Book Review: Designing California Native Gardens

When budding native plant gardeners tell me they don't know where to start, I encourage them to get Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.
The book's focus on plant communities makes is easy to see which plants will do well in the same conditions, and the structure of the book with its many inviting photos and plans makes anyone want to rip out what they have and start their own beautiful native plant community.
In the Overview, Keator examines the reasons for establishing native gardens and gives a brief overview of the book and of the plant communities that are the book's focus, followed by a discussion of where you might find these plant communities, and what the signature plants for each community are. My description of this overview sounds a bit dry, for anyone who has traveled in California, the discussion will bring vivid pictures of stunning landscapes into memory.
The following section on designing native gardens discusses the design phases: Evaluating the physical site, selecting the plant community, designing the garden, creating the hardscape, building the garden, and maintaining and managing the native garden.

This chapter is written by Middlebrook, whose landscaping company Middlebrook Gardens in San Jose has designed and built hundreds of native gardens, so she really knows what she is writing about. I myself had the great pleasure of participating in a small tour that Alrie held as a benefit in Palo Alto last spring, and was impressed by her passion, depth of knowledge, and sense of humor. I'm including a few of the photos I took during that tour of 4 gardens in Palo Alto in this post.

The following chapters discuss one plant community each, with a view on translating the community to a garden.
  • Bluffs and cliffs: Elements for a rock garden
  • Redwood forest: Gardening under cool giants
  • Coastal sage scrub: Southern California's "soft" chaparral
  • Channel islands garden: A parade of unique plants
  • Desert gardens: Juxtaposing plants from an extreme habitat
  • Montane meadows: Gardening with mountain wildflowers
  • Mixed-evergreed forest: Summer shade between fog and sun
  • Oak woodland: California's signature foothill landscape
  • Grasslands: Paradise for wildflowers
  • Chaparral: Drought-adapted scrubs for the garden
  • Riparian woodland: A plant palette for heavy soils
  • Wetlands: The beauty of water in the garden
Each chapter begins with a brief discussion (and some beautiful photos) of the plant community, followed by a discussion of a garden that Alrie implemented with a focus on that plant community. The chapter includes a garden plan, photos of the finished garden, scope of the work, and a plant list for that garden. Fairly detailed descriptions of each plant, including some design notes from Alrie, have additional pictures and are followed by lists of additional plants to try. Each chapter ends with recommendations on locations where you can see the plant communities in state parks or other natural areas, with photos that make you want to jump in the car and have a look.
Appendixes of sources of native plants, books about native plants, and a calender for managing native gardens, as well as an index, include more information for the native plant gardener.
If there's one caveat I might have, it is that this books text is just as optimistic as the stunning photos in the East Bay MUD book. There's hardly any plant that is described as challenging to grow, and when I read the descriptions, I want to run out and get one of each, then sit back and watch them nestle into their community. The sad reality is that some (not all) natives can be fussy, and many locations don't offer optimal conditions.
My advice is to put together a plant palette using this book, then double-check each plant with two more sources, maybe one book and one Web site. That approach is sensible for natives anyway, because there isn't as much information freely available, and we're still trying to determne what grows well in which of the many microclimates California has to offer. In that way, using the inspiration from Alries beautiful plant community gardens and some reference materials even a beginner can put together the native paradise they've been dreaming about.


Emily said…
Thanks for this! We just moved to San Jose in January and the backyard of our rental looks like it's been neglected for YEARS. This book will certainly come in handy. Thank you!
Anonymous said…
I wish there would be a book 'Designing Belgium native gardens'... but I fear I would have to write that myself!
Gail said…
We need more regional books like this one! gail
lostlandscape said…
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lostlandscape said…
Thanks for the review! I think this is a really useful book and often have it on my nightstand for bedtime reading. When you're starting out with native plants it's easy to pull plants from a random list and end up with plants that have very different requirements. For me the book is strongest in helping think about compatible plantings. Of course, the eye candy of the successful gardens doesn't hurt, either!