A commanding, metallic voice crackles over the bullhorn. “Step back from the rototiller, get down on your knees, clasp you hands behind your head.”

As the terra-terrorist haltingly complies, a team of darkly clad commandos inches forward on their bellies. Suddenly, with blinding speed, the well-rehearsed ensemble kills the engine of the growling, grinding metal monster and swiftly ushers the gardener into a waiting unmarked van. Their destination, the CGGRC (Cool Green Gardening Re-education Center).

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are exquisite,
self-sowing annuals found from Mexico to Oregon.

Scenarios like this fire across my synapses more often than I’d care to admit. That’s because I have a strong emotional response when I see people ignoring one of the most basic tenets of sustainable landscaping: Work with, not against, what nature gives you.

That includes your soil.

My most recent “trigger” was an article in a local newspaper instructing reader about creating “your perfect paradise garden.” The writer used the usual “10 tips” approach, including “How to help your soil.” Readers were told to dump bags and bags of store-bought soil amendment into their beds to create a rich medium for their plants. “That way,” the writer enticed, “you can grow anything your heart desires.”

“Even if it means you have to put the plant on life support,” I thought.

Here’s my philosophy. How about designing with nature rather than working against it?

A Lesson From Nature

Living here in Santa Barbara, California, I look out at the Santa Ynez Mountains every day. Acres and acres of native chaparral vegetation burst with shades of blue Ceanothus flowers and entice with the rusty trunks of Manzanita.

I’ll never tire of the golden sandstone formations and rugged chaparral that hug the Santa Barbara coast.

Shimmering golden California poppies dot the hillside in spring. Canyon sunflower brightens the dappled shade along the arroyos.

Nature does this with no help from me or anyone else, thank you very much. No one turns on the sprinklers, spreads fertilizer or amends the soil. No weekly gardener, no “projects” that consume your three-day weekends.

Here’s my philosophy about adding all that organic material to your soil: Go with the flow. Why pay good money to add stuff to the soil, then rototill until the natural, living community of unseen flora and fauna is churned into oblivion?

It's Alive!

The delicate canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides) thrives
in the cooler environment of shaded coastal arroyos. 

Many gardeners are unaware of the billions of living organisms that inhabit a handful of soil. An interconnected web of life. An ecology we cannot see.

Instead of trying to change your soil, select plants native to your area. If these don’t give you the aesthetic palette you seek, draw from areas in the world similar to yours. It stands to reason that there’s somewhere in Europe or Asia or South America with a climate and soil conditions just like yours. It also stands to reason that plants from those regions will thrive in the same conditions as the ones you already have.

Sometimes called mountain lilac, the Ceanothus species as a
signature plant in the mountains and seaside cliffs of much
of California.

In my coastal southern California climate, I design gardens using plants from Chile, southwest Australia, South Africa, Italy, France, Spain, Libya, and my home state. They’re all adapted to my Mediterranean climate—dry summers, wet winters and moderate temperatures. Most need little or no fertilizer, can get by with minimal summer irrigation, and if I provide enough diversity, no pests.

I work with what nature gives me and let the fittest survive. My clients are overjoyed.

Best of all, this approach helps me avoid a run in with those commandos holed up in my frontal lobe.


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