Last fall’s wildfires in Southern California epitomize the changing nature of landscapes. Change can come suddenly through disturbance that accompanies catastrophic events like fires or floods, or it can be incremental occurring slowly over years. Stasis, or the lack of change, is non-existent in nature.
Too often we forget that gardens, also, are systems that change both gradually and abruptly. When we remove lawn to create a garden, we are the instrument of disturbance. Although we may try to rush the first stage of change by installing plants that have gotten a head start in a nursery, the garden knows what is happening. Like wildflowers that follow devastating wildfires, seeds lying in wait in the garden are ready to go. Most of these seeds are non-native weeds that germinate easily in the tilled soil, and so young gardens require conscientious weeding.
In my yard I sow native annual seeds after removing lawn for new garden beds in order to mimic the appearance of wildflowers that follow fires. When spring arrives, young perennials are hardly noticeable among the riotous color of poppies (Eschscholzia californica), tidytips (Layia platyglossa) and baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesi). In addition to adding excitement to the new garden, I believe – though I have no hard evidence – that the practice of sowing wildflower seeds is helpful in controlling weeds and improving the soil. As the garden matures, and change occurs more gradually, there is less room for wildflowers but the larger specimens provide structure, and with less soil disturbance, fewer weeds emerge. Though the garden is no longer subject to major disturbance, change continues. In my sidewalk garden, oak saplings (Quercus agrifolia) will eventually shade out the sun-loving plants beneath them. This was understood when the trees were planted. The smaller herbaceous plants were selected as filler while the trees mature. Monkeyflowers (Mimulus), buckwheats (Eriogonum), sages (Salvia), native bunchgrasses and other perennials grow rapidly in the early years and give a young garden a lush, full appearance. In time, as the oaks mature – and I grow old – the smaller, sun-loving perennials will be removed. Oak leaf duff will cover the ground, and the sidewalk garden will require little work on my part.
When planning a garden visualize it both in its initial state, and as it will be in years to come. As unlikely as it seems, the spindly twig in the one-gallon pot will reach its mature size, and if you do not leave room, you will be confronted with an overcrowded garden, requiring frequent pruning. Remember also to plan for the shade that larger plants will cast. If you wish to preserve a sunny space, locate trees on the north side of the bed. Plant trees south-west of the house to cast cooling afternoon shade that will make the house more comfortable and save you money.
Recently, while looking at an old, dilapidated fence on the side of our yard my husband asked, “Can’t we do something about that?” I saw the fence, as if for the first time, but was more focused on the small shrubs in front of it that I know will provide excellent screening in a few years. Our different perspectives are clear. He sees what is there now, while I see the future, sometimes missing the present. The best gardeners see both what is there now and the changes that the future will bring.