Coming to a New Myth: Gardening Where You Are

Reading Town Mouse's last post put me in mind of an incident, when my old chum from the U.K. came to visit us one July. We went on a wonderful trip to Yosemite and as we got ready for our first hike, I saw her stuff a cagoul into her pack. I said, "Oh you won't need a waterproof." "But what if it rains later?" "No, no, my friend," I assured her. "It won't rain. Or if it did, it would make the news."

She did not feel reassured, and packed her wet weather gear anyway. It didn't rain, of course, and she left it behind next day, with great glee and much amazement.

Adjusting to our Mediterranean climate is a big mind shift for gardeners like me with origins elsewhere, and when you get down to it, most people living in California have origins elsewhere - if not in our generation, then in a generation not so far back. We bring our plants, and our climate models with us - and if you irrigate enough, and amend the soil enough, it works wonderfully. Better than at home, even, because of all that lovely sun. You relish how much bigger things grow in California than as advertised in general gardening books.

It reinforces your old gardening myths, actually. It's hard to figure out where us mice and our ilk are coming from, when your garden is aglow with lush greenery and bright flowers.

But it comes at a price. High water use, and often high fertilizer use too, which contaminates the water supply. And it can be a sterile place for local wildlife. And some of those plants can escape your garden and use up the ever shrinking habitat available for native plants.

You've heard it all before if you've read our blog.

I first came to a more satisfying gardening myth by reading this wonderful book put out by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). Especially the opening essay, "Gardening Where You Are" which you can access (in PDF format) from this page:

Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates.

If the ideas we mice talk about here are quite new to you -- I recommend that you read that essay. It's lovely and illuminating and may set you on a new and interesting path, as it did me.

The chapter on the seasons of California (which you can also read from the above page) is also very enlightening. The California summer is a lot like a cold weather climate's winter - it's when a lot of native plants take a break until the rains return. Not all, but many natives do put on their best displays in the other seasons.

The EBMUD book is not all about natives. It has lots of information about gardening with plants from all the Mediterranean regions, including California. And it's a gorgeous book. It was the start of a path that has led me to focus on restoration and the ecology of the wildlife interface where I live. Which I am slowly learning about as I go.

When you adopt a new myth, your experience is not only informed by the myth, but it actually changes. You develop a new aesthetic, for example. Brown seed pods become sculptural and interesting, and valued as a source of wildlife food, rather than things to chop off because they are unsightly.

It's like when you decide to eat more healthily - you start to enjoy the natural foods and lose your taste for pepperoni pizza (Mr Wood Rat) and British Mars Bars (Ms Country Mouse).

At first you think - But I don't want to stop liking Mars Bars. But once you're on the journey it doesn't feel that way. (I've heard religious evangelicals say this kind of thing too - I well understand resistance to those with an evangelical message.)

When you garden with natives (or mostly natives) you start to enjoy a different rhythm of seasonal gardening activities. In summer, when the garden is resting for the most part, you can go hiking. In fall, you are busy preparing and planting. And so on.

You know you've changed when, instead of squishing it for damaging the leaves, you get your camera out when you see a Chalcedon Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona) caterpillar on your Sticky Monkey Flower bush, as I did yesterday. Aren't those feathery and orange spikes great?

The picture at the beginning of the blog is an adult, feeding on a yarrow flower in a prior year.

I'm going out to do a bit of pruning and weeding. I'll post about ferns soon, honest I will.


Anonymous said…
At this moment, lots of people here in Belgium are experiencing the cost of 'not gardening where you are'.
In the past years, there has been quite a hype here in planting non-native species like camelia's and bay-laurels, and even palm-trees, that are not fit for a region in hardiness zone 8. But we have had several mild winters, so people get over-enthousiast, because there shrubs have survived so many a winter.

But this year's winter was a cold one, with temperatures that were within the zone 6-7 range instead of zone 8. So you can imagine that in many gardens half of the plants or even more didn't survive.

(Even my rosemary, that has survived already 15 winters, was frostbitten, although it's still alive.)
David said…
Town Mouse,
Thanks for your comments and thanks for some great recents posts on your site. Great points about native plant myths- just take a look a my post about the Felco pruners- native plants do require maintinence.
I haven't ever had a problem getting milkweed going, are you trying to grow from seed or from the runners?
Keep me posted.
Country Mouse said…
That's a good point Anne - On the other hand, you could say that it's the exotics that don't survive in your native habitat that are OK to use - as accents and for horticultural or sentimental interest - in a native garden. As long it isn't too "expensive" to maintain their artificial environment. It's pretty hard to maintain artificial weather ourdoors! But there are solutions like putting little fairy lights in citrus trees to ward off frost, or cover them in a light sheet.

It's been great seeing other regions' native plant gardens in various blogs, like David's in Missoula (

I think my new motto is "Wherever you go, there you garden!"
Genevieve said…
Wow, that caterpillar looks like an underwater beastie! Gorgeous shot. I haven't seen anyone quite like him up here.

I love your gentle philosophy of gardening where you are. Good reminder and support for those of us pros trying to help people have their dream garden, when maybe they are dreaming of something that they would not love once they had it.

Thought provoking, as always..
ryan said…
I think that EBMUD book is one of the best out there. It;s got great photo, great info on gardening, good charts, and lots of good info on the plants. I read through and felt like it had most of my favorite plants.