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Gardening for Where You Live: Ideas from a New Publication

by Joan Bergsund

Over one hundred people gathered on April 18th at the Tuolumne County Fairgrounds for the Foothills-Friendly Gardening Workshop. Sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Tuolumne County Master Gardeners, a series of presentations were of interest to all and inspirational to some.

At that time we were still hoping for more rain and snow to bolster the water table. The first wildflowers were showing off following the dark, cold winter. In my garden I had floppy-leafed hound´s tongue sporting tiny blue flowers like the familiar forget-me-not, followed by the yellow sunflower-like mules´ ears and a few exquisite pink shooting stars. We were all ready to concentrate on gardening issues.

Much of the workshop´s subject matter focused on conserving our limited water supply. Despite the welcome and surprising rainfall over Memorial Day Weekend, we are dry as a bone. Master Gardener Al Dahlstrand presented his designs for a rainwater collection system used at his home to supplement the water his garden requires. I think we´ll see more of these individually designed systems in the future, as we seek ways to use the rainwater that runs off our hard surfaces.

The keynote speaker, Alrie Middlebrook- an accomplished garden designer and owner of Middlebrook Gardens in San Jose- specializes in native plants. She is the co-author of the recently published book “Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens.” Her co-author is Glenn Keator, a California plant specialist. For the garden book collector this is a must. Available in paperback, I purchased my copy on Amazon.

The book divides our state into twelve native plant communities. Quirky drawings present garden designs suitable for each region. Text and photos suggest, describe and picture appropriate native plants. Lists provide places to visit to observe the plant communities in their natural settings. The book is loaded with colored photos which are carefully identified.

I initially concentrated on two chapters; one entitled Oak Woodlands: California´s Signature Foothill Landscape and, the other, Chaparral: Drought Adapted Shrubs for the Garden. These were relevant to our area, with familiar plant communities. Our high country gardening friends may prefer to read Montane Meadows: Gardening with Mountain Wildflowers and Mixed-Evergreen Forest: Summer Shade between Fog and Sun. But the rest of the book was also fascinating – it may take all summer to read it thoroughly because it´s so packed with information.

As she lectured, Ms Middlebrook was a font of useful information. She urged us to restore California´s local ecology by planting California native species. There are many to select from, and the loss rate is minimal. To encourage the success of natives, eliminate invasive species before you plant. Retain all possible rainfall on your property, rather than letting it run into storm drains. By attaching perforated sleeves or pipes to our downspouts we can retain rainwater on the land.

One method of rainwater retention to consider is the rain garden, recently described on an episode of “This Old House.” A grassy lawn was diminished in size by digging up a large kidney shaped bed into which the downspout extensions drained. Rocks were artfully arranged around the perimeter and plants introduced according to their water needs, creating a most attractive feature. (In our area we would have to provide some irrigation for the summer months.)

Our speaker was keen on recycling and using existing materials on site. Sample materials range from broken up pervious concrete, wood from old fences and outbuildings to funky discarded objects regarded as garden art. She urged us to eliminate all chemical use in our gardens, and to provide organic compost and weed-free mulch. She also promoted growing food in raised beds for ease in maintenance, and supported using drip irrigation to water most efficiently. She hoped we would work with local non-profits to distribute food to the needy by sharing our crops. Master Gardener Ron Maria has introduced the Plant a Row program to Tuolumne County for this very purpose. She commented that we grow and eat about forty different foods; Native Americans had around 200.

According to Designing California Native Gardens, once you have your native garden installed, create a long term sustainable management plan. Avoid compaction of your soil and “cut and fill” landscape practices that rely on heavy road equipment. Introduce beneficial insects by including greater native plant diversity, which leads to an ecologically balanced garden. Ms. Middlebrook concluded her remarks by stating that converting to an ecological gardening model is an ongoing process. Active weed control to prevent invasive species from re-appearing is key to extending the life expectancy of native plants. And the regular addition of compost and mulch will reward us with gardens that will eventually be almost maintenance and irrigation free in the years to come.

She left her audience both inspired and depressed. How committed are you to your garden and its future? How seriously do you view our drought conditions? Each of us can provide a range of responses to these ideas depending upon our convictions, our time, energy and long range plans for our lives. Do what you can. In the meantime, as the temperature soars and you are inclined to stay indoors, read this new gardening book and become more informed…and possibly even inspired.

Joan Bergsund, master gardener, is continually adding mulch and watering minimally with a soaker hose wound through her garden.