When I set out to develop our garden in a hilly “banana-belt” of Oakland, I had neither a plan, nor a budget, nor an inkling of what was to transpire during the next six years. I knew from my academic and real world experience in horticulture and landscaping (and from having lived with graduate landscape architecture students during college), that site assessment was a critical factor in successfully developing an aesthetically pleasing, functional, and somewhat sustainable landscape. (I use the term “sustainable” in the popular sense here, not necessarily in the scientifically accurate definition, as nearly all of our landscapes require various amounts of external inputs of energy and resources, no matter our good intentions or persistent efforts.)
With this in mind, I resolved to assess and prepare the site over the course of a full year—essentially an entire gardening season here in the mild-mediterranean West. This involved several practical components; it began with observations over several weeks and continued with weed control for months on end. A critical task was taking time to observe the property for patterns of sun, shade, and shadow through the seasons; for drainage and run-off patterns; and for soil types. We also delineated our desired uses and aesthetic goals.
I was fortunate in having access to the residential landscape rebate program sponsored by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), our water supplier; the program is intended to reduce water use in home gardens. That encouraged me to keep my initial plantings regionally appropriate, use water efficient micro-spray (low-flow) irrigation, and incorporate liberal applications of free mulch. I kept the importation of rocks and amendments to a minimum, save to add extra drainage for certain plants. I resolved to restrict plant choices to those from mediterranean-climate regions, no matter how lush, provocative, alluring, or dazzling (ie, variegated, virused, or Cobalt-60 irradiated) the new far-flung, exotic water-guzzler might be. This has not been easy, as intent is tempted when constantly exposed to new and interesting plants.
The Curse of the Blank Slate
I began to work without a formal plan, by playing with the collection of plants I had amassed. As I slowly began to see where the landscape was leading, I edited plants and other elements as part of the design process. The real challenge, I found, was the somewhat wistful, futuristic pondering that one engages in when attempting to create the “epic” horticultural shangri-la. Garden making can be difficult work given the mind-boggling smorgasbord of plants at our fingertips. I began to realize that the challenge of our gardening age is not choosing what to grow, but what not to grow. I find that I am often challenged by this kind of discipline and discernment.
It eventually came down to several criteria when choosing among plants:
- Is it regionally appropriate, in terms of cultural requirements, and sustainable with minimal resource inputs? (simply put, right plant/right place)
- Does it meet aesthetic, gustatory, or intellectual needs? (ie, interesting year-round)
- Does it fill a niche or solve a problem particularly well? (ie, seasonally dry shade on a clay slope)
- Do I love it enough to grow it? (likely at the expense of growing something else!)
Initially, the grasses seemed a natural choice for meeting these criteria, perhaps fueled by a formative personal epoch working for John Greenlee, the ultimate grass nurseryman, during my last year at Cal Poly Pomona. I deeply value the elan that grasses and grass-like plants (rushes, sedges, and other strap-leafed monocots) bring to the garden: unique form, foliage, and texture, combined with an ability to capture light, water, and wind as no other plant group can.
As my interest in monocots broadened, I began to incorporate other strappy-leafed, parallel-veined plants: Cape reeds or restios, Beschorneria, Astelia, Cordyline, Lomandra, Libertia, Dianella, Kniphofia, bromeliads such as Hechtia and Pitcairnea, and even bamboo. For contrast, I added other plants that met the conditions and tickled the aesthetics, including some interesting broad-leafed plants (all dicots): Bocconia, smoke tree (Cotinus), Cussonia, Euphorbia, Eryngium, globe thistle (Echinops), honeybush (Melianthus), several salvias, gray-leafed palms, and the occasional singleflowered rose. These eventually began to fill in the blank slate rather nicely. The lack of winter and spring sun over much of the garden precluded the use of many strictly sun-loving perennials.
On Influence and Direction
I feel fortunate to have known and been influenced by such horticultural personalities as Roger Raiche, Marcia Donahue, Bob Clark, and Dan Hinkley, and the plant-driven saturation, the abandon, and the whimsy of their gardens, all of which have been featured in Pacific Horticulture. I have been drawn just as strongly to the wild simplicity-with-abandon of the European New Naturalism movement as espoused by Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury, Rosemary Weiss, and, to some extent, Beth Chatto and the Washington, DC, landscape team of Oehme/Van Sweden. Melding these two schools into a personally meaningful and authentic landscape aesthetic became my quest. I began rather simply and naively by repeating plants, primarily the grasses, in loose clusters throughout the garden. Then came lesser-known grasses and sedges, some restios here, an astelia there at the base of three cordyline, and so on. My garden-making slowly became a more engaged, site and climate-informed progression of planting, moving, editing, changing, watching, and waiting.
I also began to focus on some appealing plants from non-mediterranean climate areas (Eastern Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and even Asia), particularly those that seem to thrive here on low to moderate care. At some point that I cannot exactly pinpoint, these plants all got together—secretly in the night, I suspect—and began to take matters into their own hands. Monocot and dicot joined forces with the masses of grasses to create an intriguing, dynamic, animated landscape fueled by sunlight, rain, wind, and the moods of the seasons.
Site Constraint, Flowers, and the Case for Year-round Interest
There is no denying that the site drove the plant selection. The property has a northeasterly cant, which, combined with the seasonal shade of large evergreen trees in the garden to the south, results in minimal winter sun. After starting with sun-loving plants, I came to realize that I had a less-than-full sun yard. So, a foliage-heavy garden was driven by the exposure of the site. I had no choice but to go with what worked, which happened to match my preference for foliage over flowers.
Visitors sometimes ask “Where are the flowers.” I like to point out that seasonal flowers are actually showcased in a garden where form, foliage, and texture dominate. To me the pop of a bright red ‘Altissimo’ rose, or the rise of a smoky orange red hot poker (Kniphofia), or the steely-blue spike of an Eryngium look all the better for having to come through, around, and between leafy, grassy companions. Each becomes more pronounced, bold, and interesting by contrast with its neighbor. The garden retains its appeal as the ephemeral flowers pass. Fortunate is the observer who can encounter such an enhanced moment of fleeting beauty, a passing scene of intriguing interplay and serendipity.
Where Serendipity and Entropy Meet
I spend many hours, alone or with my family or friends, on the deck drinking in this secluded garden, just looking and pondering the meaning of our landscapes, the rise and fall of all things floriferous, about bad horticulture, about disconnection from nature, and, eventually, the continued decline of Western Civilization—perhaps, in part, through meaningless landscapes. What is the meaning of our pursuits as gardeners and plant people? Why do we do this, and how can we do it responsibly? For me, the pursuit of horticultural beauty has come to have the most profound meaning as, perhaps, one of the last vestiges of personal creative space—a sanctuary in a world increasingly homogenized, digitized, corporatized, and, seemingly, out of our control.
So maybe the true value and meaning of gardening, horticulture, and landscaping really begins when one starts to engage, rather than coerce or even deny, Mother Nature and all of her processes, on a journey of development and discovery— and even a maintenance of our sanity, a simple redemption perhaps. This gestalt can surely inform us, no matter our religion, persuasion, or social status, as much as any of the great sages, past or present. In the garden, at least. . .