Our gardens after we're gone

I've just returned from a 2-week pilgrimage in India conducted by Eleven Directions. It was a truly amazing trip, and I'll write more about it in another post. While I was gone, Country Mouse did a number of delightful posts and a new banner, and also posted a few posts I had prepared before I left (Thanks!).

I was giddy with relief and delight when I returned to find my garden unharmed and green, drenched by 5 inches of rain. A few arm-thick redwood branches had come down in the storm, but the trees still stand, thanks to some heavy pruning our neighbor had done 2 years ago. Then I read the interesting post our gardens after we're gone by James at Lost in the Landscape. And since I'd just gone, it really struck a cord with me.

What would happen to my garden if it were just left to fend for itself? No irrigation, no weeding, no fertilizer? Here's what I think would happen.

The biggest problem would be water. Without irrigation, the beautiful ferns and other water-loving natives such as the ginger (asarum caudatum) in the blue pots would not survive. 

The same is true for some of the redwood habitat. Redwoods are not locally native, and the redwood sorrel and ferns would not make it.

In contrast, the huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) might pull through, though the 3-year old plants have better chances than the 1-year old plants. I also hope that my blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) would continue to feed the birds, and grow into a big, beautiful tree.

Of course, the birds would be upset that no one fills the bird baths. In winter, that's not a problem. But in our summer-dry climate, they'd have to fly upstream until they reach the headwaters of the creeks. Without humans, water would be hard to find.


Walking around, I was actually surprised how many of my plants would probably do fine without me. On the Mediterranean mounds, the ceanothus (California wild lilac), arctostaphylos (Manzanita), grasses, and salvias wouldn't look as good in summer, but would green up and grow with the winter rains. 

I'm not quite as sure about the lavender and the Salvia spatacea (Hummingbird sage), which prefers a shadier spot. But I expect the sage would go summer dormant and return with its bright green leaves in the fall.

Of course, the mounds would be covered with Spurge and with Poppies. They seem to coexist happily, and the Poppies reseed so vigerously that I'd expect they'll spread throughout the garden, and over to the neighbors' gardens.

Many other native plants, and some of my drought-tolerant non-natives such as the Tea tree (Leptospermum), the Australian fuchsia (Correa), and Clivia would get by fine without me. Even the succulent pots would probably make it through the dry summer and revive with the rains.

The Camelias, I'm sorry to say, would probably dry up and perish, though they're very well established and in the shade. Who knows, maybe they'll survive? But I'm more optimistic about the newly planted checkerbloom, which I've seen in the wild so I know it survives the dry months. 


In this picture, the checkerbloom is surrounded by Clarkia leaves, and I'm sure that annual would go through its cycle of blooms, die-back, and regrowth from seeds without me because I rarely water that area, which has no irrigation.

Lack of fertilizer won't be a problem for most of my plants, with the exception of the Abutilon,  which really does need a regular shot in the arm. In fact, it's just coming back after I almost killed it by neglecting to feed it for too long.


I also do expect weeds coming in from neighboring gardens. Privets, which I pull often, and different Oxalis species. In winter, grasses from lawns. But fortunately the ivy that threatens to come over the fence from the neighbor will probably die in the first summer (or the second) if it's not watered, so my native irises have a good chance of spreading and thriving. 

The biggest change in the garden would probably come when the neighbor's redwoods, which rely on irrigation to thrive here away from the hills, weaken and topple over during one of the early winter storms. 


As it is, redwoods require extra pruning so the wind goes through the open spaces instead of catching on the branches and pushing all or part of the tree to the ground. The worst storms come from the north, which would mean the tree would become part of the garden (and possibly the house). 
Would it still look like a garden? Probably not. But the birds and other critters would appreciate the shelter from the dying tree, and would also enjoy the many different plants already in the garden. "We have nectar, pollen, and berries here; we have seeds and shelter," I want to say "And how about pulling some privet seedlings while you're here?"


