California Gardener’s Guide, Volume II

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to being more than a little familiar with the format of Nan Sterman’s excellent new book, California Gardener’s Guide, Volume II. In 2005, Mary Robson and I co-authored the Washington and Oregon Gardener’s Guide, a Northwest cousin to Sterman’s new book. As a newcomer to California, I’ve been waiting for this book to appear. Having given up my Seattle garden, along with plants like hostas and hellebores that loved shade and moist growing conditions, I’m now faced with a new backyard, a tabula rasa for a novice to California gardening. Like many gardeners, I want to grow and nurture plants that are appropriate for my surroundings, including ornamental natives.

Sterman, a California gardening expert who embraces sustainable practices such as designing with drought-tolerant plants, serves up her top recommendations: 186 plants for California’s diverse growing areas. This is no small task, as she notes in her introduction: “From north to south and east to west, there are dramatic differences in vegetation, geology, topography, and climate.”

Before revealing her recommendations for the “best of the best”—annuals/biennials, bulbs, fruits, ground-covers, herbs, grasses, perennials, shrubs, succulents, trees, and vines—Sterman introduces the beginning gardener (or California newbies like me) to the state’s five primary growing regions: the coast, inland valleys, the Central Valley, low deserts and high deserts. She includes useful charts that outline average annual rainfall totals and maximum and minimum temperatures for each region.

With mediterranean-climate conditions accounting for much of the state’s vegetation, Sterman zeroes in on native plants and those from other regions adapted to California’s low-water conditions. She also covers “thirstier” plants, such as edibles and ornamentals that are noteworthy for their “return on investment” (fruit, berries, fragrance). In full-page plant profiles, Sterman makes note of species with low, moderate, and high water needs. Useful icons also indicate whether the plant attracts butterflies or hummingbirds, supports bees, is edible, fragrant, bears fruit, is long-blooming or appropriate as a cut flower, provides food or shelter for wildlife, has colorful foliage, is drought tolerant, a good container plant, grows well in mediterranean conditions, adds a tropical look to the garden, tolerates coastal conditions, and is a California native.

I particularly appreciate the tiny map of California on each plant page (I wish Mary and I had used one of the Northwest in our version of the guide). The map is shaded to allow readers to tell at-a-glance whether a plant is suitable for the region in which they live; Sterman also includes the estimated minimum temperature tolerated by each plant.

Now I can take the California Gardener’s Guide along on plant-shopping excursions and use it to find something other than the ubiquitous agapanthus. (Okay, we thought that was a rare plant in Seattle; now I see it growing en masse at the corner gas station!)

Debra Prinzing, garden writer
Thousand Oaks, California