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Gardens of Alcatraz – Update

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

Virginia Beach umbrella with chairs

No, this is not the view from Alcatraz, The Rock, the old prison in San Francisco Bay.  I am on vacation, relaxing on a family reunion at the beach..

So I have pulled a post from July 2009 with an update on the Gardens of Alcatraz.

The rock - Alcatraz island

I was recently invited by The Garden Conservancy to tour the Alcatraz garden project.  The Conservancy, in partnership with The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, has spent the past 5 years restoring and replanting the barren and windswept old prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay. [click to continue…]

California Coastal Bluff at The Sea Ranch

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Travels
The Sea Ranch Lodge from Black Point coastal bluff

The Sea Ranch Lodge and historic buildings from the Black Point

In the early 1960’s, ten miles of California’s Sonoma Coast was designated for development, in an era before there was any regulatory agency overseeing coastal development. The Sea Ranch became legendary in the annals of California Coastal development, and as a result, the California Coastal Commission has clamped down on every permit.

Yet, despite the hundreds of homes built and thousands of lots, The Sea Ranch has preserved the natural integrity of the land and the spectacular views of the ocean.

[click to continue…]

Wild in the Eastern Deciduous Forest

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Sustainable Gardening

The Eastern United States is an entirely different native ecosystem from California.  Duh.

Liriodendron tulipifera -, Tulip poplar, Budding with spring leaves emerging

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip poplar, budding with spring leaves emerging in deciduous woodland.

The Central Prairies are different too.  Oh yeah.  And how about the Everglades ?  The desert Southwest ?

We live in a vast country with vastly different native plants, yet sometimes when we hear about the importance of gardening with native plants, we somehow think any “native plant” we see in a catalog or book is going to work in the native plant garden we want for ourselves. [click to continue…]

A 21st Century Garden Ethic

– Posted in: Garden Musings
Butterflies- Garden Ethics

Butterflies- Garden Ethics

Written by Benjamin Vogt, Guest Contributor

One late summer afternoon I was crawling around on my knees out back, getting a view of the garden’s undercarriage where so much of the real action happens – spiders nabbing prey, beetles walking from stem to stem, ants leaving scent markers to food. On my weary knees I heard a faint scratching and turned to see a female black swallowtail struggling to lift into the air; with one missing wing and others faded and tattered, I’m not even sure how she made to my garden. But she did. She made it into my cupped hands as I lifted her to a Zizia aurea to lay what would be the last five eggs of her life before she gave out to her inevitable purpose.

Three of the eggs hatched in a few days, became caterpillars over two weeks, and hopefully emerged the following spring in the garden I left standing to shelter their overwintering chrysalides. I bet you’ve had an experience like this; one that feels like a gut-busting honor, one that connected you more deeply to place and welcomed you fully or openly into the rich web of existence. Such an experience transforms us and we can never look at the garden, the world, or our place in it in quite the same way.

Benjamin Vogt- bumblebeee

We live in a world fully altered by our actions. Overfished oceans acidify as the weight of plastic floating in it equals the weight of all living humans combined. Half of all North American bird species are threatened with extinction by the end of the century. One third of global plants may be functionally extinct in their ecosystems by mid century. Kids growing up today see 35% fewer butterflies and moths than their parents did forty years ago. One of the most threatened environments are grasslands, more in peril than the Amazon rainforest yet as effective at scrubbing the air. Our actions matter in profoundly destructive ways.

And our actions matter in profoundly constructive ways. Our gardens matter. How we garden and who we include in our garden, or who we garden for matters. Traditional landscape design, whether at home or in public spaces, so often privileges the needs and wants of one species – instead, our gardens could be designed more equally for the beauty and function of multiple species at once. As we welcome the biological life processes of other fauna into our gardens we welcome a profound element of design and purpose into our lives. A garden designed only for us is devoid of forgiveness, mercy, and hope – it is a signal of our disconnect, our alienation, our loneliness in the world. Gardens are meant to celebrate the beauty of wildness and translate our emotional connection to nature, but how can they do that if they are primarily created for us alone.

