The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren

When I first read The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, I didn't altogether like it. But then I'm not actually who this book was written for. Once I got that -- this became my favorite new book to spread the word about.

The California Native Landscape is THE book to buy for your aunts and uncles and, in general, any people you know who are on the cusp of change. People who are ready to learn about a whole new approach to gardening -- what we sometimes call deep gardening, environmental gardening, or gardening with nature.

This book doesn't just give the what, but also very nicely conveys the why.

Plus -- it's an all-in-one gardening book, bright and friendly. Everything you need to know, in just enough detail.

Though I have to say it does have a surprising lot of content about hardscape - I think Greg Rubin happens to have that particular expertise. Books have the personalities of their authors. This is not a bad thing.

Here is the table of contents. I'm going to pretty much walk through the chapters in this review.

Click to read

The structure of the book is a sandwich format.

  • Introductory chapters are one slice of the bread 1: California Environment, 2: our impact on it set the context. 
  • Then the filling of the sandwich covers standard gardening topics, but integrated into a Gardening with Natives outlook:  4: Design principles. 5: Garden Styles to choose from. 6: Plants to select for your design. 7: Installation. 8: Care and maintenance. 9: Pests and diseases. 
  • And then the other slice of bread - chapter 10 invasive weeds, and 11: fire, which get back into the context of the native plant garden: appreciation leading to advocacy for protection of the environment, and understanding of fire, which for me is quite a fear, living as I do on a ridge top, and a short Conclusion section. 

So I'll just start with that chapter on fire. It's one I particularly appreciate. I'm so glad to find these authors integrating Rick Halsey's excellent work in promoting the value and beauty of our California chaparral ecosystems. He's also a tireless myth-buster and advocate of proper and appropriate fire management practices and policies (instead of those that lead to clearing and re-vegetating with other types of plants).

If you haven't already looked it up - do visit Rick Halsey's California Chaparral Institute web site and after spending some worthwhile time there, consider joining or donating.

By the way, Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren are Southern Californians, as is Rick Halsey. But the book works just as well for those gardening in other parts of the state.

Click on any photo to see it large enough to read

Fire-wise planning and planting

Myth-busting truths!

But back to the beginning.

Chapter one, the California Environment. It's hard for me to read this with fresh eyes. It's a de rigueur part of any book on gardening with California natives and I've maybe read too many. You know, it's fine, and first time readers will likely be amazed by the wealth of plant species in our floristic region and its varied landscapes. Or they'll skip it because they just want to know what to do about that dead lawn.

But chapter two gets right into meaty topics that engage me every day: Look what we've done to the environment! It is not good! Understand it! Do your bit to appreciate what nature has done in this part of the world, which is amazing, and learn how to preserve and enjoy it in your garden and in the wild.

Chapter 3 on soil is a primer - but it's one that many novice and traditional gardeners might find revelatory. Our deepening understanding of the interconnected life of the soil has led to changes in traditional practices like no-dig gardening instead of double-dig gardening to preserve soil structure and foster micro-organisms and mycorrhizal fungi (which "extend" plant roots). It also covers routine things like alkalinity and acidity and soil texture and all that.

I forget now where this next snippet comes from but I think it may be in the soil chapter. (My book is out on loan to my nephew!) But I love this take on the lawn!

Chapter four, on design, is also a good primer.

Massing and repetition - general design principles.

Then there's a few ideas for choosing a garden style. Good to help the reader envision a garden other than the green hankie embroidered with annuals (or whatever your traditional garden looks like!).

Example style: desert or southwestern

Example style: Japanese or asian

Chapter six -- and now, the 100 page section on plants. The authors start by looking at plant community approach, and then go into it by plant type: trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials.

Really? Redwood and bay in a suburban garden?

I gave a talk recently on best books for California native plant gardeners, and this post is the first of maybe several that I hope will leverage the work I put into it!

I decided to look at how the same plants are described across the books. For no particular reason I picked sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) and wild ginger (Asarum caudatum).

Unfortunately there is no mention of wild ginger in this book. Well, there is a mention I think somewhere on that Redwood and Bay tree page shown above.

That's because this book's plant selection is great for a starter garden (or starter gardener).

If you want to get deeper into plants - use Alrie Middlebrook and Glenn Keator's book Designing California Native Gardens for an effective plant community approach, and use California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bernstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien for sheer excellence and a focus on plant profiles.

Anyway, the section on monkeyflowers is fine (unless you compare it to Bernstein/Fross/O'Brien's).

Section on monkey flowers part 1

Section on monkey flowers part 2

Section on monkey flowers part 3

Chapter 7 on installation is - about installation. And hardscape. I don't have a lot to say about this. I bet it's gosh darn good.

From Chapter 7, Installation - Retaining walls

Chapter 8 on care and maintenance is another one I skimmed when reading and don't have the book in front of me. But I'm sure it talked about not lollipopping shrubs and mulching and how it's less of a bother than maintaining a traditional garden, and so on.

By the way, if you want to give anybody a book on maintenance that is actually beautiful and lyrical as well as practical, please make it California Native Gardening: A Month by Month Guide by Helen Popper. (Here's a link to an article I wrote in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on that book).

Chapter 9 on Pests and Diseases may be fine. Confession here: Don't know about you but reading about pests and diseases not something I am that eager to delve into. Somewhere along the way I got the idea about the "address the environment and the pests will take care of themselves" part of Integrated Pest Management and I'll stumble along with that until I need more help. But - this is likely another mind-shifter chapter for people who see an aphid and scream while reaching for a nasty chemical.

Chapter 10 is another eye opening mind shifting one if you haven't thought about this stuff yet. Written well for the audience. Good job Ms Warren! - the garden writer part of the author duo. Very approachable.

If this book was a yoga practice, the Conclusion section would be Savasana - where you lie on your back and integrate all the work you just did, or just fall asleep. No, no, I don't mean while reading this chapter. I hope that it works as intended, and leaves the novice gardener sinking back in deep satisfaction at the thought of pleasant years ahead, gardening with nature (and not against her).