Styles of the New California Garden

Peyton Ellas, Quercus Landscape Design

It used to be that a California native garden meant only a wild-looking, informal garden, or that you could add some California native plants among your existing non-native (exotic) plants in standard planting beds. California landscaping has gone through a phase where a dry creek had to be part of a native-plant garden, and I still add dry-creeks and similar water-theme features in some of my landscape designs, but it’s no longer mandatory. We’ve seen wildflower meadows and native-grass-as-turf-substitute styles come and go.

The new California garden seems to be developing along the following basic styles. See if any of these fit with your yard or goals.

A Cottage style Garden with a mix of native and non-native species to ensure year-round interest. Visalia, CA.

Cottage Style.  This is an informal scheme, with plants that flow into each other in a tapestry of color, form, and foliage type. ABritish term from the 1870’s, “wild garden” is often included in the California native cottage-style garden. The trick is to make sure there is something interesting happening all the time and, if in a front yard, that at least a minimal sense of control is maintained. Structure cannot be forgotten, since the garden must look good even when plants are dormant or are not blooming.

Probably the most well-known Garden Room is a simple place for seating and conversation! With Eriogonum fasculatumPopulus fremontii and a riparian zone as a back wall, with Calystegia macrostegiaand Vitis californica ‘Rogers Red’ draping over a metal-pole pergola. Springville, CA

Garden “Rooms”. In this style, each area has a distinct purpose and look. Garden “Rooms” are a common Mediterranean style, seen all over the world. In the California native plant garden, some rooms may look livelier than others at the different times of the year. There is an emphasis on outdoor living, and special attention to the design concept of floors, walls, and ceilings. Sometimes floor surfaces are used both indoors and outdoors to blend the line between rooms. Outdoor couches, dining areas, and outdoor kitchens are other features of the Garden Room style, often with California wild grape rambling over pergolas.

Backyard garden featuring California natives, like this Salvia apiana, in a modification of French parterre style. Exeter, CA

French Style. Do you have hedges surrounding planting beds? Do you include a kitchen garden surrounded by California ornamental plants? Do you have a long row of trees or shrubs bordering a path or driveway? These, along with raised beds and geometric patterns, are from French landscape design. Using California plants in a more orderly, formal way is perhaps the newest way we are using our state’s species.

Japanese Style. Ideas such as the “borrowed view” and using rocks to mimic water in the garden fit in quite well with the new California garden. Anytime we use bouldersstrategically, or design a strollingpath with turns and mysteries, we are using Japanese garden inspiration.

Americans have always borrowed ideas from around the world for landscape inspiration. In our new California gardens, we continue to use themes that have been pleasing for generations. Thinking in terms of design helps us organize what we are doing and guides our plant choices. Which style is yours?

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