TERMS LIKE drought-tolerant or water-wise have long been used to describe a plant’s resilience to growing with little rainfall. Yet, here in the Puget Sound region, dry summers with little rain are not drought — they’re normal. On the flip side of the calendar, our winters are wet. In their new book “Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates,” authors Nora Harlow and Saxon Holt, both of whom garden in the Bay Area, help gardeners create landscapes that thrive in every month of the year, the wet ones as well as the dry ones.
The book opens with a section titled “Gardening Where You Are,” which defines six diverse growing regions, from British Columbia to Baja. What we all share in common is our proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its modifying influence on our climate. Beyond that, topographical features and temperature ranges differ wildly. “Gardening in harmony with the summer-dry climate begins with an understanding of where, exactly, you are,” the authors write.
Gardeners who are intimately familiar with their regional climate, their garden’s soil makeup, and even local topographical formations that influence microclimate conditions will save themselves time, money and heartbreak. Selecting plants that don’t just survive but thrive in this climatic whipsaw is the key to creating a beautiful landscape that is pleasing in every month of the year.
Central to the book, the authors believe that gardens can be a positive force for sustainability. Our individual landscapes might be small, but collectively they add up to a lively network of green space, a chunk of nature that can be put to good use. In a short section called “Some Thoughts on Design,” Harlow and Holt profile a variety of beautiful low-water gardens that also support the environment in a number of ways, from increasing biodiversity and supporting pollinators, to managing stormwater and capturing atmospheric carbon. Their perspective is hopeful and optimistic. “If the same energy and enthusiasm can be tapped for carbon capture as was directed at water conservation over the past 40 years, there is just no telling what might be accomplished,” they write. That got my attention.
A large portion of the book is devoted to “A Compendium of Plants,” a directory of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials recommended for summer-dry gardens. Each entry is accompanied by a photograph of the plant, more often than not in a garden setting. Plants are discussed in the context of where they grow naturally, both geographically and in terms of their preferred ecosystem. A hebe might be native to New Zealand, but it adapts to well-drained soil and good air circulation. Where summers are cool, the plants will take full sun, but in hotter climates they’ll do better with some afternoon shade. That sort of nuanced information often spells the difference between success and failure in the landscape. Gardening teaches us to know our place in the world. It’s up to us to make responsible choices. Beautifully photographed and well researched, “Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates” is an excellent resource for West Coast gardeners.