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Browning of the Greensward (Revisited)

Articles: Browning of the Greensward (Revisited)

The following essay is an excerpt of a story that first appeared in Pacific Horticulture in the fall of 1977 in which the author, a professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, confronts California’s then-severe drought conditions. As Mr. Beatty wrote, “In a time of crisis we need to gain perspective… To be aware of the origins of our predicament helps us gain insight and enables us to consciously plan for future changes.” He thoughtfully examines the sweep of California’s history and its impact on contemporary attitudes toward landscape design, factoring in our yearning for Paradise, and a stubborn tendency to manipulate the environment in spite of climatic realities. Since its publication nearly four decades ago, this has been our publication’s most requested article by both homeowners and industry professionals alike. As the saying goes: Now more than ever. – the editor

Photo detail: Saxon Holt
Photo detail: Saxon Holt

This crisis—the drought—has exemplified two seemingly contradictory characteristics of human nature. The first is the incredible slowness with which we accept change. The second is the absurd speed with which we come to accept abnormal conditions. For years—decades, even a century—we have known that California has potential water problems and 
yet our life styles have not changed to reflect that fact. In fact the per capita water consumption has increased with the help of the technology of irrigation and the California Water Project, supplied by the bountiful Sierras.

But now we have been cut off at the source. The rains haven’t come and all of us are hit directly in our daily lives. With the motivation of water rationing we have changed our life styles to adapt almost over night. And to our amazement, it is not really that difficult nor all that detrimental, except, perhaps, to our gardens and the cultivated landscape. A flurry of conferences, hastily contrived research projects and a flood of articles like the ones in this periodical have appeared in quick succession to help everyone cope. Facts and figures are inundating all of us to the saturation point. Madcap schemes (piping snow water from Alaska) are mixed with personal ingenuity (buying barrels to store rain water). Everyone has become involved, eagerly sharing his or her own ingenious water saving devices. The scenario goes on, and approaches the bittersweet madness of a Marx Brothers’ film.

[pullquote]For most Americans, then as well as now, the climate and landscape posed a sharp contrast to the temperate regions of their origins.[/pullquote]

The mixture of serious concern and levity of the moment has, perhaps for the time being, taken the focus off the long-range implications. Experts say the worst is yet to come. Even if the next few winters’ rains are “normal,” the reservoirs won’t be full until 1980. And as the advertisement for an irrigation supplier states, “But what if it doesn’t rain?” the magnitude of the drought will be far greater than any of us can now predict. Then what will we do?

We are all being forced to consider the future whether we want to or not. The ability of human nature to quickly adapt to abnormal conditions has been demonstrated. Whether or not we will be able to change or accept changing life-styles in the long run remains to be seen.

To help gain perspective let us go back in time briefly to see where this California landscape syndrome developed and try to find out why we do what we do.

One of the first white emigrants, Juan Crespi (an associate of Padre Serra) described California as “this other Eden” and “the garden paradise.” In fact, the name “California” originated in a 16th century Spanish legend describing a mythical place as a “wonderful island situated on the right hand of the Indies, an island rich in pearls and gold and very near to the terrestrial paradise.” Therein lays the key—paradise, Eden—a fantasy to satisfy the human longings for a better place.

Not everyone who came in the beginning found California so inviting. The parched sere landscape of late summer was described as unhandsome and inhospitable. In either experience the tendency to create a lush, tropical paradise has been the hallmark of settlement. Gardens were planted either to fulfill the fantasy or to create a retreat from the seemingly hostile environment.

The Mexican padres and early settlers came from a similar landscape. They knew how to adapt and live in a land where rain falls in only the few winter months. The Missions were built around small central courtyard gardens. Rudimentary irrigation systems supplied water from wells, or zanias (ditches) from nearby streams, enabled the growing of primarily utilitarian plants. Nevertheless, some flowers were grown to decorate the altar. The pepper tree from Peru, figs, olives and other trees from similar climates provided shade as well as fruit. The abundance of wild roses reminiscent of the rose-of-Castile delighted the Franciscan padres, as did the verdant valleys filled with wild flowers.