What does a 21st century garden ethic look like? Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, a garden ethic sees the built landscape as a community of like-minded creatures dependent on one another. A garden ethic builds on empathy – seeing life through anothers eyes – and rethinking what pretty is. A beautiful garden welcomes us, consoles us, heals us, teaches us; and a beautiful garden does this through providing the same services for birds, bees, moths, beetles, wasps, soil microbes, and more. A garden ethic asks us what we value in a world we’ve remade and now must tend as a gardener in order to maintain functioning and resilient biodiversity.

Ecodiverse fall garden

What will our landscapes look like in the future? How will they sequester carbon, cool the air, filter groundwater and re-mediate soil? How will they create a better home for all of us, not just one of us? How will gardens wake and empower us to address the larger yet connected environmental issues beyond the garden fence? How will built landscapes teach us about our new role as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts? Empathy and compassion are our new core design elements in a world of mass extinction and habitat loss; the exciting realization is that we have the potential to be all that we’ve ever dreamed of as a unique species evolved to be far-hearted, creative, and able to implement a garden ethic for all of us. Go out to the garden, get on your knees, and listen for the life calling you home.

Benjamin Vogt lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where he owns Monarch Gardens, a prairie garden design firm. He speaks nationally on native plants, pollinators, sustainable (and ethical) garden design, and has a weekly column at that includes over 150 articles. Benjamin’s writing and photography have appeared in dozens of publications from Garden Design to Orion Magazine, as well as books such as The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (Iowa) and Gardening For Butterflies (The Xerces Society / Timber Press). You can learn more about Benjamin and his design work at:

I have known and followed Benjamin Vogt for several years. I’m thrilled that he has added his voice to the GGW roster. He is a gardening professional filled with passion, knowledge, and an insatiable desire to share his gardening values with others; his words and thoughts are meaningful. So please give him a big welcome by commenting and sharing this post on social media. With deep appreciation, Fran


Gardens Here ?

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Plants

Here in California, there have been some rumblings about gardens wasting water. Can we afford water for gardens in an era of limited resources?

California chaparrel and annual grasses habitat in summer at Mt. Diablo state park

California chaparrel and dry summer landscape

Isn’t our native habitat beautiful enough? Do we want to have gardens here?

Southern California spring landscape with Lupine wildflowers and oak trees. Los Padres National Forest, Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.

California spring landscape with Lupine wildflowers and oak trees.

Well of course, I am biased. I am a gardener.  And yes, we certainly do want to have gardens; indeed, we need gardens for so many reasons. Not only are gardens urban and suburban oases that provide habitats, living soil, and carbon exchange, they provide so much peace for so many.  Gardens are important.

Deck garden room under California live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in afternoon light

Deck garden room under California live oaks in afternoon light

So yes, we do want to gardens. Not only do we want gardens, we must have them. But in this summer-dry climate how do we sustain them?  Dry summers are not drought, it’s normal.  How much water can we afford to allocate to gardens in the summers when the plants need it?

Oak trees (Quercus lobata) on Mt. Burdell State Park, Novato, California

Summer-dry, spring green – Oak trees in California hills.

Californians have been suffering through years of drought, and while this winter we have had good rains (when we typically store water in the snowpack for the reservoirs), we need to be mindful that it only rains in the winter and we cannot waste water in the hot days of summer.

Fortunately, there are many plants that are adapted to dry summers. Not just our California natives but plants native to other summer-dry regions of the world such as the Mediterranean and Western Australia. In order for these plants to look good in gardens throughout the summer, many of them do need some supplemental water but the little bit they need is a fair use of our water resources.

Summer-dry, drought tolerant Australian native plants by stone wall in California garden using Chamelaucium, Westringia, Melaleuca, Callistemon

Summer-dry, Australian native plants by stone wall in California garden

There is an entire database of photos and plant descriptions for summer dry gardens at, of all places, the Summer-Dry website.

Agriculture uses 80% of California’s stored water, and is certainly a vital and key element of the economy, but I hope no one questions the need to allocate water for gardens too.  We do want gardens here.

There are many styles of garden that can fit comfortably and aesthetically with little water, assuming we choose plants adapted to summer-dry climates. However, not all of California can be classified as summer dry.

