by germinatrix | January 6th, 2010
Longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill famously said “All politics is local”. Well, to take a tip from Tip, I’d like to proclaim that All Gardening is Regional! Today I am joining several bloggers from across the country to celebrate regional diversity, a subject that is near and dear to my heart, since I believe I became a ‘real’ gardener only when I finally accepted the limitations of my climate.
See, as a baby gardener I was in severe zone denial. My idol was Penelope Hobhouse; I looked to English gardens like Tintinhull, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter as models of what my small suburban garden in Los Angeles, California should look like. Talk about being defeated before I even began!
And the nursery industry didn’t help me much either! Back then, I shopped at larger garden centers, and they had no problem at all selling me plants that would never thrive in my climate – plants that were grown in other parts of the country and shipped in, with accompanying tags that said ‘full sun’ or ‘part shade’, and little else. Of course, when I put my Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ in full sun, it frizzled up and died within days. I couldn’t grow a peony here to save my life – but they were sold to me, over and over, as were so many of the other plants that made up the English Garden of my dreams,all of them doomed to failure in my LA heat.
I had to re-think. I had to open my eyes to where it was I actually lived. A desert! But I didn’t WANT a desert garden, I’d silently whine, full of petulance and stamping an imaginary foot. I wanted lush, I wanted color, complexity and passion – I wanted expressiveness. I didn’t want to be restricted! What I NEEDED, however, was to re-educate my eye. It seems so obvious to me now to put foliage and form above flower in my garden – but back then all I wanted was … HYDRANGEAS! The very fact that nurseries in SoCal sell hydrangeas makes me LIVID! Our biggest challenge here – in a city that has all of its water piped in from far away- is DROUGHT! Selling a plant with the latin word for “water” as the beginning of its name is just plain mean. This was a big realization for me. I stopped buying plants at garden centers and and large retail nurseries and began prowling local growers and plant brokers.
My re-education meant to stop looking to a climate so very different from mine for inspiration. If you live in Long Island, then you can use Tintinhull as a template for your garden, but I needed to look to Australia, South Africa, the mountains of Mexico, and the Mediterranean- regions with similar climates to the one I live in. I couldn’t use many of the plants I craved, so I tried to pinpoint what I loved about those plants and then replace them with plants I could use – case in point, the hydrangeas. What I really loved about them were those big, cone-like blooms, so I decided that the odd, dome-shaped blossoms of Euphorbias would substitute nicely. I ADORED the palmate leaf of Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland’s Gold’(my one attempt long ago dead and composted), but I found that the intensely cut leaf of Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’ satisfied my textural desires. Agaves and aloes have become such an important part of my garden palette I now find myself feeling badly for those who can’t use them! And the COLORS – echeverias and sedums, with their awesome variety of colors are as satisfying as any of the cottage-y flowers I used to crave.
Now, my garden is firmly rooted in the reality of Southern California. It is drought tolerant, full of grasses, succulents, and cactus, but the eclectic spirit of California is fully represented. There are flowers, but they are here to attract birds and bees rather than stares and gasps. It took me a while, but I learned to love my climate so much that I can’t imagine trading it in for that erstwhile dream cottage in the Cotswolds. Give me my little Spanish bungalow where the days are hot and the nights are cool, and where landscaping for the occasional fire is a reality. This region has refined my eye and defined my style, and for that I embrace it. I still love the look of dramatic English gardens, and if you look at my garden and squint, you can see a teensy weensy bit of that old Tintinhull dream – but I have to admit … I like the reality better!
Now have a ball blog-hopping around the country, celebrating regional diversity with this great group!
Jocelyn Chilvers, Wheat Ridge, CO – The Art Garden
Susan Cohan, Chatham, NJ - Miss Rumphius’ Rules
Michelle Derviss, Novato, CA - Garden Porn
Tara Dillard, Stone Mountain, GA - Landscape Design Decorating Styling
Dan Eskelson, Priest River, ID - Clearwater Landscapes Garden Journal
Scott Hokunson, Granby, CT - Blue Heron Landscapes
Susan L. Morrison, San Francisco Bay Area - Blue Planet Garden Blog
Pam Penick, Austin, TX - Digging
Laura Schaub, San Jose, CA - Interleafings
Susan Schlenger, Charlottesville, VA - Landscape Design Advice
Genevieve Schmidt, Arcata, CA - North Coast Gardening
Rebecca Sweet, Los Altos, CA - Gossip in the Garden