With them the padres brought their seeds and plants and horticultural expertise suitable for California. Many were trained horticulturists and most had copies of a horticultural guide published in Madrid. Even so, the establishment of gardens was not an easy task in the baked, untilled soil. Then, as today, floods and the ever-present drought plagued the padres. Nevertheless, they were knowledgeable, persistent and successful in developing their gardens.

In the 1840s another type of immigrant began to settle in California. The pioneers from the Eastern United States began to mix with the vaqueros, many intermarrying and assuming the title of a Don. These people came to stay and brought with them the seeds of favorite plants from the East and Midwest. The Spanish-style garden was revived and adapted to the adobe houses, which were patterned after the Moorish houses of Andalusia. Shade trees, herbs, and flowers grew in the patio, which was the focal point of family life and hospitality. The vine-covered Ramada became a symbol of the romantic age of the California don. 
The gardens were not large and represented an understanding of the climate and the landscape.

The vagaries of the climate in California during the 1860s led to the demise of the era of the great ranchos. A period of drought followed by severe flooding and another drought caused the collapse of the ranchos. Millions of cattle perished in two years because of the lack of sufficient grass. Pocket gophers and ground squirrels as well as insect pests and plant diseases compounded the misery and ruin. Unable to sustain such great losses the vaqueros sold their immense tracts of land in small pieces. The newly arriving settlers from the East harvested a windfall in cheap land.

With the Gold Rush and later the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 a tidal wave of emigration from the East began that has never quite ceased. It is this influx of immigrants from a completely foreign climate and landscape that has had the greatest influence on the gardens and urban landscapes of California.

For most Americans, then as well as now, the climate and landscape posed a sharp contrast to the temperate regions of their origins. Farmers accustomed to spring planting had to discard the advice of the Almanac and learn to plant in the fall. The native plants of this new land were unknown and the horticultural expertise learned in the East was of little value. These settlers brought many of their favorite plants with them and attempted to transform their California gardens into eastern style landscapes.

In the boom years after the Gold Rush, the wealthy imported plants and seeds from eastern nurseries on a grand scale. Their taste in garden and park design had its origins in the romantic style of their northern European heritage. The picturesque style of the English landscape school was considered to be the “Beau Ideal.” They were accustomed, as today’s newcomers are, to a greensward of lawn punctuated with groups of trees, shrubs, flowers. Thus, lawns became a ubiquitous part of gardens and parks. The newcomers found the parched brown summer landscape unpleasant and attempted to transform it into their idea of an acceptable landscape.

At first the scarcity of water was a deterrent to many gardeners. Those who did not live near a stream or other water supply had to pay dearly for a water carrier. In Los Angeles it costs fifty cents a week for one bucketful a day, including Sundays! Obviously, little could be grown and plants that were used must have been drought tolerant. The wealthy, however, were undaunted and were able to tunnel into the mountains or capture remnant zanias or nearby streams. With the development of irrigation techniques and well drilling, the use of irrigation water became commonplace. California became transformed into a true Eden, a paradise where plants of all kinds from all over the world grew side by side.

Visitors quickly succumbed to the charms of this tropical paradise. Many stayed on or returned later to bask forever in “the land of eternal spring.” Once here they began to fulfill the fantasies dreamed during the long cold winters of the East.

As Victoria Padilla states, “Many newcomers to southern California, excited at finding themselves living in a land of no snow and but little frost, liked to believe that they were actually in the tropics and grasped at everything that would make their gardens suggestive of the more torrid zones.

“The average gardener had little real understanding of planting as practiced in a subtropical climate and little or no conception of the proper selection and arrangement of ornamentals…”

Along with the plants brought with them—dahlias, lilacs, gladiolus, iris, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, and privet—they discovered the fantastic array of exotics. Such plants were heretofore found growing only in greenhouses and conservatories. All of this could be grown outdoors in California! Plant introduction went berserk! Gardens and parks became more elaborate without restraint in the garish combinations and numbers of plants. Pampas grass, cycads, palms, deodars, and pines grew cheek by jowl in expansive lawns. Roses grew everywhere, along with bougainvillea, trumpet vines, bamboo, and geraniums to create an orgasmic display of flower and foliage.

