WILD YARD STORIES
Leave Your Leaves Alone, and Let The Wild Things In!
An Interview with Barbara Eisenstein
BY DAVID NEWSOM
Barbara Eisenstein describes herself this way:
“I am a gardener who loves California native plants and wants to share my experience so that I will see them used more in other urban gardens.”
To my thinking, this is a bit like Lebron James saying he’s a guy who enjoys a little basketball now and then.
Eisenstein, the former Horticulture Outreach Coordinator at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens and author of the hugely readable and enlightening, “Wild Suburbia” is a horticultural tour-de-force. Though she’s freed herself up from many of the commitments that filled up her calendar over the last 20 years, she’s still a hard one to pin down. After a summer-long game of “text tag”, we finally got to spend a long morning walking through her two main projects: her yard in Pasadena (a favorite stop on the Theodore Payne Native Garden’s Tour here in So Cal), and a restoration project awkwardly titled, “The Arroyo Seco-South Pasadena Woodland and Wildlife Park, an easily overlooked 3-acre park on a bend in South Pasadena that boasts both a vital history and a vibrant ecosystem supported by a lovingly nurtured wealth of local native plants. It was here that we started our tour of her work and ideas….
WYP: Alright, so when did you begin working with native plants at home?
BE: My garden is still evolving (as all gardens do) but the first introductions of native plants (other than the beautiful coast live oak that got its start in the mid 1900s) were deer-grass, beargrass, and Twin Peaks #2 coyote brush back in 1999. The first two are still there, but I removed the coyote brush because it was too big for the parkway space where I planted it. Short answer: around 20 years. (WYP NOTE: If you haven’t read Barbara’s account of transforming her yard to native habitat, you owe yourself. It’s a killer read, and an eloquent depiction of just how hard it can be to create wild space where you live. Luckily, she won that battle…)
“I started gardening with California plants when we arrived here in 1996 from New Jersey because I wanted to feel more connected to my new home. It was my way of setting down roots, literally and figuratively…It has helped me better understand the land on which I live.”
WYP: Just out of curiosity, how did your garden hold up after this excoriating summer? (NOTE: Inland Los Angeles hit 115 degrees this summer, and gardens across the southland were, of course, fried to a crisp)
BE: We travel in the summer and are away from the garden for a month or two. We left right after the record temps in mid-July. Still, the garden did remarkably well. The extended heat damaged the old avocado trees most, even though I was careful to water them deeply before the heat wave. I lost quite a few young plants, especially coral bells and seaside daisy. Most of the other native plants did fine.
WYP: Congrats! People often ask me why I “preach” working with native plants, and I’ll ask you the same. Why focus on California Native plants?
BE: The reason I garden with native plants is because I love California. I started gardening with California plants when we arrived here in 1996 from New Jersey because I wanted to feel more connected to my new home. It was my way of setting down roots, literally and figuratively…It has helped me better understand the land on which I live.
WYP: Yes! I like to tell people that working with native plants is the single best way to connect to where you live. Changing topics, it’s fall here in LA, and that means time to get planting. What changes are you making to your garden?
BE: Ah, plans for this planting season! I'm very excited about this because last spring we removed the last bit of turf grass in our yard (the front yard), and put in flagstone patios and paths. This hardscape keeps the front yard open for sitting and walking, without requiring constant irrigation and mowing of the lawn it replaces. Now comes the fun of filling in the surrounding space with plants. My vision is of drifts of bunchgrasses interspersed with sages and monkeyflowers. Wildflowers will make this spring – especially this spring since the area has been disturbed – quite colorful.
WYP: Any big winners and losers in your new pass at the garden?
BE: Firstly, I have had it with coral bells. They are pretty but not pretty enough to use as annuals. The bunchgrasses weathered the extreme heat fine – no problem. Deergrass is a very long-lived, adaptable plant. I find it hard to understand why it is not used more!
WYP: How does the success or failure of the plants at the nature center educate your approach to your home garden, or do they?
BE: Since the conditions at the nature park are different from my yard I usually merely marvel at how well certain plants do in the park but poorly in my garden. Penstemon is an example. Showy penstemon is spectacular in the abused, neglected conditions of the park, while it struggles in my garden. I plant it in non-irrigated parts of my yard, but no dice! Many of the habitat plants in the nature park are too large and rangy for my yard; however, I am thinking a golden bush here or there may work.
WYP: There is a big trend now toward “Forest Therapy”, which I cynically see as an attempt to commodify something that we’ve simply lost, which our connection to and relationship with the dirt beneath our feet. Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking, but making it something one pays for gets my Spidey sense on edge. That said, don’t you feel that having a habitat-oriented garden is a sort of therapy?
BE: I can only speak from personal experience but when I return home from long distance trips, or short, trafficky ones, I open the gate, breathe deeply and settle in. Years ago, as I opened this same gate with my daughter who was returning home from college in New York, she turned to me and said, "I love the way home smells." What more can I say?
