It’s the first week of November, and we’ve already had our first big rain. Nights are cold and days are warm. As I write this morning I can see the dew dripping from the buckwheat outside my office. By midafternoon it will have long since have evaporated in the warm sun. The light will hang a little lower in the sky than yesterday, hinting at the short days to come. In other words, the seasons are changing here in Southern California. Contrary to what other parts of the country might say, we do have seasons, and they are pretty spectacular.
This year, during our annual Native Plant Garden Tour we tried to look beyond the limitations of a Covid-19 safe virtual tour to see what this format could offer to tell the story of California native plant gardening in a new way. We shared the inspiring personal narratives of the people behind the eight featured gardens, which you can explore through the interviews we produced.
We also showed the changing of the seasons, and the dramatic shifts in native plants gardens throughout a year. For the main event in April, we featured footage of each of the eight gardens in winter and spring and had a live streamed conversation with the people behind the gardens including homeowners, designers, urban farmers, land managers, community leaders, grass roots organizers, landscapers, naturalists, and community scientists. We are so grateful to the hosts, sponsors, and everyone who purchased a ticket and made this event possible. We are happy to now share the entire spring event freely on our Youtube channel.
To me, the most exciting part of this year’s tour was our recent summer recap of the gardens, which featured them at their driest, in late August of a drought year. We had a few specific goals with this event. The first was to give people who are new to native plant gardening a window into how experienced gardeners think about their gardens in the summer. How to water, how to prune, to dead head or not, plant selection for year round flowers, etc. Summer can be a tricky time of year, especially for folks who are just starting out, but with the right guidance, it can actually be one of the best times in the garden, when very little effort can have great results.
The second reason that we wanted to showcase the dry season was to examine what exactly makes us think that our gardens need to be green and flowering year round in Southern California. We discussed the topic of dormancy at length. This is the time when plants stop actively growing, and often lose their leaves, to make it through a tough season. We began the presentation with images of temperate forests of Germany and Massachusetts in autumn. In these landscapes, people celebrate the fall foliage marking the end of the growing season. And when all the leaves have fallen, and the snow arrives, no one expects lush green plants and flowers.
So why don’t we Southern Californians celebrate the summer, with its various shades of brown and yellow? If you watch the dormancy event I think you’ll agree that there is incredible beauty in the dry summer garden. Golden light dancing off dried annual stalks, desiccated leaves curled to shade themselves from the sun, fruits of all shapes and sizes and so much more. And unlike those winter temperate forests, our version of the dormant season does have flowers, as you’ll see with the incredible summer displays of buckwheat, sunflower and many other summer blooming plants.
There are many reasons that one could point to for the common conception that native plants ‘don’t look good in the summer.’ A colonial mindset of dominating and subjugating the landscape, Euro-centric ideals of what a garden should look like, and/or the simple fact that if you use enough water and fertilizer you can turn Southern California into a subtropical oasis, a Midwestern suburb, and many other imported landscapes. But as we live through climate change, drought and historic loss of biodiversity, I feel that it’s imperative to examine the cultural lens through which we perceive our gardens. And through that, perhaps find a new lens which rebuilds what was once here, and creates a future of harmony between the human and non-human worlds.
As we prepared for this summer recap, I had the privilege of combing through hundreds of photos of our eight featured gardens. Many of these were shot from the same perspective in winter, spring and summer. And what came to my mind over and over again as I saw these landscapes change through the seasons was a single phrase. The land is breathing. Changing in the way it needs to change, expressing its true nature.
The first hints of green in winter give way to an exuberant burst of color in the spring, before a long dry season where shades of brown, yellow and light green frame the flowers and fruits of summer. And now here we are again in mid-autumn, when the cycle starts again.
As the seasons march along, I hope that we are heading towards a future where natural resources (including land, air, and water) are treated as the precious things they are, and indigenous ecologies are rebuilt through our gardens and cities. That future will require us to embrace the seasons and appreciate them for what they are, wherever we are. I will look for a path to follow in that simple phrase. The land is breathing. Let’s let it breath.
None of this would have been possible without the brilliant creative vision and technical expertise of our Director of Communications Marie Astrid Gonzalez, and the amazing organization and management of Director of Public Programs Erin Johnson. They are hard at work on the 2022 tour, when for the first time since 2019 we will be back in person touring gardens as they are meant to be toured; in real life! We will be sharing more information soon, but I can let you know now that we will be featuring some amazing new gardens, returning favorites, an after party at Los Angeles State Historic Park, wonderful new art and narrative content including featured gardens and much more. I hope to see you there!