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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Designing Your ‘New California Garden’: 1. Why Plan?

Introduction: The ‘New California Garden’      As the climate changes, so must our gardens.  Of necessity, gardens must now become sustainable; they must be tailored to local conditions - and that’s exciting!   We literally have the opportunity to create a whole new type of California garden right in our own yards.  That’s a fun challenge, and we’re going to help you with our new series ‘Designing Your New California Garden’.

Californians have a long history of ‘borrowing’ plants from other parts of the world.  In the past, we chose plants we liked, then modified soils and irrigation practices to accommodate their needs. While this strategy worked for a while, many of the ‘borrowed’ plants required more water and nutrients than we actually had.   As the climate changes – and materials become more limited - this strategy is becoming obsolete. That’s why we call it the ‘Old California Garden’ paradigm.

What we need now is a whole new paradigm - one that is sustainable.  We call this the ‘New California Garden’.  New California Gardens are appropriate for our mediterranean climate.  They are water-wise and life-friendly, providing habitat for people, plants and creatures.   They reflect the history and natural history of our area.  They are beautiful and comfortable, suiting our tastes, values, lifestyle and even cultural heritage.  That’s what the New California Garden is all about.

The New California Garden is not about giving things up; rather it’s about making conscious choices.  You’ll need to think carefully about how you want your New California Garden to look.  What activities will you want to do in the garden?  Do you need a place to cook and eat?  A small meditation area?  A vegetable garden?  Where’s the best place to store trash cans or locate a compost barrel or dog run?   What colors and shapes do you like?  Will you use only drought tolerant plants, or will some parts of the garden require regular water?   All of these choices and more should influence your garden design.

The New California Garden involves choosing plants that will thrive under existing conditions, rather than modifying the site to fit the plants.   So you’ll need to conduct a site inventory and analysis to determine your site’s physical ‘assets’.  Next you’ll map these assets: the soil type, light & shade patterns, topography & drainage, pre-existing plants and other physical characteristics.   You’ll also need to inventory the views: the good, the bad and the ugly.  Your plant choices will be based on both the site characteristics and your personal needs and desires.  That’s what makes designing a New California Garden so personal, creative and satisfying.

Some gardeners will want to hire a landscape architect or other landscape professional to help design their New California Garden.  Qualified garden designers have years of training/experience in laying out attractive, functional gardens.   They can help arrange a garden that has good traffic flow and maximizes views.  But you’ll need to be an active partner with your designer to ensure that the final design reflects your priorities, values and tastes.

If you work with a designer, you’ll want to do some background work ahead of time.  This will make the designer’s job easier; but it will also allow you to think about your priorities and choices ahead of time.  With this knowledge you’ll be able to articulate your desires – and stand up for your choices if necessary.    In this series we’ll provide some interesting exercises and questionnaires to help you do your background work.

Most designers don’t have time to conduct a thorough site analysis. They don’t live at the site as your family does.  And they don’t know your family’s tastes, desires and other personal factors important for a well-designed home landscape.    Whether you hire a landscape professional or design the landscape yourself, the background work must be done for your landscape to be successful.

Like the climate, the landscape design industry is changing to meet the future.  Unfortunately, some landscape designers are still stuck in ‘Old California Garden’ mode.  You’ll likely have to search for a designer who understands the New California Garden way of thinking.   A qualified designer understands that your landscape should be water-wise and life-friendly.  They will ask questions about soil, drainage, temperature and shade patterns in addition to assessing your family’s design preferences.  They will want to work with you to design an appropriate landscape.  And they will have knowledge of native plants and their use in local gardens.

The best way to find a New California Garden designer is to choose a garden you like and find out who designed it.  Don’t be afraid to ask a local homeowner; they will usually be happy to recommend their designer – or give you tips if they designed the garden themselves.    Local nature centers, arboretums, colleges and botanic gardens may have lists of recommended garden designers.   Your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (or other native plant society) or Audubon Society may also have suggestions.

Base map of Mother Nature's Backyard

Why Plan?     A well designed landscape begins with a plan.  That sounds a little scary, but the planning process actually proceeds through a series of well-defined steps.  We’re going to help you through the steps in this series.  We think you’ll find the process fun, interesting and informative.  You’ll be learning about your garden’s physical characteristics, history and potential.    At the end, you’ll have a garden plan that you – or a landscape professional – can install.  That’s pretty neat; and trust us, the alternative to planning is not pretty!

A New California Garden is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It’s actually a small functioning ecosystem that includes your family.  Many gardeners understand the aesthetic part.   But thinking about how you want your garden to function is an equally important.  Selecting plants is actually the last step of the design process. Fully understanding the property's drainage, soils and ecology; locating existing site elements; developing a 'wish list' of use areas and locating them properly; and resolving all these elements into a successful design should be accomplished first.

If designing your own garden, you’ll need to learn some design tricks used by the professionals.  There are a few basic principles that can help give your garden a pleasing appearance.  They will help you create a garden that is interesting, balanced and ‘tied together’ into a pleasing whole.   We’ll talk a little about garden design later in this series.

The eight steps of developing a landscape plan are summarized as follows:

  1. Develop a base map (base plan).  (July 2013)

      2.  Conduct a site inventory and analysis.  (August 2013)

      1. Assess your family's needs (functional analysis).  (September 2013)

      1. Locate the use areas. (October 2013)

      1. Determine your likes, dislikes, etc.  (November 2014 – January 2014)

      1. Develop the hardscape plan (February – May 2014)
      Managing water (2)

      Other Hardscape

      1. Develop the design plan  (June - August 2014)

      1. Install the garden (October 2014)

      The first step is to draw an accurate base map.  We’ll be helping you do this later this month.  You will actually develop two base maps: one with only your home and other structures and a second that includes pre-existing plants you plan to retain.     Your site inventory (August) will cover current physical features of your garden site, but also an exploration of its history.   These activities will help you determine your site’s assets - the base on which your landscape plan will grow. 

      Your functional analysis will include an assessment of your needs, values and aspirations as they relate to the landscape.   You will prioritize your needs, then locate the desired features in the most appropriate landscape areas.  You will develop the use areas by choosing hardscape features (walks; walls; irrigation system) and plants appropriate to your plan and site.   Finally, you will develop a planting plan which includes a plant list, landscape map and installation schedule.

      Designing a New California Garden is an exciting process.  You’ll learn a lot about your garden, your local area and yourself.   So follow along as we guide you through the process over the next eight months.


      We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.




      1. I would like to appreciate your thinking and ideas of gardening. It gives a very descent look. Thank you so much for this post.
        Gardening Tables

      2. I'm just starting to re-read this series from the beginning, having re-discovered it with the posting of number 11 in the design series. Thanks!

      3. For those of us working forward from this point, a table of contents to the design series would be useful.

        http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/02/designing-your-new-california-garden-9.html (Part 1)
        http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/03/designing-your-new-california-garden-9.html (Part 2)