Understory planting of Stipa (or Nassella) tenuissima in Downtown Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, the prevailing desire is to have a landscape that is green year-round. Your landscape in June looks like your landscape in December, and like your landscape September. We have created an entire metropolitan region of landscapes that seem to live outside the cycle and change of seasons – especially the summer dry season. That summer dry season we are so afraid of, embarrassed by, that we pretend it doesn’t exist. We water our lawns endlessly, feed our Azaleas to the brim, and try to trick ourselves into thinking we’re in New England. In the process, we have failed to ever develop a regional landscape aesthetic that invites the tawny golds and tans of summer in.
To be sure, many of the prevailing plant materials used in the Los Angeles landscape would not ebb gracefully into summer dormancy and produce the tawny hues we are describing; they would dry up and go brown and look dead, with most actually dead by July. That would be ugly, and this isn’t what we are advocating for. To embrace the seasons here means completely rethinking the plant materials we use, choosing ones particularly adapted to this climate – native and non-native alike. The mass planting of Stipa tenuissima shown above is a case in point. As a cool season grass, it greens up in winter and spring. Then, in summer, it fades to a light gold, surviving on virtually no supplemental water throughout the summer. While Stipa tenuissima is perhaps not appropriate for a site located near more untouched native landscape (it self-sows very readily in arid climates and is thus best suited for more urban, less environmentally sensitve sites), there is a world of grasses and Mediterranean plants out there that can provide that seasonal interest we are talking about.
For a starter on the botanical paradigm shift we are talking about/advocating for, a read through Beth Chatto’s Drought Resistant Planting Through the Year is in order. Then, move on to Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Gardening Handbook. These gardeners and writers never get bogged down in the clumsy dogma of advocating a native-only approach, or require that you buy into an ugly scrubby aesthetic; rather, they are truly interested in honing a landscape style that works with their dry Mediterranean climate and not against it, that is equally beautiful during the rainy and the dry seasons alike.