Landscape design has been analyzed, discussed, and written about by many people, and from several angles. Most treatments of this subject consider the built landscape as part of built environment, which contrasts with the natural environment. Generally, they describe landscapes as vignettes or vistas that please the beholder’s eye by combining forms or colors from an aesthetic perspective. Aesthetics determine whether a garden is Victorian, Italian, Japanese, modern, white, classical, etc. Often, this approach results in random groupings of favored plants, with the only design principle being “tall plants in back.”
There are more horticultural perspectives for thinking about landscapes. For example, we have the idea of companion planting, in which proximities affect plant vigor. Then, we have generic groupings, as with small or large collections of roses, cacti, irises, or some other plant genus. Another horticultural approach involves grouping plants with similar needs for moisture. Such “hydrozoning” responds to the horticultural needs of plants and incidentally organizes the gardener’s irrigation tasks. A tropical landscape focuses on plants with an exotic look and a continuing thirst (not a good choice in the land of persistent drought).
Moving further into horticultural considerations, we encounter climate-oriented landscaping, with emphasis on plants from the world’s Mediterranean or “summer dry” regions, which of course include the Monterey Bay area. This landscaping approach supports plant development and vigor and eases the gardener’s workload.
The attractive subset of summer-dry landscaping is landscaping with California native plants, which combines the climate-oriented approach with the ecological compatibility of flora and fauna.
The more naturalistic form of landscaping with California native plants is landscaping with California plant communities. There are various ways to define this state’s several plant communities but essentially, the coast, the mountains, and the deserts are different horticultural environments, and therefore support different plants. A very useful book on this topic has been provided by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).
The next level of appreciating the difference between built and natural landscapes can be found in the book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015). This book has been called “inspiring,” “masterful,” “groundbreaking,” and a “game-changer.” Reviewers have also praised it for “lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing” and “lavish” illustrations.
The authors deplore the ways in which typical gardening and landscaping practices have ignored the ways in which plants thrive in natural combinations, and present A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design. They state, “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”
The book (which we have just begun studying) advocates planting in interlocking layers of plants, which reflects the dynamic way plants grow together in nature. There is much to learn about this approach. The authors envision improved plant labels that provide more useful information about how a plant grows and recommend relevant resources as the http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/California Native Plant Society.
Both aesthetic and horticultural approaches to plant selection have significant impacts on the success of gardening and the amount of work involved in maintaining a garden. If your gardening involves mostly keeping plants alive, replacing plants that have died, combating weeds, and wanting the garden to look better, it could be time to give more attention to plant communities.