Just as the people who try to eat locally are rediscovering the seasonality of fresh produce, native-plant gardeners are rediscovering a sense of place and pioneering an aesthetic that values seasonal change.
It"s a complex task to plan a garden that celebrates the turn of the seasons, but it makes life more interesting for people and the wildlife around us. Along with such cues as day-length and temperature changes, time"s passage is marked by old favorites coming into bloom or fruit. Although attentive gardeners who grow edibles and ornamentals mark time by what"s flourishing, native-plant gardeners gain a sense of where they are.
Think about it: If you were instantaneously transported into a garden someplace on Earth, how would you know where you were? Feel the sun, sniff the air, look at the plants — in most California gardens, with a mix of plants from around the world, you could be almost anywhere.
One of the trade secrets of garden designers is to choose plants that come from the same part of the world to give the garden a sense of cohesion. Visit a botanical garden to see how plants "go" together in each region.
If you"re from anywhere east of California, you may think of spring as the beginning of the gardening year and winter as the dormant season. Here, winter rains announce the beginning of the native gardening year, the time for renewal, planting and the return of more vibrant shades of green.
Rains bring delicate white or pink manzanita flowers, contrasting with dark-red or brown bark and newly washed leaves in shades of green. Silktassel trees, with dramatic white tassels up to a foot long, and currants and gooseberries, with pendant blooms in shades from white and pale pink to deep reds, echo the falling rain. The muscular sculpture of a bare California buckeye gives way to the light, bright greens of new foliage unfurling. Redbuds" bare branches erupt with impatient magenta flowers before new leaves form.
Stunning clouds of blue ceanothus mark the beginning of spring. Clusters of native irises explode into color. Clarkias in every shade of pink and fremontias in soft yellows and oranges command attention. Many native wildflowers and shrubs are at their best in the spring, especially after plentiful rains.
As the ground dries out and days get longer, the calmer gray-blues of long-blooming native sages and buckwheats dominate the summer garden, with splashes of brighter color from penstemons and other perennials. The California buckeye, attuned to the wet/dry cycle of the year, loses its leaves in early summer to signal the start of the dormant season.
By fall, most native gardens are winding down, with a burst of reds and oranges from hummingbird fuchsia and toyon berries, some russets and browns from seedheads. Fall is the time for reviewing the year in the garden and planning for the next one, before the busy winter season arrives once again.