The Difficult Path to Delight
“Whenever I’m driving through a neighborhood and see a (landscaper) truck with orange cones set out on each end, and out come the guys in orange vests, I try to put my blinders on—I know something bad will be happening to plants—and there is nothing I can do,” Mike Evans told me as we were having a taco lunch under the oak trees at his Tree of Life native plant nursery off Ortega Highway.
The bad things that happen to plants every day in our culture are excessive—pruning, topping, hedging, over-watering, raking the ground bare and intentionally planting shrubs and flowers that have to be removed and replaced over and over. Mike says he’s given up trying to enlighten the Southern California landscape industry. No, they are so tied up in keeping their businesses going, paying off all those trucks, making payroll, and having a hierarchy of supervisors managing all this—it is impossibly difficult to change. The managers and workers think they need to show their clients that they have been there doing something—so if they zip over the shrubs with a power hedger and rake up around them—clients will see they’ve done something. If they rake so much, removing all the organic material around the plants, and disturbing the roots so that the plants don’t thrive, well, sounds like the soil needs to be renovated and the plants replaced. Hm, there’s an extra charge that helps the bottom line.
A more sustainable landscape where the leaves that drop become insulation for the roots and produce their own organic soil layer doesn’t need someone grooming and raking every week, doesn’t have suffering plants and rarely needs plant replacement. A sustainable landscape requires a different skill level and business model.
Evans has spent his professional lifetime promoting not only native plants, but the approach of landscaping and maintaining landscapes sustainably.
Sustainable landscapes are those that as much as possible are based on natural systems so that we are investing the minimums in materials, water, labor and energy. They are landscapes that are not on life support, that live happily on their own, without continual mowing, hedging, fertilizing, raking and watering.
Professor Bob Perry of Cal Poly, Pomona has studied this idea and says that we have yet to achieve a manmade landscape that is completely sustainable. Gardens are, after all, human-managed landscapes. But we can do much better than we are doing now.
Evans asks us to think how our gardens are contributing to the story of the California landscape. The more they reflect the character of our state’s historical landscapes—before large scale irrigation, mammoth nurseries catering to the nationwide market producing plants for eastern and midwestern climates, and the fleets of trucks—the more appropriate they will be. These gardens and landscapes will be inherently more sustainable, and uniquely California. Think of our own Hortense Miller Garden or the classic landscapes of Santa Barbara where not only were there clients and landscape architects sensitive to the native landscape and climate, but there were fortuitous limits imposed by lack of imported water.
What can we do as individuals? Make a landscape plan that takes advantage of the best the Laguna climate offers. Don’t expect your garden to look like it’s in England, the Midwest or some other region with high rainfall and a climate that includes frost and snow. Frost tender, colorful and unusual plants grow here and in few other places. Celebrate them! Plant California-adapted trees and shrubs. Native plants are ideal, naturally accommodating birds and wildlife. Take advantage of trees shading your house and cooling your outdoor living areas. Restrict lawn to highly used areas and use types that need the least watering.
The prevailing landscapes of lawns bordered by shrubbery pruned with power hedgers are there for a reason—sophisticated skills are not needed. Clip, edge, hedge, rake and they’re done. The sustainable garden requires less work and more skill. Right now, as Mike Evans emphatically pointed out, the landscape industry and most local gardeners are not set up for that.
We need to be willing to pay for careful artistic work by knowledgeable gardeners, and stop considering gardening as an entry level, low-paying job. Then we can develop a cadre of horticulturally-trained, professional and enthusiastic gardeners to help us heal and sustain our landscapes. And we will have a renewed appreciation for the delight and significance of true California gardens.
Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.