Southern California has its own unique history and personality. Our landscape reflects the diversity of people and cultures that have cultivated land here, both agriculturally and in domestic settings. It also reflects their visions, wishes and memories. A plant brought as a cutting from the home country, a few seeds in a pocket when moving westward, a tree chosen because it symbolized status or reminded one of the tree they grew up with back East. Our landscapes can be delightful and diverse. Yet the reigning paradigm of how we plant and care for our landscapes in Southern California is too often heedless of its environmental impacts and underutilizes the potential for landscapes to improve the local ecology.
I could summarize the current paradigm as 'plant too much, add a lot of water, add a lot of fertilizer, plants grow quickly, cut them back too much, repeat.' This is of course my own biased view from what I see in the industry. Even spaces planted with "low water" or "Mediterranean" plants are often subject to this same paradigm. A property owner wants a more mature looking garden and they put in too many plants for the space. Then they water them a lot so that the plants grow quickly.
Then before you know it everything has to be cut back a lot. All of that green waste gets hauled off to the away place (more on that at another time) and the leaves are blown off and removed from every surface upon which they fall. The soil life is poor because no organic matter is being allowed to decompose upon it. Without the natural cycling of organic matter one must purchase compost from the store and bring in fertilizer to keep plants growing fast and furiously.
Stop the insanity! This system works well for people selling goods and services. But what does it do for the land, the air, the water and the birds and the bees? In the bigger picture I'm pushing for a paradigm shift where we learn to embrace the seasons and the climate. Maybe things shouldn't be a lush green in August in L.A.? And please, please, let us stop paying people to brutally hack trees. That's not pruning. It's cruelty to nature.
Let's start with water. Many of the plants brought from other places grow here only with the help of a good deal of additional water. Now I think we should be able to grow a wonderful variety of plants. If you want to grow fruit trees or grass or even establish a new native garden you are probably going to use supplemental water. We should be thinking more about capturing rainwater and using grey water where appropriate. I will be so bold as to suggest that if you are going to use potable water that it should be for something you LOVE. Water use should never be thoughtless. And all too often an automated irrigation system allows water to be used without us being aware of it. I encourage people to just go out and spend more time in their landscapes and really learn to look. Check the irrigation timer every few months, make seasonal adjustments, turn the thing off if it is going to rain.
After rethinking our watering we need to look at green waste. How much material comes off of a garden every week? Lots of water= lots of plant growth. Once plants are established they can be watered less often. This will slow their growth and means that less green waste needs to be cut and disposed of.
If possible we should be composting and mulching our green waste. I like the 'chop and drop' method where you chop up your prunings into mulch as you go. This look isn't for everyone but I recommend it for those who want to be serious about their waste management.
If you have a lawn you should be mulching the lawn with the grass clippings. We need to return more organic matter to the soil. Lawn clippings and fallen leaves are organic materials- they contain carbon, nitrogen and all sorts of nutrients that plants need. Having a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil helps retain moisture and feeds the good microbes in the soil. I like to sweep walkways and hardscape and leave the twigs and leaves to decompose on the surface of the soil. Bougainvillea flowers make the most delightful pink mulch! The cult of tidy must be displaced with a celebration of the beauty of nature. And of course, this organic matter we are leaving on the surface of the soil adds carbon back to the soil and makes our healthy, living soil a carbon sink. Look at that, tackling climate change literally in our own back yards. And all we had to do was not blow away all the leaves.
Lazy gardening is green gardening my friends.
Beyond water and waste there is the big picture of what we want and expect from our landscapes. Wealthy European aristocrats created pleasure gardens as a way to display their wealth. Look! I'm so rich I don't have to grow my own food! To utilize land purely for aesthetic and recreational purposes was a luxury. The neatly clipped hedges and tidy beds of flowers were a way to show how they could afford to also employ people to work in their pleasure gardens. What an indulgence. But this is not France circa 1825. Yet, whether we are aware of it or not, these values have helped to shape our ideas about gardens and what they should look like. At the same time, people coming from tropical countries in Asia and Latin America may be used to a more lush and green landscape more appropriate to wetter climates. Where we are from and our cultural backgrounds do play a role in what we appreciate in a landscape.
In order to shift our landscape paradigm we need to examine some of these expectations. There is room for a lot of variety and self expression in our gardens. However we need to adapt to where we are. Our water future is unknown. We will have wet years and dry years. Our landscapes should be designed to be resilient in the face of drought. But we should also shift our expectations and learn to love the changing of the seasons and what that brings. Summers in California are brown. Let's love having a little more brown in summer time and celebrate the return of green shoots with rain in the autumn. Let us appreciate the ephemeral beauty of flowers that appear only after a heavy rain and marvel at the resilience of the plants that manage to flower or stay green even in the most intense heat. By matching our expectations to our climate reality we can create more beautiful landscapes than we had previously imagined.