[pullquote]We have not really come to terms with living in the mediterranean climate of California. Furthermore, we have become so detached from nature through dependency on modern technology that we have developed a lifestyle largely independent of the climate and landscape.[/pullquote]

Golden Gate Park represents a more restrained adaptation of the English style park to the California landscape. William Hammond Hall, inspired by the great work of Frederick Law Olmsted, was able to apply sensitively the design principles expressed in Central Park to the unique characteristics of the barren sand dunes of the western edge of San Francisco. Using 
indigenous California natives and many Australian imports, Hall checked the shifting sands, as well as the unrelenting wind, to create an essay in ecological adaptation. The result was the development of what is considered to be the most important park design of the 19th century. Olmsted, a devoted student of the English landscape tradition was appalled at the extravagant opulence of California gardens and cities. He grew to understand the nature of the California landscape and climate and deplored the highly eclectic styles evident in both the architecture and landscape design. He felt the semi-arid climate and the limitation of water should be a basic constraint in landscape planning and design. In the design of the Stanford University Campus his sensitivity and restraint synthesized the special attributes of the California landscape and the mediterranean climate. The shaded arcades and broad overhangs of the buildings were a response to the intense sun. Inspired by the early missions he limited plantings to small beds in the center of courtyards with only a single grass panel in the entrance court. Drought tolerant trees and other plants were used as an expression of the scarcity of water. Compared with the elaborate, irrigated, gardens of nearby estates, Stanford represented a departure from the accepted design style of the times.

Fortunately the garish ostentatious design style of the Victorian era is gone. Refinements in garden and park design have been made during the 20th century. Nevertheless, the landscape plantings we see today have their origins in the earlier styles imported from the East. The dominant theme is the picturesque style of the English landscape tradition. With 20th century affluence, the technological advances in the irrigation industry and the development of the turf grass and nursery industries, the greensward has persisted as the accepted planting motif. Mixtures of drought tolerant plants and thirsty species from less arid climates are combined with the aesthetic effect as the primary concern. We have inherited, without question or reevaluation, a demand for highly irrigated landscapes. The simplicity and sensible fitness of the Mexican garden style has been largely discarded or forgotten. Newcomers are still lured to this benign climate by claims as exaggerated as those of the 19th century writers.

We have not really come to terms with living in the mediterranean climate of California. Furthermore, we have become so detached from nature through dependency on modern technology that we have developed a lifestyle largely independent of the climate and landscape. Air conditioners cool us, furnaces warm us, and a pipeline at the end of modern man’s most audacious control over nature, the California Water Project, has supplied us with unlimited water. The great nursery industry has provided a cornucopia of plants from all over the world.

Someone once stated that our image of the future affects our present. Until we have an image of the future we are unable to deal realistically with the present. This is especially cogent when we consider the enormity of the drought in California. What we do in response to the crisis will have little immediate effect but will certainly affect the landscape of California in the future.

Three alternatives seem apparent. First, we can regard the drought as an ephemeral event and make do. The rains will come sooner or later and we have adapted well to this crisis. After all, this phenomenon hasn’t been a regularly recurring event. We can adjust temporarily to a brown landscape.

A second philosophy would support arguments to depend more heavily on technological solutions. Supporters of the expansion of the California Water Project have good evidence to justify building more dams and reservoirs and perhaps extend taps to the Northwest or beyond.

A third alternative seems more plausible in the long run. That is to develop a new landscape ethic and aesthetic consciousness. By considering the drought as a welcome opportunity and challenge, we can be more effective in dealing with it directly, as individuals, and with longer lasting, more satisfying results. By learning anew or relearning what it means to live in 
a mediterranean climate where water is a precious limited resource, we can all develop a new consciousness in planting the landscape.