Jess said…
Super interesting and well-thought-out post! Don't know what kind of ivy it is, but if Algerian, then I'm afraid it could not care less if not watered. I am curious about the Privet--I know it is horribly invasive in yards, but I don't seem to see it in open spaces on hikes, so maybe it has a hard time getting established with no summer water? I don't really know--maybe it does invade open spaces and I just don't know it. It is sad to think of the dear birds not having water. I always figure we moved in on their habitat, so the least we can do is offer them a fresh drink, and they sure seem to appreciate it.
ryan said…
I liked James' post too. It's interesting to think about, and a big part of gardening, to try and establish some plants that could survive without you. Your garden seems like it would look quite nice, I think.
This is a thought-provoking article (now I'm going to have to read James's). In my limited experience, I've found wild blue elderberries growing only where there's a high water table (like near a creek), so they might not make it. But maybe they have a large range of tolerances.

Your post also made me think - it's sort of as if I did this backwards. I started out just living in the woods with the native plants, sometimes rearranging them. I was very very aware when I introduced aliens which required water or amendments. I've never really lost that feeling.
debsgarden said…
I have thought about this very thing. My paths would disappear, and much of the property would revert to woodlands. But I think it would be a very beautiful woodland, because many of the natives would thrive and spread. I think the birds and other critters would still be happy.
Thanks for the link, Mouse! And welcome back from your trip. I look forward to hearing about it.

For all of us in areas with protracted dry seasons it seems to come down to water, doesn't it? (And maybe you saw some of that in India, too.)

It's hard not to love plants that love water. Both of us probably have pockets of the garden where the water-lovers would be the first to go. My single camellia plant, however, lives at the drip line of the roof where it gets condensation from the foggy, drippy mornings we sometimes get, and I think it'd actually survive as long as the house does. Beyond that there are enough of the hardier plants better adapted to what our areas have to offer them that would pull through and probably even thrive without our constant attention to them. (Time to questions conventional wisdom of our thinking that certain plants "respond" to constant pruning and shaping, for instance...)
Jan said…
Hi Town Mouse, you've written a thought filled post! In order to keep our world self sustaining it seems we really do need to cut back our water usage and grow natural, more 'wild' gardens. Speaking of which, I have a garden bloggers sustainable lifestyle project right now on my blog, with a give away...so I hope you will be able to participate! Thanks for your recent comment, it made me laugh, picturing you there with your sledgehammer!
Unknown said…
I didn't leave a comment when I stopped by the other day because I was in a hurry, and this topic requires some deep thought. I'd like to think that the trees here would just keep growing, some of the perennials would thrive, others would dwindle away. But I'm actually going to do a post of this nature too, inspired by you, Frances, and several others who have started musing like this. Just gotta find some spare time.
Chloe m said…
Thanks for commenting on my daughters post, She liked that a lot.
I cannnot wait to hear more about your trip! It sounds exciting!
I am glad your gardens survived your absence.
Brad said…
I've been thinking about this alot. It seems I will have to leave my house and garden and move somewhere else in the area. Since I rent, I planted the garden with my eventual leaving in mind, but it's not as established as I'd like. I'll probably be making a similar post soon. Yours was very thoughtful. A great post.
Country Mouse said…
I too worry about what would happen if we sold this house for some reason (like we wanted to retire!) and the new owners totally changed everything! My aim is not to sell this house, but if we do, to make the property so wonderful and easy to care for that new owners would be motivated to keep things much as they are, or ideally, continue to act as stewards for the natural flora and fauna.
I agree. Super interesting. It made me look around this place and try to imagine it without me. Other than my artificial pond, which is lined with a rubber pond liner, this place would pretty much stay the way it is except for the absolutely rampant growth that would take over. The reason for that is that I have planned this garden as a xeriscape with as many native plants as I can fit in, it is on the way towards being a sort of managed prairie savannah, and as such would thrive in my absence.

What WOULD happen is that it would turn into an absolute jungle as the birds planted their favorite edibles all over. I could see a climax forest of cherries, poke, blackberries with an understory of henbit and clover, intermingled with the day lilies and hostas. Actually, I believe that with the way the rain garden is situated, a lot of my hostas would survive, although there would be times when they would die back.

Interesting idea to contemplate.

tThanks for your post. By the way, we are weather junkies too. . . Not content with our own weather, we have to follow it in other parts of the continent as well.
Diana Studer said…
Linked back to you today.