The world’s best gardeners have long known a simple secret that will improve any landscape, eliminate a lot of heavy labor and end the pain of having to yank out yet another plant that just won’t perform. It’s so simple, in fact, that new initiates wonder why they never quite got it before, even if they’ve been gardening for years. Here it is: Right plant, right place. See, simple.
Most obviously, this means: don’t fight what you have. If you have a shady garden, don’t plant roses and tomatoes. If your yard is sun- baked, don’t go for ferns and azaleas. If you live in Southern California, don’t get tempted by lush catalog pictures into planting things that thrive in cool, misty climates. The indispensable Sunset Western Garden Book can easily help gardeners ascertain the exact needs of any plant; or ask the sales people at reputable nurseries if you’re not sure.
But here’s the (ahem) deeper meaning: stop fighting your soil. In our area of Los Angeles, we have clay soil and all the truckloads of amendments you try to till into that heavy brown stuff will not change the basic structure of the soil. Try this experiment (at least mentally): compare a handful of clay soil to a handful of sandy soil. If you squeeze the clay soil in your hand, it will clump together into a ball because its particles are tiny, whereas the coarse sandy soil will fall through your fingers. Now put the two handfuls into containers with drainage holes and pour water over them. The water will gush right out of the sandy soil, but will take a lot longer to percolate through the clay. In short, clay soil is not, by definition, well-drained soil. You can improve the health of your soil by adding organic material on a regular basis, but just give up on the idea that you can change its basic character.
Also, clay soil is alkaline, rather than acidic, so it’s really not the ideal environment for such acid-loving plants as azaleas (plants of this type also tend to be thirsty—another reason to avoid them here). If you must have acid-loving blueberries, for instance, plant them in containers with an “Azalea Mix” or “Acid-loving” soil mix.
You’ll get the best results with the least effort, though, if you pick plants that are suited to our heavy soil. This means avoid anything that includes the term “well-drained soil” in its description. Go for plants that will thrive in or tolerate clay soil, or are described as “Adaptable.” This is especially important if you are planting a garden of California natives. Most of our natives live on the slopes, in rocky, lean, well-draining soil. They don’t like a lot of nutrients and they don’t like sitting in damp, poorly drained soils. There are some, however, such as certain Ceanothus, that are considered “adaptable” and these will work better in most of our gardens. (If your garden is sited on a decent slope, you could try some of the pickier plants, as the slope allows water to drain away more quickly.) Buy native plants from a specialty nursery, such as Theodore Payne, and you will get good guidance. Another very useful source of information on California natives is the book California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press).
So, with the right plants in the right place, you can reduce or eliminate tilling and enriching your soil, forget about fertilizing on a regular basis, and cut down substantially on watering, especially in summer. You’ll have a more successful garden, and more time to enjoy it, too.Helen Hartung is a garden designer who has lived in Windsor Square for over 20 years. Prior to earning a certificate in Horticulture at UCLA, she was an editor and writer.