Does this mean that the “Greensward” will turn brown—that our gardens will look like desert scenes? Or will we return to the austere gardens of the padre and the vaquero? None of these are necessary. We still need our fantasies of Eden fulfilled. The touchstone 
is ecological fitness. This does not mean aesthetic satisfaction need be sacrificed. Nor does it imply a renunciation of exotic plants for the sole use of California native plants. Care must be taken that this crisis does not panic us heedlessly into new fads.

A gravel pathway lined with ornamental grasses and sturdy perennials beneath a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) in the sustainable waterwise garden of David Fross.  Photo: Saxon Holt
A gravel pathway lined with ornamental grasses and sturdy perennials beneath a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) in the sustainable waterwise garden of David Fross. Photo: Saxon Holt

There are a number of positive alternatives to consider. First, extensive plantings of trees, shrubs and ground covers should follow what Professor Bob Perry of California Polytechnic, Pomona, calls “the ecological alternative.” Using sensible plant selection and the creative arrangement of plants, landscape plantings at all scales from home gardens to parks and freeways can be designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sound, not to mention economically appealing.

Secondly, the “thirsty plants” should be limited to small areas where such plants can be justified on either a functional or aesthetic basis. A lawn is the only plant tolerant of foot traffic. Its use should be restricted primarily for that function—play fields, home lawns for children to play on, park and campus lawns for recreation.

Another way to limit the “thirsty plants” is to rediscover the charms of the California patio. Building ordinances force a setback of twenty feet for suburban houses. That strip frequently becomes a piece of unused landscape and is usually planted in lawn or flowers with little or no function. A front patio enclosed by a fence or wall would be a more useable family space as well as a pleasant entry forecourt. Here the small beds of flowers, azaleas and other “thirsties” could be grown satisfactorily. Such interior oriented gardens would be low water users compared with planting the entire front yard. The exterior could be planted with a combination of suitable Mediterranean species selected for both appearance and drought tolerance. Lawns could be eliminated or relegated to a small patch in the rear garden. Combinations of broadleaf evergreen shrubs such as rockrose (Cistus), rosemary, lavender, ceanothus, arbutus, photinia, and dwarf baccharis could be accentuated with California poppies (from seed) or the similar looking gazania for a brilliant floral display. The possibilities are endless and the visual affects every bit as delightful as the shrub and lawn “Eastern” effect.

A third and perhaps less tangible approach to water conserving planting design is to consider the visual fitness of plantings relative to the character of the California landscape setting. This concept is more important in areas where the natural or rural landscape predominates as compared with an urban landscape. Again, the sole use of California native plants is not suggested. For lack of a better term, “visual ecology” comes closest to attaching a label. This means what is planted fits the setting both ecologically (low water demand, not invasive, and so on) as well as visually. Some plants such as purple hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’) or New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) are certainly drought tolerant. But when imposed in a setting dominated by oak woodlands or a mixed evergreen forest, these plants suddenly become eccentric oddities reminiscent of the Victorian era. Less ostentatious and equally drought tolerant plants could be used more satisfactorily—strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) or the native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) or Photinia serrulata which is somewhat reminiscent of a shrubby madrone.

And so we are at a threshold of an opportunity to achieve a new beginning in the planting of the California landscapes. There is much to be done research, education, and revised maintenance techniques. The foresight and maturity with which we deal with this drought will have long lasting effects on the landscape of the future. We can retrofit our irrigation systems for more 
efficient water usage. We also need to retrofit our attitudes and aesthetic tastes. We need not sacrifice the image of Paradise, “this other Eden.”


Padilla, Victoria, 1961.  Southern California Gardens. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Beatty, Russell A., 1970.  “Metamorphosis in Sand: The First Five Years of Golden Gate Park,” California Horticultural Journal,
Vol. 31,  No.  2, pp. 41-46, 73.

Streatfield, David, 1976.  “The Evolution of the Southern California Landscape,” Landscape Architecture, January, pp.  39-46.

Streatfield, David, 1976.  “The Evolution of the California Landscape,” Landscape Architecture, March, pp. 117-126.





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