Books: EBMUD Advises on Bay Area Water-Wise Gardening

By SHIRLEY BARKERSpecial to the Planet
Tuesday July 27, 2004

There is a commodity in life that is more precious than gold, and that is water. In the Golden State of California water is more than precious, it is endangered, because we have but two seasons, wet and dry, and in some years the wet season is a dry one too. 

A couple of weeks ago, at the Lawrence Hall of Science, East Bay Municipal Utility District launched a new book three years in the making, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region. 

This is EBMUD”s second horticu ltural volume. The first, Water-Conserving Plants and Landscapes of the Bay Area, sold 50,000 copies. The new one is more sumptuously produced, with gorgeous color photography by Saxon Holt on every page, and equally vibrant, lucid schema by watercolorist and botanical illustrator Richard Pembroke. 

The book aims to conserve habitat as well as water, to protect the wildlife therein, and to diminish fire risk. How to do it can be found within the book’s four sections, which address locale, design, individu al plants, and cultivation. These broad categories are subdivided under appropriate headings in the table of contents. Together with a big index, the book has everything one needs for easy navigation. Designer Beth Hansen-Winter and author-editor Nora Har low have given clear form to what could have been an unwieldy jumble of material. 

The conservation of water turns out to be a controversial topic. People who can afford to pay high water bills apparently do not care how much water they waste on their acres of property. Such woeful ignorance relates water to economics, when it actually concerns life—for all. Many cultures have vanished with few traces when their water supply, for whatever reason, ceased. Knowingly squandering water in any wet-dry climate is ethically indefensible. 

We should be grateful for EBMUD’s stewardship of our priceless water supply, clean and tasty, conveyed by their clever engineering from the purity of the high Sierras to our faucets, and pay heed to how we can play our part in its conservation. The book seems to have something for everyone, being not only a serious reference for the professional, and an array of tempting delights for the amateur, but also giving pleasure to non-gardeners because of its beauty. Its advice might even save our lives.  

Native plants are well represented, as they should be, since they have adapted to our wet-dry landscapes. Words like “adapted” and “tolerant” betray their human formulation. Some plants will die if watered at the wrong (for them) ti me of year. “Drought-thriving” might be a truer term. And not all native plants bloom early in order to set seed before summer drought. Epilobium, formerly Zauschneria, adds useful color to the garden at the end of summer. Its nectar-rich scarlet trumpets are beloved by hummingbirds, and its silvery foliage indicates its dry-summer preference, since white leaves deflect insolation, the sun’s rays. 

While sitting in my garden on the Fourth of July, browsing through the handsome volume, I looked up from tim e to time with new eyes. It seemed that many of the plants flowering nearby were listed in the book. That they are also drought-tolerant is entirely accidental. 

Some people love to water their gardens, manipulating soaker-hoses, creating complex irrigati on systems, reveling in wetness. I am not of that ilk. If I had to live in a desert, that would be fine with me. Cactuses are the only indoor plants I’ve never killed. Outdoors, my attitude is live and let live, if it can. Once a week I water everything w ithout discrimination, by hand-held hose. I enjoy this opportunity to see how things are doing. That’s about it, in summer. My passion for gardening only emerges at the equinoxes, spring and fall. 

This does not mean that I do not adore whatever is willin g to grow and bloom in these circumstances. The perimeter of the garden yields fruit: blackberries (no water), plums (likewise), pears, apples and quince (soaked every one or two weeks). I have a young nectarine smothered in bright red miniature cannon ba lls. This is a volunteer, a consequence of my spitting out a pit a few summers ago. One of the master gardeners at EBMUD’s book launch told me that if a fruiting tree is grown from a seed, it is a new variety. Will the fruits soften, will they be deliciou s, and will I know this before the squirrel, the opossum and the tree rat? This tree I hover over, deterring ants with a Tanglefoot barrier and watering it weekly without fail. 

In the middle of the garden is the fenced vegetable plot, focus of my attenti on. Between perimeter and plot, flowers are randomly disposed. Penstemons that began as one small potted nursery plant now cover an area four feet by five, and still spreading. They get a splash of water as I drag the hose to the nectarine, and deadheadin g rather than EBMUD’s recommended shearing, which I will try next. The oregano, more slowly expanding, blooms twice if I shear it in midsummer. I wait as long as possible, as it is much visited by native bumblebees. This too receives a little incidental w atering. Osteospermum, a perennial in the vast compositae (daisy, sunflower) family, tries to cascade into the vegetable plot, thriving on the food and water available there, rooting into and smothering everything. In leaner ground outside the plot, it st ill seems to like water, although its origin, a small rooted shoot from a naturalized patch by the bay, must have survived with none. Another, unknown, dry-summer compositae member, an annual, originally grown from seed also collected by the bay, self-sows each year in a different location, bringing a touch of the unexpected into an already disorganized lot. I took a sprig of its daisy flowers, both pale and butter yellow, to a nursery once for identification, and was told it is a Little Cutie. 

Erigeron, a daisy commonly called fleabane, yet another slow spreader, makes the most trouble-free ground cover. Fairly hard shearing keeps it controlled, done when it looks as though it needs it. Such haphazard methods are an embarrassment to confess, so I was reassured by EBMUD’s comment that learning to “read” one’s plants is a good thing. Of course if one has read wrongly, the garden will rapidly teach one the meaning of cause and effect. Erigeron never seems to stop flowering entirely, making it hard to read correctly, and will dry up and die without some summer moisture. 

Of the native plants in my garden, a sprawling ceanothus accepts incidental water. Whether it really needs this, I do not know. It is water-tolerant, perhaps. It has grown slowly, taking se ven years to produce a flower, and I learned from EBMUD’s book that slow growth can mean a longer life. I hope so. “Soon ripe, soon rotten” is of course a horticultural tag. Flowers or no, my ceanothus is always worthwhile for its distinctive dark green l eathery leaves covering an area I’d rather look at than cultivate.  

A friend told me that redwoods are easy to grow from seed. I was delighted to find this was true. I’ve never watered mine, although EBMUD says I should. It is too tall to measure without mathematics, and seems unstressed. Perhaps the water table is high in my neighborhood. Old maps show creeks everywhere, mostly now hidden, and I’m fairly sure one runs directly beneath, and in very rainy years through, my house, as is true of many in Ber keley.  

What my garden obviously lacks is a plan, a design, and to this end, I determined to stop browsing and to read the book from beginning to end. It is a visual delight, with 650 plants photographed and described, each with a cluster of icons that give information at a glance about watering and other horticultural needs. EBMUD has adopted (with acknowledgments) Sunset’s Western Garden Book’s gardening zones and alphabetical listing of plants. There the resemblance between the two books ends, for if I had to describe EBMUD’s book in one word, I would say, “ours.” Whereas Sunset’s recommendations range over hundreds of square miles, making them inevitably chancy and even irrelevant, EBMUD’s specific focus on our Bay area, its knowledgeable and concise descriptions of our microclimates and our plant communities, its absorbing exposition of our ecology in all its facets, make its recommendations entirely and reliably credible. This is more than a book about plants, it’s a good read. 

And when I reached the end of the book I received a wonderful surprise. It turns out that my kind of garden and method of working in it has a name. My garden is a natural garden, and I am a natural gardener. I immediately recognized that this definition by itself would help me to improve my garden design. With the book as well, it’s a done deed. Like an alien on the Fourth of July who has lost identity, when I read those words, I felt a sense of homecoming.  

Now isn’t that summer-dry Berkeley all over?