Joshua Tree succulents, Yucca Palm (Yucca brevifolia), Walker Pass Road, Mojave Desert in Southern California

Joshua Tree, (Yucca brevifolia) in Mojave Desert in Southern California

Much of southern California is desert with less than 10 inches of rain a year. There can certainly be beautiful gardens in the desert (hooray for succulents) but it is an entirely different aesthetic from the coastal regions of California where most people live.  Desert gardeners should not rely on the plant palette of the summer-dry regions.

Dasylirion wheeleri (desert spoon, spoon flower, or common sotol) in succulent border backyard garden with Aeonium 'Mint Saucer' blooming yellow and Lithodora and Echinocactus (Barrel Cactus)

Dasylirion (Sotol) in succulent border in California garden

I am a member of the California Native Plant Society and advocate for using our beautiful natives in gardens. I think these are our first choice for gardening, so long as the gardener chooses a native that is actually native to their region. Redwood trees are California natives to the north coast, but while they may be technically summer-dry, they receive significant moisture from summer fog.

Oak trees are native throughout the state and I am a huge fan of these most sustainable of trees.  A well sited oak tree can be the signature of a good garden. In this garden of native plants, the oaks were precisely planted in the garden to frame the views.

Outdoor stone patio sitting area under Oaks next to modern glass hilltop home with California native plant garden, Santa Barbara,

California outdoor stone patio sitting area under Oaks with native Carex lawn

In this next garden, a small bog pond planted with reeds and rushes creates a lush oasis under the native oak.

Lounge chairs under shady oak trees in back yard habitat California native plant garden with bog, Schino

Lounge chairs under shady oak trees in California native plant garden with bog.

Next, native shrubs are pruned in a somewhat formal fashion that provides privacy in this front yard garden in southern California.

Small patio secluded by drought tolerant shrubs in Southern California front yard native plant garden

Small patio secluded by native shrubs in Southern California front yard garden.

I think the most adventuresome gardens mix plants from the summer dry regions of the world. One of my favorites is the nurseryman David Fross’ garden (Native Sons Nursery) who has advocated for summer-dry, adapted plants for many years.

Live Oak tree (Quercus californica) in California meadow garden with wild rye (Helictotrichon sempervirens), rye (Leymus condensatus) David Fross

Live Oak tree in David Fross’ California meadow garden

And there are plenty of bold choices to using non-native plants. This red flowering Grevillea is from Australia, the beautiful Leucodendron against the wall is from South Africa, and the magnificent Agave is an American desert native.

Grevillea 'Bonfire' red flowering shrub in California summer-dry garden with Agave and Leucadendron salignum by stucco wall; design Jo O'Connell

Grevillea ‘Bonfire’ in California summer-dry garden with Agave and Leucadendron

Many wonderful Mediterranean natives are splendid in California gardens and we could hardly do without such herbs as thyme and lavender.

Lavender 'Provence' in xeriscape drought tolerant garden with grass Stipa gigantea.

Lavender ‘Provence’ in xeriscape summer-dry California garden.

And of course anyone who knows me knows I love the grasses, here next with lavenders under native oaks.

Flowering grasses, Miscanthus sinensis, Lavender, Lavatera and Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' in border garden under native oak

Flowering grasses, Lavender, and Lavatera in California summer-dry garden border

I have done two entire books about grasses, The American Meadow Garden with John Greenlee and Grasses with Nancy Ondra, so I best not to get started touting grasses for California gardens, but there is no doubt they fit into the aesthetic of summer-dry gardens.

Ornamental grass Stipa arundinacea - (aka. Anemanthele lessoniana) Pheasant's Tail Grass with Stachys and Phormium in colorful drought tolerant garden

Ornamental grass with Stachys and Phormium in colorful California summer-dry garden.

So yes, gardens can certainly be adapted to California. I do think they require some supplemental water, but everything any of us do in California requires supplemental water. If we can use plants that are adapted to summer dry conditions, then the gardeners’ share of the water resources is just as important as farming and flushing. It sustains the beauty of nature we all need.

Gardens, here ?  Oh yes !


Gardening Gone Wild has been nominated for a prestigious garden blog award by the folks at Better Home and Gardens. I hope you will consider voting for us. You need to go to their website  to the section about garden blogs, and once you’re there you will find the smiling face of our fearless leader Fran Sorin; and you can vote every day until March 7th.  😉