That's not drought tolerant--that's normal - Saxon Holt's Summer-Dry website, and getting "occidented"

This book changed my life!

I'm preparing to give a talk on best books for native plant gardeners. I was thinking about books that get gardeners reoriented, or I should say occidented, turned towards the summer-dry west where we live, rather than the summer-wet east where many of us used to live, when it comes to how we garden.

It was the first chapter of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates that did it for me.

It's a book based through and through on the idea of gardening where you are. And on good principles including use of natives and non-harm to wild areas (though it is not limited to gardening with natives by any means). Ms Town Mouse reviewed it back in 2009 here.

In fact, Gardening Where You Are is the title of the first chapter. I still have a visceral memory of its ideas filling my head and my heart though I read it ten or maybe eleven years ago. I also loved the writing itself.

An East Bay landscape. Photo by Saxon Holt. Downloaded from

I visited the page of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)--the unromantically named yet inspired organization that brought this book into being--to see if the book was ever updated (it wasn't).

However, I was happy to discover there that Saxon Holt, photographer for the book, has launched a new web site called Summer-Dry, with multiply-indexed access to all the photographs in the book. The site has the tag line:

Celebrate Plants in Summer-Dry Gardens.

What a striking inversion. I have to stop apologizing for summer dry gardens! Sheesh! What was I thinking! Talk about getting reoccidented!

And the site has an interesting blog. In his post on the term drought-tolerant, Saxon Holt says:

"Summer-dry gardens are naturally dry for long periods.  It’s not drought, it’s normal."

Another mind-shifting notion! I love it! You should read his whole post.

Incredibly, given my little trip down the memory lane of garden book reading, there is also a post on the web site by Nora Harlow, author of the chapter that so inspired me, about writing that chapter! Nora is Community Affairs Representative at East Bay Municipal Utility District and a landscape architect - and a wonderful writer.

She says that while walking through Joshua National Park in Southern California, stuck in writer's block ...

California Southern Desert. Photo by Saxon Holt downloaded from

... and daydreaming about reproducing that beautiful desert landscape in her Northern California home... when...

"[T]he truth suddenly came unbidden to me.  If I wanted that garden I would have to pack up and move … I went straight to my computer and typed these words: Gardening Where You Are.  The rest of that chapter tumbled out as if writing itself, and in a few short days it was done."

Here is the first paragraph of Nora Harlow's opening chapter to the book Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region. The ideas are no longer revolutionary to me, and probably not to you either. Still, I hope you enjoy it half as much as I did.
Some call it natural gardening. Others describe it as sustainable, ecological, regional, or bioregional. Whatever it’s called, the approach to landscaping outlined here is attuned to local climate, microclimate, topography, and soils, and responsive to the reality of limited resources. The natural approach to landscape design and maintenance conserves water and energy, protects wildlands, limits green waste, and provides habitat for wildlife. At the same time, it requires less upkeep than traditional landscapes, and it connects the gardener—and those who live, work, or play in the garden—to the rhythms of life: the seasons, the weather, the daily miracles of the natural world.


Saxon Holt said…
What a great post. You are now appointed as the official ambassador for
Country Mouse said…
Ha-ha! Thanks, Saxon! It's an honor to have you drop in. And thanks for permission to use your photos on this post. BTW I and my co-blogger Town Mouse were on a photography class you gave up at the arboretum in Golden Gate Park, and I retain much value from that day - as well as enjoying the pleasure of your company. You are doing great work, much appreciated.
Nora Harlow said…
Thanks Jackie. I'm thrilled that you "got" what I was trying to say, now so long ago. We have all incorporated this viewpoint so intimately into our thinking that we no longer see it as "revolutionary." But at the time, many years ago, it was. Perhaps it still is to some people. Thanks for taking up the charge and going forward with it. Our intent was to "change the landscape ethic of California and the West." Good grief. I think we helped a little, but there is so much more to be done!

Diana Studer said…
summer dry - that's not drought, that's normal - needs to be a billboard slogan.

Today I was cutting back ivy, and found a little torpid lizard. Took him to a nice deep pile of mulch to find a new place to sleep.
Country Mouse said…
I love torpid lizards. They are so easy to cuddle ;-) Glad you found him a snug bed, Diana.

Nora - thanks for leaving your message! Yes, I am reading through ten years (or more) of books on native plants and gardening in a summer dry climate, and you can see an evolution in thinking and assumptions to be sure.

At the last CNPS plant sale, a shopper thanked me for my article on the relationship between flower shape and pollinator shape etc - said had been a real eye opener for her, and she thanked me. I walked on air for the rest of the day! It's so great when you can add to someone's understanding or pleasure, and writers don't always hear about that.
ryan said…
That essay is one of the best I've read. So many of my clients have this book; it makes my job so much easier when they have read that essay and looked through the photos already when I show up for the initial meeting. I didn't know about Saxon Holt's website; it looks great.
Country Mouse said…
Hi Ryan - glad to read your comment (sorry for delay - your comment for some reason went to "moderation" hold!). Your experience and your clients' certainly matches my own. Nora did a great job!