Over the years, we have written about a need for landscapes in California to really start embracing the summer dry season and let the tans and golds of real California summer shine. Back in 2010, we wrote The green that will never be and Inviting the golds and tans in, both of which advocated for a move away from the insistence that everything in our landscapes be green year-round, given that summer in California is really a period of rest for its plants and thus golds and tans become dominant colors of our natural landscapes.
Well, as it turns out, the initial proposal for the green roof at the California Academy of Sciences was essentially a replica of a grassy California hillside, which would have greened up in winter and faded to tan (“fade to brown” just doesn’t sound that appealing, but to each one’s own) in summer. Yet, as landscape architect and urban designer Jossie Ivanov of Oakland, California, points out in her master’s thesis on the shifting portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual climates of California, architect Renzo Piano had a fit when he learned of the roof proposal, and thus the idea was scrapped. As a result, we now have a green roof of sedums, which are watered and green year-round. And what could have been an ideal educational opportunity for people from around the world to learn about the actual climate and ecologies of California became a missed one.
In any case, one missed opportunity is the opening of doors to new ones. We have an endless canvas of less high-profile, everyday landscapes in which we can start to explore these climate-wise ideas. To learn more and to get the wheels turning, you can read through Ivanov’s ideas on how we could start to shift at least portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual winter-wet/summer-dry climate of the Bay Area, you may click HERE.
What’s been interesting to observe already with the Adopt-a-Mediterranean Plant Project is how the water needs of the grasses are really mirroring what we learned with the grasses in the first irrigation-free landscape we ever did. Namely, the grasses seem to always need two waterings spaced about a week apart, and then perhaps a third a couple weeks later, and then they reach a point where they can comfortably be on their own. As their adaptation to drought lies primarily in their roots, and thus these waterings are helping the plants send the roots deep into the soil, we shouldn’t be surprised, but, well, this work is always surprising, as you see first-hand just how little water so many of these plants actually need, even in drier mediterranean climates.
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’sDrought Resistant Planting Through the Year is in order. Then, move on to Olivier Filippi’sThe 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.
Maintenance is that not-so-glamorous part of landscape design that no one wants to think about, but it is perhaps the most important part of the entire design process. Shown above is what remains of what just two years ago was an exquisite-looking, brand-spankin’-new landscape (no, not designed or orchestrated by PRAIRIEFORM, mind you). The dying, brownish clumps you see in front are what remains of the Pennisetum setaceum (aka Purple Fountain Grass), which the hired gardeners attempt to sculpt into a hedge every week. The accent is on “attempt,” as grasses simply cannot be hedged. The designer in charge of this landscape never bothered to let the subsequent gardeners know this.
Pennisetum setaceum in its proper, unhedged glory
Above is shown the normal form of this particular Pennisetum. Flowy, wispy, cascading, full of movement and slow evolution across the seasons. It is because of those qualities that PRAIRIEFORM favors grasses so much in its designs. It is also because grasses are by and large quite low maintenance. Aside from a little water here and there, and a good dose of sun, grasses can be left to their own devices for much of the year. Only once annually do they need to be pruned, which entails little more than a cut-to-the-ground chop before their growing season begins. That’s it. Had the owner or designer of the above landscape known this, they could have saved quite a bit of money in maintenance costs, and could have spared everyone the eyesore.
PRAIRIEFORM works either with your existing gardener to ensure that they maintain the newly design landscape properly, or offers you recommendations for gardeners who are knowledgable about specific plants and their care – including grassses. The end result is a landscape that endures, evolves, and grows up into something beautiful, the way it was intended to in the first place.