Red Maple - Acer rubrum "October Glory" earning it's namesake

The history of California plants and landscapes is a study in the availability of water. Long ago it was discovered that almost all trees, shrubs, groundcovers, perennials and vines would thrive in our Mediterranean climate if sufficient water were available.

Mild winters and dry summers are the norm here in Northern California, and the evolution of plant usage has seen much diversity with the introduction of plant material that requires more water than is naturally available.

Our previous blog (November 5, 2019) discusses native plants that are able to survive on only winter rainfall. But over the years, thirstier plants and trees have been introduced to where they are now dominating today’s ornamental gardens and landscapes. Where did they come from?

The Franciscan missionaries experimented in the South with seeds from abroad, and the seeds that grew into plants and survived in our climate were planted in the gardens of the missions. From there they began to spread to homes and farms in early California days.

Water from streams was the impetus for thirstier eastern lawns and plants. With the advent of early irrigation systems, and of the drip irrigation systems in the late twentieth century, these lush East Coast lawns and plantings began spreading to gardens throughout California.

As available water supplies increased with the State Water Project, the Central Valley Project, and The Colorado River Project, irrigation became widely available. Farming thrived as the production of fruits and vegetables grew astronomically. Thirsty exotic plant material appeared in nurseries as the demand for these lush ornamentals grew, as did the nursery business. Drought-tolerant plants became less available and landscape architects, recognizing this new trend, began designing gardens with more lush plants that needed more water. So the history of California plants and landscapes has been evolving.

Now just because irrigation technology evolved so that water could be supplied to plant material, supplementing natural rainfall does not obviate the necessity that water be available. In the drought years of 1976-1977, and the drought years of the early 2000’s, water was so scarce that we had mandatory rationing. Homeowners were prohibited from watering their lawns, showering was limited, and water use in general was severely restricted and monitored. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area lost their lawns and most of their gardens, at a cost of millions of gardens.

We have seen growing trend in recent years of replacing thirsty gardens with more water conserving landscapes. Whereas large sweeping lawns dominated the front yards of almost all neighborhoods, they have been gradually replaced with plantings, both drought-tolerant and non-natives. After all, the plant that requires more than any other – by far- is grass.

Details Landscape Art has been designing and installing gardens throughout Sonoma, Marin and Napa Counties for almost thirty years, and we have seen the variation of water availability during that period. And even though rainfalls in recent years have somewhat mitigated the water shortfall crisis, we are still always conscious of the fickleness of nature and the randomness of rainfall from year to year. We are prepared to carry the history of California plants and landscapes into the future.