Whenever I’m describing various garden tasks or techniques to beginners or nongardeners, inevitably someone asks, “Why go to all that trouble?” They suggest that in nature, seeds sprout and no one is paying attention to how deeply they’re planted, or what time of year, or whether they’re watered or protected.
The difference is that a garden is a relatively small, controlled environment. People impose limits and expect plants to perform in a predictable way. For example, if you let California poppies go to seed in a garden, you’d probably want to edit the profusion of poppy seedlings the next fall before they had a chance to crowd out everything else in your garden. You’d also cut back the poppies once the blooms had faded, rather than letting the dry foliage remain. You might also want to water them to prolong the bloom, especially if rains were few and far apart in winter and spring.
Each plant in a garden gets extra care to make sure it thrives, from root-washing before it is planted to correct any root problems before it goes in the ground to planting on a mound to ensure good drainage and making sure the young plant gets supplemental water in the dry season so that it will survive and look presentable.
‘Cues to care’
Whether the garden design is formal or informal, the “cues to care” that differentiate a garden from an unmaintained patch of land can include:
• Mulching, while leaving a small patch of bare soil to accommodate ground-nesting native bees.
• Keeping paths clear; even in a front yard. a winding path through the garden enables you to pay attention to each plant and get close to them without stepping on garden soil.
• Giving each shrub or perennial its own space with room to grow, unless the shrubs are intentionally grown closer together to form a hedgerow.
• Trimming spent flowers, while leaving some seeds for birds to forage.
• Massing plants in groups of three or more, for repetition and rhythm.
• Pruning trees and shrubs to bring out their natural essence, so that they don’t look “pruned.”
• Having a focal point, such as a specimen shrub, a large container planting, a water feature or garden art.
Garden areas that are based on plant communities found in nature – oak woodland, redwood forest, riparian or chaparral, for instance – can suggest a sense of place. To identify mature natives that grow well together, go on local native garden tours or visit a public native garden such as the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills.
Here are some other things to notice if you’re interested in gardens that support local wildlife:
• A native oak or willow as well as native berry bushes for the birds.
• Natives with tiny flowers in bloom most of the year to lure pollinators and other beneficial insects.
• A general unfussy look, even if the design is formal.
Beware of yards where leaf blowers have been used on planted areas and pesticides have eliminated all insects – these are cues that signal “I don’t care.”