Supernatural Garden Magic

By David McRory

A supernatural landscape style is not a term you hear every day in gardening circles.  Supernatural often connotes mysticism and other worlds and magic.  We use the term supernatural to describe landscape gardening featuring diverse plants from around the world that are climate-appropriate, set into garden spaces with good circulation and gathering areas.

Creating Natural Environments with Diversity

Diverse planting Planet HorticultureSo many gardens are manicured spaces that have little practical use. These designs often break up spaces and make them feel smaller.  And they often don’t relate to the natural landscape of their surroundings.

Starting in 1981, for more than 20 years, Roger Raiche was Curator of the 15-acre California Native Plant Collection at UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley.  Roger transformed the collection, adding several thousand new plants to the collection from his extensive field trips.

These trips exposed Roger to the vast diversity of native plant habitats and settings.  The observations in nature helped Roger find combinations of plants that look natural.  The collections were be used by students and faculty to become familiar with plant communities from various parts of the state.

Roger coined the name, Planet Horticulture, to refer to his unique garden at the Maybeck Cottage in North Berkeley.  This hillside garden included serpentine trails that created access to all parts of the garden.  Many focal points, like fountains and urns, were placed to catch the eye and provide detail in the landscape.  Openings along the trails became gathering areas for relaxation, secluded spots for reflection. Larger openings attracted groups.

The garden was a fantasy of plants that Roger collected from the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens and a variety of California nurseries.  He was able to gather an incredible diversity of plants that included trees, shrubs, ground covers, grasses, vines and bulbs.  Arranging this variety of plants was again a combination of a understanding of the plants and an artistic flair as to how they would look together aesthetically.

Composition: A landscape or garden looks right when the elements, plants, architecture, space (open vs. closed), circulation, and focal points look balanced and restful. High energy plants, palms, agave, yuccas, cordylines, grasses, and other spikey elements that are ebullient, can all be mixed together as long as they are balanced in the final composition.

Diversity: Highly diverse plantings can also fill spaces.  We think diverse plantings offer more color, texture, seasonality and sensual stimulation.  We are not alone.  Birds, bees, butterflies, all kinds of beneficial insects, and the whole chain of our natural ecosystem are also stimulated and benefit from diversity.  Bringing diversity to our gardens is one step we can all take to live in harmony with the natural world.

If you visit natural areas, most will have an incredible diversity of plant types, with layers of understory plants, seasonal bulbs and annuals, small creeping vines, perennials, trees and shrubs, all growing together in a community.  That is our biggest inspiration for garden designs, creating a kind of heightened version of nature with new plant communities.

hoosing plants to attract and sustain bees (honeybees and native bees), butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds and such is a fun way to enliven any garden. Recent news stories about the critically low numbers of migrating monarch butterflies and the decline of bees are only two examples of the importance we can play in helping our ecology through plant diversity.

Planting native milkweed species for monarch butterflies is one plant type you can help sustain these butterflies. The many varieties of Callistemon and Buddleia you can use as shrubs, and Hyssop and Verbena as perennial color, that will also help Monarch Butterflies.  We find that the more diverse a planting, the more diversity of insects, birds and wildlife you will attract.

Diverse plantings require artistic placement, where each plant or plant type pleasantly highlights and compliments those nearby, and those compliment or set off those behind and next to them, and onward. It is essential to know how each plant is going to develop so the planting is like a symphony rather than “winner takes all” battle.

Repeating key plants throughout the garden – rather than massing them in one area, gives the finished landscape a continuity.  This repetition is critical to avoid a haphazard garden and a way to make your collection read as its own plant community.

Container Planting Planet horticultureContainers: One way to showcase a particular plant or group of plants, is to put them in a large container. This elevates the plant(s), creates a focal point, allows for special soil mixes, irrigation needs and so forth. Containers are also ideal for displaying seasonal “color” set into a more permanent planting. Also, the container itself can be chosen for size, shape, color, artistry, etc. which all add to the beauty of your plantings.

To ensure a long duration for potted plants, make sure the soil mix chosen shrinks as little as possible, initially over-fill the pots to allow for shrinkage, avoid soils with manures that stain patio surfaces, and cut larger drainage holes to prevent root clogging and water saturation.

Drought Tolerance: We live in a Mediterranean climate, cool wet winters, and hot, dry summers. All the rain/snow that falls has to not only support all the varied natural habitats that exist but provide drinking water, agricultural water, water for industry and landscape water – for a state with an increasing population.  Climate change is real.  It is only logical that we try to stretch what water we use as efficiently as possible.

Fortunately, there is a wide selection of plants, plant types or plant forms that are drought tolerant, both from our native flora and from other dry areas of the world that are available in the nursery trade. Using these in our landscapes can be visually varied and exciting. A considerable number may need no additional water once established.  One critical thing when using non-native drought-tolerant plants is to avoid invasive plants that can naturalize and become pests in our natural landscapes.

Drought-adapted landscapes require careful zoning of irrigation so that some areas might feature lusher looking plants (bedding plants, vegetables, lawns, etc.) while others may go partially or entirely without summer irrigation. Creating oasis areas as a counterpart to the larger, drier zones is a smart use for irrigation.

Native plants continue to increase in popularity for many reasons, but perhaps a core theme is having plants in your gardens/landscape that remind you of natural areas in our remarkable state. While the term “native plant” is frequently used as a synonym for “drought tolerant”, California native plants come from many diverse habitats, from standing water to desert rocks, so tolerance to dryness is a separate issue.

Consensus has the term applying to plants existing within the state’s boundaries before the colonization by Europeans. The desire to re-connect to the larger, wilder place we call home is a good thing and provides an excellent focus for a landscape. Beyond the beauty, many of organisms have evolved unique associations with natives, so we benefit as well with these plantings.

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