I’m Transforming My Yard into a Native Habitat. Am I a Gardener Now?
For the 2022 Garden Issue, Sunset editor in chief Hugh Garvey reflects on his gardening experience as he takes on a whole new project at home.
My first paying job was a brief summer stint as a sort of gardener. I say “sort of” because I now know what real gardeners do and what I did was mostly not garden. It was my grandparents’ year to maintain the grassy median on their cul-de-sac and they needed someone to mow it, do minor upkeep on their property, wage an ongoing battle with gophers that kept undermining a brick retaining wall, weed a gravel path, and scoop leaves from the pool. Taking breaks I’d sneak onto the adjacent golf course and marvel at its unlikely perfect expanse of groomed green. But it was the wild in-between spaces that drew me in. The mess of fallen trees in the spooky secret graveyard next door that nobody ever explained or visited but where all the birds and lizards hung out and the gophers went to play.
At the end of the summer I ended up with a little money in my pocket, chlorophyll-stained tennis shoes, and a respect for anyone who could do the fine work required to keep a plot of any size looking tailored and trim against the push and pull of domesticated nature. It took me over 30 years to tackle the job myself and graduate from “sort of” gardener to someone who actually grows things.
More from this issue:
- Need Help Taking Care of Your Air Plants? We’ve Got Just the Guy
- Stroll Through Lotusland, the Fantastical Botanic Garden of Your Dreams
- What Happens When the West Coast Barbecue King Sets out to Conquer Fried Chicken?
- Add Some Color to Your Brunch with Edible Flowers
After 20 years of passively watching the plants and grass grow at my Spanish bungalow in Los Angeles I have a newly installed garden that I’ve committed to tending myself. I’ve joined the growing cadre of folks transforming their yards into native habitats loaded with the plants that have long thrived in our local ecosystems. In theory, my former lawn is now the beginnings of a pollinator-friendly space with arboreal shelter for migratory birds, well-placed boulders and driftwood for newts and worms, and water to quench the thirst of nocturnal wildlife.
For now there are winks of color that will hopefully bloom against a new paint job on the old bungalow picked by color consultant and “paint whisperer” Teresa Grow of paint and wallpaper firm Madison and Grow. Someone once told me she can find the color a house always wanted to be, and they were right. She worked with our plant palette to arrive at a dusky, handsome hue at the low end of green and gray and brown that’s primeval, like the underside of leaf litter, of dried black sage and loam. “I picked shadowy dark colors that will recede,” she says. “For the plants to look their best, I want the house to disappear.”
And so it does, the recessive register of light a sympatico backdrop for the subtle beauty of the native plants: fuzzy California sages, black and white and otherwise, dusty Dudleya born in Baja, buckwheat from the Channel Islands, the laddered kelly green of Woodwardia fimbriata ferns dating back to the Paleocene era. A plant prose poem of the past and present topography of the West, collaboratively chosen by landscape design firm Terremoto co-founder David Godshall with David Newsom, a dashing philosopher/gardener who runs the Wild Yards Project in L.A. with the mission to rewild domestic and shared urban spaces with the plants that used to call our city home.
After heavy rains a Mexican sage plant punched through the mulch, showing its resilient self 20 years after we planted it on a whim. I asked Godshall and Newsom what I was supposed to do with it. It wasn’t native. They both had the same answer that simultaneously pleased and scared me a little: “You tell me. You’re the gardener now.”
And so I join in my little way an infinite array of gardeners and plant people who find joy in literally grappling with the botanical and share it with others, several of whom grace these pages. In this issue you’ll read about Josh “Airplantman” Rosen who installs alien walls of Tillandsia in coffee shops and homes; the Rembe family who run the stately hacienda, hotel, and lavender farm Los Poblanos outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico; an author who works flowers into brunch and cocktails; and the urban wood shop that makes raised beds for folks with small spaces. There are many ways to garden, and no matter what form it takes, as our gardens grow, we do, too.
—Hugh Garvey, editor-in-chief