The seed for Helen Popper’s book “California Native Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide” (UC Press, 2012) was planted more than a decade ago at monthly meetings of the Gardening with Natives group.
We shared information and discussed such projects as posting a book list and other resources on a website, organizing a native-garden tour and creating a maintenance calendar for native plants. The website has evolved into a valuable resource – the Going Native Garden Tour celebrated its 10th year in April and Popper’s book debuted this year.
Popper, associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, said she tackled the project when she realized many experienced native gardeners were getting on in years. While she could still interview some of her mentors, she set aside time to write the book. The result is a beautifully written homage to native plants and a useful guide to what to do in the garden each month, in tune with the particular rhythm of seasons in California.
This book is the ideal counterpoint to all those garden books written for the drizzly British climate or the temperate Eastern U.S. It’s valuable not only for gardeners who favor California native plants, but also for gardeners originally from other areas who want to learn how to garden in California’s dry climate. In fact, it would make an eye-opening gift for plant nerds in other parts of the country or the world who are curious about what makes California gardening special.
The gardening year in California begins in October, as seasonal rains begin to rouse native plants from dormancy. It ends with the restful planning month of September – California’s version of the snowed-in Chicago gardener perusing seed catalogs.
Each month’s chapter contains a one-page summary describing which tasks need attention that month. The bulk of the chapter expands on those themes, in straightforward language touched with poetic appreciation for California’s native plants. The chapter closes with a rundown of what’s in bloom or showy that month. Lovely photos illustrate healthy plants and gardens.
I especially like Popper’s attitude toward wildlife, such as gophers, moles and deer, in the garden. To keep out gophers and deer, she relies on effective barrier methods, including wire baskets, wire-bottomed planting beds and cages for young plants. Popper describes how to distinguish a gopher mound from a molehill and suggests leaving moles alone: “They are generally beneficial in the garden.”
A short chapter at the end of the book discusses five native gardening styles: Formal, Cottage, Japanese, Herb and Child’s.
Unlike other monthly guides, this one does not seem repetitive when similar tasks recur. Instead, common tasks such as pruning, weeding and watering change with the seasons and as different plants take center stage.
Popper pays special attention to propagation. Do-it-yourself gardeners will enjoy reading the details of how and when to take cuttings, with a detailed list at the back summarizing which month to take cuttings from dozens of plants.