Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: A Walk in the Inimitable Woods

By Ron Sulivan
Friday January 25, 2008

Woodland gardening takes on a new aspect when one is practicing it here in coastal northern California. There are considerations one must take with regard to natural resources and scarcity—as much a product of time as of place, as everything living here gets more squeezed by human overpopulation, including us humans who are doing the overpopulating.  

Add that to the huge number of endemic species we have here, and the proportion of them that are threatened or endangered, and it’s hard to make a case for much other than conservation and restoration in our gardens.  

Here again is where my own history and bias inform my thinking, and I’ll be forthright about it. I came to gardening via birding and natural history. Wanting to know what the bird was sitting on led top wanting to know how it all fit together, then who the individuals in the system were. So when it comes to plants as well as other organisms, I guess my mindset is one of discovery rather than shaping.  

I got to thinking about that a few years back when we stumbled upon a woodland garden just north of Yuba Pass in the Sierra. It was, at the time, open to the public; I believe it’s closed since. We try to get up to the area every summer for the wildflowers and birds, and so spend some time tramping about in the yellow pine and red fir forests.  

We’ve seen fantastic things like the baroque red saprophytes snowplant and pine drops; stalks of tiny white rein orchids massed in roadside ditches; whole meadows of impossibly blue camas and fizzy yellow madia; violets and larkspurs and lilies and paintbrush and pussy paws—all more or less by accident. Creeks spread out into wet meadows of elephant’s-heads and corn lilies and shooting stars, then re-channel themselves to make perfect bankside gardens of moss and ferns and buttercups.  

Streamcourses and boulders and shrub groupings all follow the original aesthetic of Nature, ruled by gravity and light and water arriving all the way to the local sky and peaks from the Pacific. Every form, no matter how varied, has the inevitability of mathematics. Who could improve on this?  

Not, as it seemed, the planners of this garden. It was pleasant enough, but even allowing for its raw, not-quite-finished state, it seemed forced in some places, bare in others. There was a lake and a lakeside lodge with flagpoles, an arched bridge and some rather handsome paths, but nothing looked so perfect as the surrounding mountains do, despite human incursions and devastations.  

Compared to the manzanitas and ceanothuses beyond its borders, the shrubs looked thirsty and out of place. Compared to the unique local wildflowers, the herbaceous stuff looked ordinary; I’d seen most of it in gardens here at home. Why go all the way up there to see what I’d seen here? 

If I didn’t know any better I think I’d have loved the place. But having returned to the area year after year, having come to know it, I did know better: the wilderness next door. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.