Having new eyes

“The real voyage of discovery lies not in new landscapes, but having new eyes with which to see.”–Marcel Proust

If you’ve read my two “About” paragraphs, you know I’ve been through a lot of gardening phases and crazes.  The current phase began nine years ago, when we moved to a house with a big (for southern California) lot.  The front and back yards consisted mostly of lawn and concrete paths, built on what seemed to be a bottomless layer of shale–no actual soil is evident no matter how deep we dig.  It was the worst possible combination of factors for water conservation, and after the second summer of the lawn expensively gasping out its last in the middle of June, we decided we had to do something.

We spent more money than we are accustomed to, hiring a landscape architect to draw up a plan for the back yard; said plan involved a meadow and big swaths of drought-tolerant plants forming the bulk of the landscape.  We implemented the plan, incorporating a lot of California natives.  We had been busily steeping ourselves in waterwise landscape information; we absorbed the Doctrine of No-Lawn, which was refreshed annually at the April Theodore Payne Garden Tour; we made pilgrimages to native nurseries within driving distances, we attended lectures, we met True Believers.  In the end, the backyard works, mostly.  Parts of it are messy (I prefer “rustic”), and like any gardening effort, it’s always being subjected to tweaks due to unexpected growth, death, and the occasional burst of insight.  It takes less water to look presentable than the previous arrangement.

Ian reflects picturesquely in the backyard meadow.

Ian reflects picturesquely in the backyard meadow.

But when it came time to redo our front yard (mostly lawn), I knew we were going to take a different approach.  I didn’t want to spend money on outside advice this time, and I didn’t want to go native, because keeping natives front-yard-worthy year-round takes darn near as much water as a lawn.  An all-native yard in the summer can be a sad, sad, sight, and kind of jarring to the viewer when sandwiched between houses with expanses of green extending right up to the sidewalk.

We dithered for a while, looking through landscape books, talking to nursery staff, trying to decide what drought-tolerant plants could work in our front yard, and really not hitting on a plan.  Then one day I was out for my morning walk, and it hit me–the answer was literally all around us.

We live in a “starter-home” neighborhood–that is, the residents are about 1/3 original owners and 2/3 first-time owners.  Since the houses were built in 1961, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that the original homeowners are getting up there in age, and may not be able to care for the yard as they once could.  Some of the first-time owners are strapped for cash, working long hours, and/or raising families.  All in all, it adds up to some less-tended home landscapes.  This turned out to be a gold mine for me.  I started noticing what thrived–what continued to grow in spite of haphazard or no watering, amateur or no pruning, and just general benign neglect.

With my new mental framework, I roamed the neighborhood, taking mental notes, asking people about their plantings, getting to know my neighborhood landscape and my neighbors.   I started noticing that the plants that survived were the very same ones I was seeing planted in gas station strips, in Target parking lots, in planter beds by the now-defunct Blockbuster.  We overlook them because they’re generally sheared into submissive lumps, or full of roadside debris.  But even so, they flower, they add green, they host bees and other beneficials–and when I took the time to consider them individually, each one was a knockout, full of color and texture and interest.  And once established, they were water-wise; just as important, they conserved other resources, like energy and money.

So I decided my approach to the front yard would favor the tried-and-true:  standard landscaping favorites that are so common our eyes don’t even register them anymore.  Shrubs and trees and perennials (annuals and I broke up a looong time ago) that, while I might not buy them at a big-box store, would nevertheless be available at the big-box stores.  No exotics, no special trips to the native nurseries, no hand-holding.  What these old faithfuls would do for me is be reliable, once planted.  What I would do for them is try to group them in unexpected ways, allow them to flower rather than hedge them into stiff clipped attention, and to view them with new eyes–for their true, long-taken for granted beauty.

Manifesto for the middle

If you’re a gardener, unless you’ve been locked in a closet for the past decade (and if so, how have you been gardening in there?–you should write a blog!), you’re familiar with the concept of “sustainable”–the careful stewardship of resources in order to avoid depletion.  It’s easy to embrace the concept–either because you care about the earth, or because you care about your water bill.  But what’s not so easy is how to get from your established, current water-intensive  situation to something a little more planet- and wallet-friendly.

It’s not for lack of inspiration.  Between shelter and lifestyle magazines, Pintrest, HGTV, and any number of other media sources, you receive a tidal wave of pictures, features, and Great Ideas for your new, all-sustainable landscape, which may or may not include a vegetable garden and chicken coop.  The trouble is, a lot of those Great Ideas are not so great.  They may conserve water, but more often than not, they also overlook the necessity of conserving other important resources:  time, energy, and money.

Sunset magazine, just to pick on an obvious source, is a particular offender in this regard.  You’re pulled in by a lovely picture of golden feathery grasses waving in front of a hedge of olive trees placed artistically around a starkly minimalistic house; you read the equally minimalistic text (thanks, Sunset, for decades of “how-to” advice–not!) and find that the owners are both architects who stumbled upon this fixer-upper when looking for a vacation home.  They “fixed it” by gutting and rebuilding it, and then hired another couple, these both landscape architects, who pulled everything out, bulldozed, and then re-established a drought-tolerant landscape that suited the house’s new profile.  The owners, shown on their new yoga deck or sipping wine, are supremely content.  “This is our dream,” they tell us.

While we’re happy for them, I, for one, can not relate.  I don’t have the time, energy, or money to throw everything, be it home or lawn, out and start over.  I love to garden, but I can’t spend eight hours a day doing it.  And I think a lot of people are in the same boat.  So this blog is dedicated to the proposition that sustainable gardening doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor; that it’s possible to conserve a wide range of precious resources by adopting the middle way–a more moderate path through the sustainable landscape.  So come along with me–read, share your ideas and experience–I think we can start a movement!  We may not be featured in Sunset, but we can perhaps redefine what “sustainable” means–and looks like.