Back from the Green

Since 1998, Pacific Horticulture has hosted a series of symposia under the banner of Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies. In last October’s sixth edition, speakers Dave Fross, Russ Beatty, Ruth Chivers, and Bart O’Brien spoke of the exceptional beauty of our natural landscape and native flora, and of the potential for incorporating that flora in our gardens in ways that can reduce our drain on resources and connect our gardens to their setting.

Our symposium was an integral part of the four-day Annual General Meeting of the Mediterranean Garden Society. Throughout the weekend, and on post-meeting tours, attendees enjoyed visiting outstanding gardens designed by Bernard Trainor, Michelle Comeaux, David LeRoy, and others; a consistent thread of native plants linked these gardens to the region and the natural landscape. Because of the season, the gardens were seldom entirely green, but rather dominated by grays, tans, and golds, in harmony with the surrounding countryside. The autumn rains had not yet begun to green the hillsides.

Five weeks later, as our flight landed at San Francisco International Airport, the nearby hills were barely showing green—the result of the season’s first rains in early November. The sight was in direct contrast to the ever-so-green hills of New Zealand, where we had just concluded an exciting two-week Pacific Horticulture garden tour, organized and led by the indomitable Jo Connor, of Auckland.

Seldom have we seen such original, thoughtful, and ebullient garden-making as in New Zealand. Each garden on the tour, regardless of its size, was marked by a grand vision that could only come from a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the land, the climate, and the natural vegetation. Although vast swaths of the country’s native vegetation have been lost to sheep pasture and plantations of Monterey pine (for both lumber and paper), remnants remain, often on the edge of the urban zone, to provide a visual reminder of the magnificence of the original landscape.

The greenness of the islands’ native flora may be its most constant feature, and encourages an extensive use of native plants in gardens, often as backdrop for all manner of flowering shrubs, perennials, and bulbs, but also as focal point, ground cover, shade, hedging, and even topiary. Gardeners seem uniformly proud of the native plants in their gardens, showing them off to visitors from overseas and praising them for their role in providing habitat for the native birds, whose melodious songs added a delightful dimension to the our visit.

The secret to all this green, of course, is rainfall—and plenty of it. With the exception of regions in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps, much of New Zealand receives anywhere from forty to eighty inches of rain annually, spaced rather nicely throughout the year; some of the mountain slopes record 120 inches or more per year!

Those of us on the tour from the Western US compared these rainfall amounts to our own much smaller tallies. Even in the Pacific Northwest, most regions outside of our verdant coastal rainforests fall far short of New Zealand’s figures. Nearly everywhere in our West, the low rainfall and the annual summer drought have a significant affect on the character—and color—of our native vegetation, resulting in landscapes tinted sage, olive, gray, silver, tan, and gold for much of the year. As gardeners, however, we too often turn our backs on our less-green native plants, favoring instead the rich greens of water-thirsty plants from regions of more dependable, year-round rainfall—like, for instance, New Zealand.

With increasing concerns for the future of our water resources, we return to the subject of native plants in our next symposium, Growing Natives: Celebrating California’s Beauty in Dry Timesplanned for March 28-29, 2009, which we are pleased to co-sponsor with the Regional Parks Botanic Garden and the California Native Plant Society. Among its many speakers will be Carol Bornstein, who has written so eloquently about our native flora in these pages (including the current issue), always encouraging us to select plants that will establish a sense of harmony in a garden that celebrates its setting, its climate, and its native flora. Such gardens may not appear as green as those we enjoyed in New Zealand, but they can be just as exciting and meaningful—and certainly worth visiting.
Richard G Turner Jr