate. That means mainly sun-loving, drought-tolerant, no-fuss, non-thirsty plants. Our plants must be able to endure ovenlike temperatures day after day with little or no respite from early morning to sundown. No wilting, no turning brown and dying, no pampering.
We need to plant beds with a mixture of flowering shrubs and trees, perennials, biennials, annuals and bulbs, not long borders of herbaceous plants that all die to the ground come winter. We need our borders to peak in May and September, not July. We must seek out plants with multiseason interest: brilliant fall color, interesting bark, colorful berries, attractive seedpods, or winter flowers. We must choose plants that look beautiful in their dormant stages, even as they are dying back.
We need to choose bold flower colors that show up in California’s bright sunlight instead of favoring pastel colors that look best against overcast skies. The silver- and gray-leaved plants English gardeners love so well are better adapted to our climate, so we should use more of them. Our Web searches and reading should be filled with stories about heat, drought, clay soils and native plants. We need to be conscientious about water use and search for advice about drip irrigation, xeriscape and mulches.
In a wryly, humorous twist, English gardener and author Beth Chatto wrote that gardeners in other parts of England wanted to recreate her dry gravel garden (Chatto gardens in England’s dry East Anglia), but were unsuccessful. After questioning them about their gardens, she learned they all had rich soil and lived in parts of the country with ample rainfall. Her reply: “If I had good loam and adequate rainfall, I would not be growing drought-tolerant plants.”
Of course, gardeners love to push the boundaries of what they can plant in their climate zone, and that’s one of the things that makes gardening fun and challenging. And most gardeners have a few thirsty-type plants they can’t live without. Keep those plants nearest the house where you can enjoy them, and use plants suited to the climate for the rest of the garden.
To create a garden that will remain beautiful without exhausting precious resources, it makes sense to use plants suited to the climate, whatever style you use to combine them.