WYP: Ha! Yes! I used to seek respite from the world by escaping to the mountains. Now, I have to admit, just walking into my yard feels pretty damn good. But, the world is getting hotter, and the landscapes are changing at a stunning rate. Do you think native plant-based gardens can play a role in protecting biodiversity? Could they impact species survival- plant and animal- overall, as we go forward?
BE: Yes, I do think that using native plants in residential gardens is helpful. However, I do not think that there is adequate evidence that vegetating urban areas with solely natives, even regionally local natives, will save the world. Linda Chalker-Scott's (Garden Professors) review of the literature shows that this is far from settled. (See "Are Native Trees and Shrubs Better Choices for Wildlife in Home Landscapes?").
“A garden comprised of only, or even mostly, native plants will provide little food or shelter for birds or insects if it is maintained using today's most common garden practices. Removing leaf litter and woody debris, using blowers, applying herbicides and insecticides, and heavily pruning trees and shrubs destroy habitat – regardless of plant selection. These common practices lead to a greater loss of biodiversity than plant provenance alone.”
WYP: Wait. You sorta just blew my mind. I thought I was lobbing you a soft-ball and volleyed back a zen koan. You’re a California native plant expert, but you’re not comfortable pushing their value as an engine for promoting biodiversity?
BE: I actually find this argument to be one of the most vexing ones that I run into. It seems to set up opposing camps of native versus non-native. All I can say is that this is complicated, and there are no easy answers to how we can modify our totally distinct urban and suburban areas to mitigate for worldwide species and habitat losses. No one has the answer. Let's just work together to avoid introducing toxins into our homes and cities, reduce the wasteful use of valuable resources, limit the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and make a comfortable home for humans and other living creatures (plants, animals, fungi and microbes included). Let's just lighten up and enjoy our gardens.
WYP: I’m still wincing a bit. What about “co-evolution” and the relationship between plants and insects. Doesn’t that alone end the debate of a plant’s value or “benefit” toward biodiversity?
BE: (sighs) Many questions arise when we propose that natives provide better habitat than non-natives. For example, are we talking about plants that are or were locally native? What constitutes local? Cultivars – selections or natural or artificial hybrids – are genetically identical. Does this genetic artificiality mean that these plants will also provide the best habitat, especially when we are considering insect or bird specialists? Is it possible that using native cultivars near urban/wildland interfaces could adversely alter nearby native plant populations through genetic drift? Many garden native plants have a very broad geographic range. For these, does it matter whether the plants were grown from locally collected seeds or cuttings? Wildlands that abut urban areas may be fragile and at risk. If it is necessary to define native as locally collected and grown then is it possible to produce locally propagated and grown plants for the horticultural trade without adversely affecting the surrounding habitat through over-collecting?
Taking this a step further, our urban landscape bears little resemblance to pre-development conditions. Consequently, formally local natives may be unable to succeed in these altered environments. What plants are then most appropriate? Rather than looking to a past that is no more, it may be best to use our understanding of the ecological services plants provide. A review of research by Linda Chalker-Scott (2015, Arboriculture & Urban Forestry, 41.4, 173-186) suggests that both native and non-native woody species can enhance biodiversity of urban landscapes by providing these essential services.
To focus on provenance misses the key properties of plants that provide habitat for a broad spectrum of animals. These properties include "Habitat structure (canopy cover, vertical diversity, tree and shrub density and diversity; Large and/or connected sites; Older, larger trees; Hollow trees; Woody debris; Moderately disturbed sites; Profusely flowering species with seasonal diversity; Native vegetation [for specialists], Herbaceous/grass cover; Permanent water source." (2015, Chalker-Scott, p 179)
“I use native plants because they are beautiful, many can be grown with little to no supplemental water or fertilizers, and they offer many characteristics that enhance biodiversity. However, it is the woodpile, the messy tangle of semi-dormant plants, the bubbling birdbath, and the large oak, deodar cedar and avocado trees that provide the things that birds, butterflies, and other critters most need.”
BE: A garden comprised of only, or even mostly, native plants will provide little food or shelter for birds or insects if it is maintained using today's most common garden practices. Removing leaf litter and woody debris, using blowers, applying herbicides and insecticides, and heavily pruning trees and shrubs destroy habitat – regardless of plant selection. These common practices lead to a greater loss of biodiversity than plant provenance alone.
WYP: Ok. So, to get my hands around this, what you’re saying is that, when it comes to creating habitat, it’s as important, if not more important, to invoke the practices that are key to inviting species into your yard, and not just get hung up on what’s native and what’s not.
