Mediterranean Landscaping History in California

Thursday August 18, 2011

Considering the history of California, it’s surprising our landscapes have taken on more of a northern European feel when the first massive and lasting influx of “settlers” hailed from a mediterranean climate:  Spain.

For over 350 years, the Spanish and summer dry influence defined the landscape.  Even today, the California mission gardens are some of the best indicators of the role the landscape played for generations. 

With water always the limiting factor, plants were chosen very specifically to fulfill important roles such as providing shade, food, or other resources.

But in the short 110 years since the early 1900s, a dam and canal building frenzy, incomparable in size and cost in its time, redirected and redistributed millions of acre feet of water from points beyond into our urban and suburban centers, where water had once been a scarcity, and fundamentally changed how we treat and value water.  Best documented by what should be required reading for all Californians, Marc Reisner, referring to the exponential growth of Los Angeles, muses in Cadillac Desert:

“The Owens River created Los Angeles, letting a great city grow where common sense dictated that one should never be…from that moment, it was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile.  The Owens River made Los Angles large enough and wealthy enough to go out and capture any river within six hundred miles, and that made it larger, wealthier, and a good deal more awful…”

This quote, when amended slightly, wonderfully sums up California’s current landscape situation:

“Cheap, subsidized water has let a thirsty garden grow where common sense dictated that one should never be.”

Our landscapes appear to exist on an abundance of water, which is a total farce.  Our landscapes precariously exist on an overextended network of pipes and canals that dutifully deposit shameful amounts of water onto underused lawns and underappreciated gardens. 

But times are changing:  population continues to expand, climate change reduces the amount of available moisture, trending warmer temperatures reduce the Sierra snowpack’s ability to slowly release water at usable rates, suburbs continue to grow, hundreds of thousands of new homes and gardens are built each year and everyone expects the same amount of water to be available to them.  Unfortunately, California is tapped out and simply can’t continue supply water at the current rates and volumes without seriously jeopardizing our future as a prosperous society.

So what can we do, as stewards of our own little parcel?  It’s simple:  Embrace mediterranean landscaping.  The term may seem foreign to some but all it really means is to landscape with the climate in mind.  Utilize materials and plants that are suited to our summer dry, winter mildly wet climate.  By doing so, you can make a statement loud and clear that you don’t depend on water from the Colorado River, northern California, or extracted groundwater to make your garden beautiful.

Integrating mediterranean landscaping techniques (xeriscaping, heavy organic or inorganic mulching, planter mounding, designing California native gardens, selecting drought-loving plants, passive storm water storage, etc.) into your garden will not only save water, it will save resources, time, energy and provide a myriad of benefits over traditional landscapes. 

To get started with mediterranean landscaping, reference the tenets of sustainable garden design, get acquainted with landscape design guides and landscape design tools, and begin to search landscaping photos online; all will help develop unique California landscape ideas and solutions that are best suited to your mediterranean garden. 

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