25 October 2007

The grass is actually browner

Gardeners always imagine that some other place is better. "One (or ten) zones warmer and I could grow x..." I grew up in zone 6 (in a good year), so I very much understand the impulse, even though I never paid much attention to gardening there.

all the leaves are brown, and the sky is grayBut even here, there is always a plant that makes you wish you lived somewhere else. Many tropicals make me dream of Hawai'i; more frequently, I hesitate over plants that are a little too marginal here, and think: if only we lived in Santa Barbara, or San Diego... but this last week has reminded us what the drawbacks are.

Of course, we must pay for the "idyllic" climate. We get a bit more rainfall than SD here, and the winds are a little less dramatic, so our burn cycle is every hundred years, not every ten. But make no mistake: what just happened there will happen here; we're overdue. This is not something that can be controlled by human intervention.

This is not photoshopped
wow, you can grow palm trees!

South Escondido Boulevard by prgibbs

On a shorter cycle, try to imagine 6 months without rain. In a good year. Last year we got about 12 inches, total, spread over 6 months. Less than average, but not "abnormal." This is not a drought, it's a Mediterranean climate, which also specifies that the rain disappears in summer, when plants need it most. Fly into to SFO -- or any major airport in California -- from May to October, and you will see how brown the grass is on the outher side.

So yes, we can grow many plants here that would not survive in the northeast, either because of our mild winter, or because of our dry summers. We can also grow many of the plants that do well on the east coast if we water the hell out of them all summer. This is just as unnatural (and presumably, equally pleasurable) as growing exotics in a greenhouse, though most people don't realize this yet.

But they will. The latest Pacific Horticulture (they have a shiny new website) brings word of a drought in Adelaide so sever that there is no watering of the yard, period. It won't be long until this happens in San Diego. This news helped me to appreciate the philosophy of one extreme gardener in Colorado who reported heavy losses to an email list recently because he doesn't water his garden:

The only way you can determine what's drought tolerant in your garden is not to water it during drought. I understand that this is a radical statement that makes some people go completely crazy, but I think it's true. In 2002 we had one inch of precipitation in eleven months. I did nothing, and lots of plants died.

I'm not smart enough to garden like this yet, but soon I'll have to.


I should mention one decidedly less catastrophic limitation of gardening here that is seldom appreciated by outsiders: chill hours. It does not get cold enough to grow, among other things, lilac, peonies, and many fruit trees. Conversely, at least where I live, thank god, it doesn't really get hot either, which a whole other class of plants find unpleasant... all I can think of right now are tomatoes and gardenia. I know this seems like a small price to pay -- boo hoo, your gardenia is chlorotic! -- but the limitations are exactly analogous to wherever you live. Just, perhaps, less oppressive, until the fire comes.

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Blogger blueblue said...

OMG - look at the sky.

I hadn't realised that they had banned outdoor watering in Adelaide, but I did know that they had an emergency plan for bottled water distribution for when the taps run dry.

In drought...almost all of my in-the-soil plants are surviving...perhaps not lush, but they're ok: roses, lavender, gardenias...but then I planted them 5 years ago under drought conditions. They don't know any different and they are not watered at all. Mind you after I dug up the one rose that had died it had extremely long roots.

10/27/2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger Margaret said...

Ack, horrible images. My sympathies are with you guys, because I know how horrible, scary and primal bushfires are. I was evacuated from one when I was a kid, and the memories are still vivid. I can still smell it, still hear the roar. And a sun that's red is eerie.

10/27/2007 11:41 PM  
Blogger Gardener of La Mancha said...

Little tricks can help plants make it thruogh a drought, or so I've heard.

Like watering deeply and infrequently during the first couple of seasons to encourage far-reaching root systems. And I can't remember where I read this, but pruning back plants during a drought can help them make it through (I guess by decreasing the amount of evapotranspiration). And I guess mulch helps to keep soil moisture in.

So some plants will not be able to handle drought, no matter what, but there may be ways (such as the ones I've mentioned) to help plants cope, without the extra water. There's hope anyway.

10/28/2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger chuck b. said...

The Oakland hills fire in 1991 turned the sky in San Francisco that color. It was my 22nd birthday and I was tooling about town with some friends, pretty stoned.

Those brown grasses you see from the air are European annual weeds. Masses of native perennial grasses turn grayish i during summer drought.

10/29/2007 12:52 AM  
Blogger chuck b. said...

PS Aside from water shortage, I do think Santa Barbara must be the best place in the world to garden. And I think you live in, or near, the second best place.

10/29/2007 12:59 AM  
Blogger mmw said...

Yeah, I love how Cali's iconic "goldenness" is not just dead grass, it's dead invasive grass. But after 14 years I've finally come around to appreciating its beauty.

10/30/2007 1:00 PM  
Blogger Bare Bones Gardener said...

Whata beautiful photo, terrifying, but beautiful

10/30/2007 6:20 PM  
Blogger Ki said...

You must live on the Western side of the mountains then. They can grow apples in Walnut Creek and beyond. Dry almost desert climes there though.

11/01/2007 6:42 AM  
Blogger mmw said...

I'm probably 5 miles west of Walnut Creek. Rainfall is basically the same; they're a little hotter in summer, a little colder in winter.

Technically, there are some apple varieties we can grow here, but they have to be "low-chill". And it's possible that tree peonies, at least, would work here. Something that I'd like to experiment with -- just not at $60+ a plant.

11/01/2007 12:29 PM  
Blogger lisa said...

If you have to resort to the no water method, perhaps you could enlist a rain barrel like Chuck. Man, this could get inteesting!

12/26/2007 11:12 AM  
Anonymous petuniaman said...

Hey. I am that "extreme gardener", and would like to correct the record here. There is a considerable difference between "heavy losses" and "lots of plants".
I lost a lot of plants during the drought of 2002 in a Denver-area garden that has not been watered at all in twenty years. But there are even more than a lot of plants in the garden overall; there are zillions of plants, everywhere, all over the place. (About half of the garden is regularly watered, the other half is not watered at all.)
I wanted to see what would make it and what would not. Yes, I know, letting plants die if it has not rained for three straight months instead of rushing out with a watering can or hose runs contrary to almost every gardener's instincts, but there are some situations where you just have to find out things for yourself, since no one else can tell you.

6/14/2008 12:40 AM  
Blogger mmw said...

Hey petuniaman, I'm sorry if I overstated your losses. And if my admiration of your rigor wasn't obvious. I'm sure it softens the blow to water half of a zillion plants, but what you're doing is science more than gardening as as commonly understood, and it benefits all of us.

My point is that soon enough those of us in the west are going to have to emulate your rigor whether we like it or not. My water district just declared a drought -- which means that we're not supposed to water more than 3 times a week. It won't be long before gardeners look back on such pathetic "restrictions" with nostalgia.

6/16/2008 12:45 AM  
Blogger PetuniaMan said...

If I were living in California again my front yard would be a showplace for the summer-drought-adapted sections of Las Pilitas nursery's catalog. Plus a few exotics to de-nativize things.
Growing plants without watering isn't science, it's just another way to garden.

6/16/2008 10:59 PM  

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