Variations on a Theme of Water

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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Spring seemed to last forever this year. Cool temperatures encouraged bulbs, herbaceous perennials, and trees alike to extend their flowering season—with little rain in California to mar the blossoms. Most agreed it was a glorious spring, though late snows in the Pacific Northwest were more than a little upsetting.

The downside is that it was also one of the driest springs on record over much of the West Coast (though not in the Northwest). By mid-May, mandatory water rationing had been announced by some of the water districts in California, particularly on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Water availability has become a more serious issue for Southern California gardeners following restrictions placed last year on the pumping of water from the Sacramento/San Juaquin River Delta, out of concern for an endangered species of fish. In early June 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency for California.

A particularly hot and dry 2007 resulted in the extreme fires that swept Southern California, in a year that also saw a severe freeze in regions of San Diego County that rarely experience such cold weather. (See Nan Sterman’s article in this issue.)

Is all of this proof of climate change? Sunset’s Jim McCausland, long a student of the West’s gardening climates, addresses that question in this issue. We’re particularly delighted to have his contribution, as it gives us an opportunity to re-emphasize the value of Sunset’s climate zone maps for Western gardeners. By considering summer high temperatures, ocean influence, topography, rainfall patterns, humidity, and wind, the Sunset maps offer a more thorough summary of regional climates than do maps that only focus on the average winter low temperatures. The Sunset maps help gardeners choose plants that are most likely to thrive with the least dependence on artificial life-support systems.

Water has always been an issue in the West. One hundred years ago, Mary Austin wrote about the preciousness of water in the Owens River valley.  Her dire predictions for the region were borne out in the twentieth century, as the river was tapped to provide water for the expanding populations in Southern California.

Pacific Horticulture has, since its founding more than three decades ago, encouraged readers to take a responsible approach to gardening—to recognize both the opportunities and the constraints of our mediterranean climates. The careful use of water remains a key element of that approach, as explored in our occasional symposia, Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies.

Gardening with less water, however, need not mean gardening with less beauty or excitement, nor with less diversity in the plant selection. Witness the magnificent garden created by Bernard Trainor for the Vought family. Brandon Tyson chose a dramatic group of plants for a rain-only garden in the Berkeley Hills.  Farther north, Dan Hinkley explored a water-conserving plant palette for his new garden at Windcliff, on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula.

Water will be the thread that ties together the talks and the gardens visited as part of Pacific Horticulture’s sixth edition of Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies, on Saturday, October 11, 2008. With “California!” as our theme, there could not be a better place to hold this year’s symposium than the Monterey Peninsula. This one-day symposium will include presentations on the landscape and flora of California (by Dave Fross, from Native Sons Nursery), the history of gardens in the state (by landscape architect Russell Beatty), issues challenging garden makers today (by garden writer Ruth Chivers), and garden jewels from the state’s flora (by native plantsman Bart O’Brien). Complementing these talks will be an afternoon tour of gardens in Carmel and Carmel Valley (including gardens by Michelle Comeau and Bernard Trainor) that demonstrate a clear response to the region’s mediterranean climate.

We are delighted to be co-hosting this year’s symposium with the Mediterranean Garden Society (MGS), in concert with their Annual General Meeting, October 9-12 at the Casa Munras Hotel in downtown Monterey. For more information about this international organization, visit www.mediterraneangardensociety.org.
Richard G Turner Jr, editor