In the heat of the summer of 1999 I take pieces of scrap paper and sketch the long, narrow parkway bed on the east side of our corner lot. It is about 170 feet long and six feet wide, and covered with weedy grass. Two books, Bob Perry’s Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes, and Marjorie Schmidt’s Growing California Native Plants, lay open. Although they tell me what some of these plants need, such as exposure, water, and preferred soil, there are no pictures showing the garden of my dreams. In fact, the only pictures that come close are those in Judith Larner Lowry’s book, Gardening with a Wild Heart. Although many new books on gardening with native plants have been published since I embarked on this project, the ideas and pictures in this amazing book formed the framework for everything that I have done in my yard since.
Sketch of parkway. Bottom strip runs from southeast corner of lot (left) to gate into side yard (right), top strip goes from gate (left) to north end, driveway (right). There is one existing tree, southern magnolia, towards the southern end of the strip. This diagram shows plans to put in three coast live oaks (Qu agr.), repeating deergrass (labeled Muhl rig) and a few other plants. In fairness, this is a recent diagram that demonstrates a concept drawing. The repeating trees and bunchgrasses provide order to the planting.
I know I want to garden with a “wild heart,” but back in 1999, I am clearly out of my depth and overwhelmed. I have only a vague notion of what this garden will look like. Furthermore, still feeling new to the area, I am uncertain about how these unusual plants will grow. To put it into perspective, I have no understanding of how anything can grow in such unrelenting heat and sunshine, and with no rain for more than half the year.
Holding a glass of iced coffee, I stroll along the sidewalk in the heat of the day. We have lived in southern California for a couple of years, and only recently moved into this new house. The transition from east coast to west was jarring, and standing here looking at the beat up old grass, I am at a loss. I take a sip of my cold, refreshing coffee and gather my thoughts. Eventually the parkway will have three beautiful coast live oak trees. These trees will cast shade and make it difficult for other plants to grow beneath them. This fits well with my life plan. As I age, the trees will mature, making ongoing weeding and care less cumbersome. But this does not answer the pressing question of what my new garden, still covered with weedy lawn, will look like next year and for the twenty years following that it takes for the oak trees to reach a good size.
First plantings in the parkway garden, Dec. 5, 1999.
I force myself to focus. Since I am overwhelmed by the full length of the parkway, I decide to break the project into one little bit, an 8 foot by 6 foot rectangle at the north end of the strip. I will be able to do what I want to do most, plant something, and the tedious, back-breaking process of digging out the grass will be gradual and manageable.
By spring of 2004 the parkway north of the side gate was landscaped.
Coastal sage scrub plants that are right at home in our dry, hot summers, and cool, wet winters, will spread across the nearly full sun, flat garden with loamy soil, beginning in a small corner at the north end, and gradually working their way south. The plants might include wild sages, bunchgrasses, and California buckwheat. Since even these perennials will need a good bit of room between them before they are full grown, wildflower seeds will be sown in the spaces.
Now, thirteen years later, I am especially glad that I started slowly. Few of the original plants remain. Some did not meet my aesthetic requirements, others were not well-matched to the environment, and others grew out of control, spreading where they were not wanted. All of the original deergrass plants remain and their repeating pattern provides a bit of order to the wild parkway garden. Though I have had people ask me why my garden is full of weeds, most who talk to me express enthusiasm for the sights, sounds, and smells of my wild garden. Some gently stroke the feathery sagebrush and wild sage, clearly enjoying their lingering spicy aroma. Quite a few tell me that it reminds them of their walks in the mountains. They seem to get it … or maybe they are just being nice.
Milo was a big help right from the start. Here in Feb. 2005, he helps me clear the wild sage from the sidewalk.
Grasses dominate in November 2006. The coast live oaks were planted in the fall of 2005 but are hidden in this picture by the exuberant bunchgrasses.
Wildflowers crowd out the grasses in the spring (April 2007).
After dropping her child off at school, my neighbor glides by the garden on her child’s scooter. The grasses, encroaching on the sidewalk, will be cleared soon. (May 2009)
The coast live oaks have grown nicely since planting four years earlier. (Oct. 2009)
The repeating deergrass and oak trees lend order to the wild parkway garden. (Sept. 2010)