BE: Look, I use native plants because they are beautiful, many can be grown with little to no supplemental water or fertilizers, and they offer many characteristics that enhance biodiversity. However, it is the woodpile, the messy tangle of semi-dormant plants, the bubbling birdbath, and the large oak, deodar cedar and avocado trees that provide the things that birds, butterflies, and other critters most need…Rather than entering into the native versus non-native debate, I prefer to encourage the use of plants and gardening practices that support biodiversity. So instead of setting up opposing camps, let’s change our most environmentally destructive actions. Let's ban the use of leaf blowers. Let's legislative against the sale of invasive, non-native plants. Heck, let's require that kids learn to observe nature in school so that they will be healthier adults who appreciate and, therefore, protect the natural environment.
WYP: Amen! So, since we both agree that gardening with natives is, at the very least, a way of preserving and taking pride in our natural, regional heritage, how do we make gardening with natives as common as indoor toilets?
BE: I have been puzzling over this since 2004 when I started working at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden on horticultural outreach. As "Garden Hotline Lady" I tried to convince people that the gorgeous spring colors of monkeyflowers were worth the off-season, dormant (truly, half-dead-looking) appearance for the rest of the year. Brown and gray are colors too. It is a tough sell when you can have brilliant colors throughout the year, as long as you are willing to water, water, water.
We need to recognize what we are asking of people. We want them to have patience so that more natural plants – plants that can survive eight months of hot, dry weather – can have time to transition from the nursery conditions in which they are started to our unusual Mediterranean climate. We want people to love brown and gray as much as the brilliant green that they most likely grew up with. We want them to see and celebrate the tiny new leaves emerging from the tangled, twiggy mass of a native emerging from dormancy. And we want them to go outside and look carefully so that they can see these subtle but miraculous changes. It is a lot to ask.
I have struggled with how to do this. Personally I have and continue to face this in my own garden. Although my husband and I have a sharp division of labor and control over household work (he gets to decide which room in our century-old Craftsman gets taken apart and rebuilt next, while I neglect and quietly destroy patches of lawn in preparation for a browner, sparser and messier garden), I want him to like what I do. After many years, the lawn is gone and my husband seems to be on board with this. Still, he gently suggests that maybe more plants, larger plants, less brown would be nice. He is hesitant to even bring it up because I do have rather strong opinions. Just the same, I wish he could see the tiny manzanitas that I planted framing the front path as I do: five years from now as six-foot tall specimens with stunning, twisted cinnamon bark, green leaves and small white urn-shaped flowers.
The answer to how we move ahead is to just keep going with patience, joy and a sense of humor.
“For those of you who do not get lost in the yard…I would suggest being honest about what you want and why. This honesty, however, should be accompanied with reality. Water is not limitless. Air pollution and noise make our neighborhoods less pleasant and healthy. While covering it all with weed cloth and gravel may save on maintenance and water, it worsens urban runoff (do you like to go to the beach?), flooding, and the urban heat island effect… if you own a piece of land, you have a responsibility.”
WYP: In your experience, what’s the best way to begin creating a native habitat/garden?
BE: Go outside and look around. Look at neighboring gardens that have the vibe you like. Hike nearby hills and open space. Watch them change over the year. Spend time in your own garden. Observe how sunlight changes throughout the day, the month and the year. Get to know your soil. Does it drain quickly or slowly? How are the plants that are already there doing? What do you like? What would you like to change? How do you and your housemates spend time in the garden?
At the same time, plant something native. Put a native sage in a pot or in the ground and watch it grow. Select an area and make a new native garden. Watch how things grow or die.
Again, from personal experience, my daughter's approach to gardening comes to mind. She recently moved to the desert where she and her husband rent a house with a nice yard. One day she potted up a cactus. Next she added several more native desert plants, creating a small container garden next to the back patio. Her questions and observations have convinced me that she will be a gardener. This is all it takes.
I realize that this is the way to become a gardener, native, habitat or otherwise. Many people do not have this perspective or interest. For those of you who do not get lost in the yard, mistaking hours of puttering for minutes, I would suggest being honest about what you want and why. This honesty, however, should be accompanied with reality. Water is not limitless. Air pollution and noise make our neighborhoods less pleasant and healthy. While covering it all with weed cloth and gravel may save on maintenance and water, it worsens urban runoff (you do like to go to the beach?), flooding, and the urban heat island effect. I know that these things are downers, however, if you own a piece of land, you have a responsibility.
If your interests do not lie in the yard, you should consider consulting a professional who can help you create a low-maintenance (there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden) landscape. Whatever garden you create, whether you start in a small corner of the yard or tear it all out, it will only succeed if you plan for maintenance. Make sure that the person you are working with wants to create a garden that you, with or without hired help, can maintain. Though a landscaper may want the garden to peak in six months when you still remember her and how much you spent, a well-designed garden takes years to settle in. It is dynamic, always in a state of change. The goal is to create something that gives you joy in a responsible sort of way.
More of Barbara’s work and ideas can be found at:
Weeding Wild Suburbia: http://www.weedingwildsuburbia.com/