Traitors in the Garden

When I first moved into my current house, the yard was a snarled tangle of dead grass and weeds, with a few Japanese maples breathing their last in pots that were clearly no longer up to the task of containing their densely massed roots. I spent a whole day cleaning it out, and probably would have had to spend much longer if my yard was not very, very small:

Long View of the Garden: A photograph of my garden in the spring, showing that it is very, very small.

I mean, really, this is most of my garden, in this picture, with the exception of a little square. We’re talking very small, for scale. Anyway, the point is, I cleared it out, and I didn’t really put very much planning into what I planted, just sort of haphazardly tossing in plants that looked interesting. Some died, some made it, some flourished beyond all reason, leading me to feel like I ought to clip them back substantially but never actually doing it because I felt guilty. (This picture drastically misrepresents the current state of the garden since it’s a few years old, it just happened to come up first on my Flickr so I grabbed it.)

One thing I didn’t really think about at all because I knew next to nothing about ornamental gardening was whether the things I was planting were suitable for the climate, and whether they were suitable for the environment. I live next to a Superfund site, so we’re not exactly talking pristine wilderness here, but I don’t think that anything I planted was a native plant, and some of the things I planted were very water hungry or not really meant to be grown in zone nine, which meant predictably that half the garden died in the summer and the other half died off in the winter when it started freezing and all these nifty things I planted turned into a woeful mushy black pulp.

Things are more or less stabilized in the garden now although it is a bit overrun and I really do need to steel myself to go on a clipping bonanza after the winter to shape things and beat them back a bit for general aesthetic enjoyment as well as garden health. I should also probably do something about that geranium that is essentially taking over the gas meter, as the poor meter reader has to fight through a thicket to read it, let alone repair it, and I’m starting to think they actually just make meter readings up based on past usage rather than trying to brave the garden[1. Having Loki snarl desperately through the window and swipe his claws frantically if the gas man gets anywhere near the door is also a pretty significant deterrent.].

And, in retrospect, I really messed up when I established my garden because, well. I should have used native plants. There are a lot of really awesome plants native to this region of California, and in my ignorance, I didn’t use a single one. I could have gotten trees and groundcovers and shrubs and all the climbing plants I wanted, one of the nurseries here focuses on native plants and provides a whole assortment and would be delighted to order more, but I didn’t. And a stroll through the neighbourhood shows me that no one else did either, which is really a great pity.

There seems to be a perception that native plant gardens are ugly or boring or stodgy and in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. People, native plants are rad! They really are! A lot of native plant gardening for California I encounter deals with desert highland plants, but there are plenty of neat coastal plants I could have grown and I encounter them all the time in the woods and the fields and I feel rather guilty that not one is represented in my garden.

Using native plants in the garden has a lot of advantages, starting with radically cutting down on water usage, which is one reason the city really ought to be promoting it. Why not have resource pamphlets about gardening with native plants, and why not offer native plant gardening workshops and classes to get people excited about gardening with local plants? Especially with the ongoing problems with the water supply, it seems like people should be actively encouraged to use native plants in their gardens, because it would cut down radically on water demands since people wouldn’t be watering their woefully underequipped delicate flowers.

And, of course, I think that preservation of native plant populations is a good thing. If seeds escape from my garden right now, some of my more invasive plants could merrily wreak havoc on the countryside, which is bad, because we actually have a lot of fragile plant populations here that aren’t up to competing with invasive exotics. With native plants, a few seeds get loose, eh, who cares.

There’s also something to be said for celebrating my community and the place I live and the things that make it beautiful. Rather than gardening like I’m somewhere else, why not garden like I’m here? Why force my garden to be something it’s not, really, when I could stock it with all kinds of neat things?

I’m not about to tear out my garden and start over again, but it does make me think ahead to the day when I will presumably be starting a new garden somewhere else, in town, maybe out of town, in a completely different place, who knows. At any rate, I know that the next time I garden, I will be starting by getting a list of suitable native plants, and I’ll be laying them out in a map instead of planting them willy nilly to create a more orderly gardening scheme with less possibility of a giant messy garden explosion. Don’t get me wrong, I love my garden, and I adore a garden with a certain amount of disorder, but there’s something to be said for thinking before you plant.