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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