My annual backpacking trip to the Eastern Sierra revealed the customary beauties and rigors. We endured a violent hailstorm at 11,000 feet (later we found it had caused a mudslide that closed Highway 395) and admired the last wildflowers in alpine meadows. Once again I rested my spirit in the flagrant generosity of scale when Mother Nature makes the garden. Turning the corner we saw not one shooting star on a creek side, but 50, not one sagebrush on a hillside but 500, not one ancient wind-scarred pine by a high pass, but 5000.
Mother Nature’s garden has very strict rules as well as generosity. A meadow or hillside may feature many individual plants, but only a handful of species. The fierce competition in the wild eliminates all but the best-suited plants for the specific exposures of the site. The repetition of a few elements results in the beautiful chaos and rhythm of natural areas.
Every year I bring the inspiration from this trip back to my own gardens, and try to create on a small scale a reminder of this generosity and strictness. To create a natural feeling in the garden, it’s important to resist the temptation to plant one specimen of each of your favorite plants. Instead, repeat the most successful and best suited plants. This way you can create the same feeling of ordered wildness we loved in the mountains.
Now is the best possible time to begin the process of refining next year’s garden design.
First, be like Mother Nature and remove plants that have struggled in their location or that had stubborn pest or disease problems. Even failure to thrive is a good reason to remove a plant; in our small urban spaces we just don’t have room for plants that aren’t beautifully thriving.
Now you have created some new open spaces in the garden, and open spaces cry out for some new plants. The best time for planting in our summer-dry climate is at the very start of the rainy season. The first rains usually arrive by early November, but the soil is still warm from September and October when we get our sunniest days. By clearing space in the garden and preparing the soil now, you can be ready to plant just before the first forecasts of rain.
Next, develop your plant list. Again following Mother Nature’s lead, choose plants that did fabulous jobs this year and gave you tremendous pleasure. Think about adding more of these, doubling the number, or tripling it. Create natural looking groupings of two or three or five and scatter these groups throughout the garden. Odd numbers usually look best.
Also, think about the succession of bloom in your garden. Was there a time this year when the garden let down? A little research will help you choose a new plant for your garden that will peak its bloom or beauty at that time. You can add one this year and see how it does, and buy multiples next year, or just go for broke and plant lots of your new choice.
Either way, a little planning and preparation now will lead to a successful planting season next month, and an even more beautiful garden next year. Happy gardening!