book review: california native gardening

Book coverHelen Popper’s recent book (March, 2012) California Native Gardening hit my mailbox a few weeks ago. It’s been reviewed [ here ] and [ there ], and it looked worth checking out.

The quick take on this new guide: Yes, it’s a good book, and it’s a nice supplement to other books out there on horticultural uses of California native plants.

Look at its title and you’ve got a good idea of its focus: California Native Gardening. That’s the active verb-noun “gardening” at the end, and the gerund signals that this is a book about doing and not just sitting back and admiring.

The core of the book is organized around the months of the year. This being California, it begins with October, the beginning of our “spring,” our annual renaissance. It’s a useful device to get readers to rethink traditional notions of a garden’s cycles and get used to how plants behave in our Mediterranean climate.

Each month presents you with a list of tasks for the month, and each of the tasks is developed into several paragraphs of explanation. May’s essays are: Let Wildflower Seeds Ripen, Pinch and Prune, Propagate with Cuttings, Water Now Before the Heat of Summer, Plant and Sow, and Weed and Mulch. (Different months have different lists of things to do.) Each area under the larger headings generally gives you a short list of plants that you would be applying that task to that month. Under the section on cuttings, for instance, we’re told that several shrubs and perennials are good for attempting propagation by cuttings this month, including golden currant, wild mock orange, coyote bush, tree anemone and yerba buena.

Lest you fear that the book will leave you exhausted after all your chores, each month also ends with a section called What’s in Bloom. Here you’ll learn some of the plants that are likely to be in bloom this month, with May hosting flowers from sulfur buckwheat, California phacelia, grape soda lupine and western columbine, among over a dozen others. You can sit back and enjoy the blooms or add the plants to a shopping list for next fall in case the garden is lacking flowers during parts of the year.

O'brien book cover

The ecological niche that this book occupies places it in the company of cultural guides like the under-appreciated Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O’Brien, Betsey Landis and Ellen Mackey. The O’Brien book organizes its garden tasks around plants and what they require throughout the year. California Native Gardening uses the month-by-month approach, which sometimes spreads out tasks for one plant over several months. For instance we learn that coyote bush, is a good candidate for cuttings in January, February, May and September, which can be a lot of page-flipping if you’re interest in a plant and not necessarily the month. Both methods of presenting tasks are imperfect ways to organize information, and you can decide for yourself which one you might respond to. Also, California Native Gardening carries a wider selection of plants from around the state. If anything, it seems to have a slight–not huge–bias to the north, though I could be imagining this. Related to this thought, many of the plants that make up a typical native plantscape also come from the north. I’d be curious to see what others think on this point.

So, in the end, I’d definitely recommend this book to cover the active gardening activities of having a California native plant garden. It doesn’t present a lot of information on garden planning and design, something that is better dealt with in books written with that purpose in mind. (My favorite in that category is Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.) But whose library consists of only one book? Add this to yours.

PS: It’s got nice pictures, too.

7 thoughts on “book review: california native gardening

  1. Gayle Madwin

    “Related to this thought, many of the plants that make up a typ­i­cal native plantscape also come from the north.”

    Well, the entire state is “north” from where you are. How are you defining “north”? Ignoring human population density and looking strictly at geography, everything south of San Jose is in the southern half of California. Bakersfield is in the southern third of the California, and Sacramento is in the central third. I’m in the northern third, but not by much. It is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento to the Oregon border, but only about 5% of the state’s human population lives north of Sacramento. Simply put, everything that most people think of as “northern California” is geographically in the central third of the state, and everything that is geographically in the northern third of the state pretty much never occurs to anyone in other parts of the state at all – and that includes the plants.

    To me it seems obvious that the plants that only grow in the state’s less populated areas are much, much less likely to get mentioned in any of the native plant gardening books. There are good reasons for that – what’s the use in telling gardeners all over the state about plants that hardly any of them can grow? – but it still means that some very interesting plants in the northern third of the state get far, far less attention than they would if they grew farther south. And when you read a gardening book that seems to you biased toward the plants of the “north,” I’m probably reading the same book and thinking that it seems biased toward the plants of the “south.” (I haven’t actually read this book yet, though, so we’ll see.)

  2. ricki

    re. above comment: kinda like watching basketball on TV: it always seems like the announcers are showing partiality to the other team.
    These books sound great. Now if someone would just do that for Oregon (where there are also at least two distinct different climates).

  3. Desert Dweller / David C.

    California, like a few other states I know, has so many major climates alone, that it might be challenging to put it all in one book. But that said, I appreciate the chronological layout of tasks, as well as better indexing to find certain plants or information is always a good thing.

    Now, you have me looking for “where I put that” Care and Maint of So Cal plants book I bought a few summers ago…

  4. James Post author

    Gayle, thanks for your comment. I’ve also been struck by how the central part of the state passes for the north. Down in San Diego I often get the feeling that we’re south of Southern California. Maybe once the Real Housewives of Redding or San Diego hit the airwaves people will realize we exist. I think the northern plant palette comes from people liking the more woodsy feel of areas a bit moister than some parts of the state. Also, I’m sure many of those plants are generally more successful in mixed garden situations, where species might get more water than those from drylands that might not be as happy near a lawn or mixed with plants that might like more regular irrigation.

    Ricki, I think you’ve hit on a topic that needs to be written about. Do you think you have another book in you? You’d definitely need different chapters for the coastal strip versus the dry and hot parts of the state. And be sure to remember one of the most amazing carnivorous plants out there: Darlingtonia californica. (Sorry for stealing the glory of the species name, even though many predominant populations live up farther north.

    David, most books that don’t weigh 30 pounds are probably compromises as to what they keep and exclude. I think this book does a good balancing act. I’m glad you mentioned the index. For a book that isn’t organized by species, in particular, an index is really essential, and this book’s index makes it easier to get to the plant you want to research.

  5. Brent (Breathing Treatment)

    “I think the north­ern plant palette… [is because] many of those plants are gen­er­ally more suc­cess­ful in mixed gar­den sit­u­a­tions, where species might get more water than those from dry­lands….”

    Hits the nail on the head for why we seem to have so many northerly species or nothern hybrids in the trade.

  6. Town Mouse

    Glad you liked the book. Considering the author is from the SF Bay penisula, it’s not surprising there’s a slight bias toward the central part of the state. But I really do thoroughly enjoy the book. “Pinch tall-growing California Fuchsia in May for more modest height”. Who knew? Not me! (I’ll keep reading, once a month).

  7. James Post author

    Brent, that would also my failure rate with many of the common plants in the trade. I’m about to pull out a ceanothus because it screams for more water than anything else around it.

    TM, guess what I did to my Route 66 fuchsia Sunday morning? Monkeyflowers are next, though I think that I’m off a month or two on those tasks. The book does a nice job of giving you a few things to do in manageable chunks. A pinch here, a snip there.

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