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California Native Plant Society (CNPS)
September/October 2001 Newsletter

A Garden that’s Alive!

By Dan Songster

"Once a garden comes alive ecologically, it displays a humor and richness of meaning that have been missed by narrow views of horticulture. Significance expands. Meanings multiply. Each plant or planting becomes much more than what nurseries believe they sell, or gardeners suppose they grow, or visitors would notice."

Noah's Garden,
by Sarah Stein

We are in love with the wilderness. Such vibrant spaces speak to us saying, “Wander in me, discover my secrets, drink me in, inhale me, I am real." Our state's natural areas are rubenesque in their fullness and diversity, richly endowed with color, scent and texture. And they are alive! Birds are everywhere eating berries and seeds, hummingbirds sipping nectar, native bees, flies, dragonflies, and butterflies in various stages of development, many animals busy with their daily (or nocturnal) activities, along with the not so obvious fungal and bacterial alliances operating silently in the soil itself. How can we not be in love with such active landscapes? Whether it is the shady oak understory, the gray-green tapestry of our coastal sage scrub, or the elfin forest of chaparral, they are all magnificent. A small plateau of native grasses saturated with the purple of Brodiaeas and bordered with the shaded apricot of Mimulus. A grouping of boulders long ago rolled to where they now lie half-buried, with Dudleya and Coffee fern beneath and between, a cloak of dark green Coffeeberry above. A simple bank of rusty Buckwheat blossoms against an amber sandstone background. How many miniature gardens do we find on a single hike in the nearby hills? Hundreds of glorious scenes worth stopping at to take notes, sketch, photograph, or simply gaze. And each of them provides some benefit, often essential, to the animals that live there.

So it is only natural that slowly (even here in lawn-carpeted western landscapes) we would wish to incorporate these native plants into our gardens and invite such critters into our landscapes. Of course there will be differences between our gardens and the real thing. In our nearby wildlands the plants grow because a seed washed up behind a boulder and stopped long enough to germinate. Dead plants serve as a perch before slowly decomposing into mulch. A few dry years in a row? No additional water is added. Gardens, however, are by definition a controlled environment. Even those gardens designed to imitate some natural association of plants we have spied in the wild are still designed and so require some maintenance. Rather than growing as chance dictates since space is often very limited, individual plants are carefully placed, overly competitive plants may be thinned or removed, dead plants, rather than slowly becoming mulch, are simply removed, and water can be provided when rain fails. Still the overall concept follows a natural pattern and its maintenance is relatively low, and most importantly, the gardener is more than rewarded by the forms of life that adopt the garden as their home.

So how do we go about designing and installing such a garden? Research for such a landscape is now easy as numerous books and magazines present practical guidance on this now (deservedly) popular trend. Native gardens such as Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and smaller ones such as the Golden West College Native Garden provide blueprints for what is successful (or not) and can also be a source of practical installation advice. Field trips into our local hills provide glimpses of many of the plants that can be used and the interesting combinations in which nature arranges them. By selecting plants that remind you of a hike in the local chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, or even along our coastal bluffs, you bring a bit of that adventure into the environment surrounding your home. It is a structure that invites interaction both by you and the animals it attracts, as opposed to the conventional landscape of lawn, hedge, and rose with its routine upkeep and its singular purpose of being viewed.

And so these plants are familiar but wild, tamed but not entirely so. The garden is designed but is allowed and expected to change. Its structure is a framework for plants that invite the nearby birds, butterflies, and insects to join into a landscape that is full of life, a garden that pulses with the cycles of seasonal change. Once we arrange and install the garden's "ingredients" we then need only wait to receive our visitors. That is when the garden becomes truly alive!

Garden Contact: Dan Songster at