This gardening book celebrates the best of California

June 20, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Here it is: A beautiful, well-written book on an interesting subject. You can't ask for more than that with "The California Landscape Garden: Ecology, Culture and Design" (University of California Press, 1999, $29.95) by Professor Mark Francis and Andreas Reimann of UC Davis.

If you have a garden that you'd like to revitalize or if you're putting in a new garden, this book is filled with interesting ideas on how to celebrate California's plants and wildlife.

The authors have done an excellent job of making their ideas accessible to the layman. Reimann was a UCD graduate student in community development in 1993 who wrote his thesis on ecological garden design. Francis was his major professor.

"When he was a student, the two of us wrote and received a grant, which allowed us to do the background research for the book," said Francis. Reimann currently teaches landscape architecture at the University of Dresden (he has dual U.S. and German citizenship) but will return to California this fall as an urban horticultural specialist in the landscape architecture program at UCD.

As an added bonus the book offers lovely illustrations by Davis' Yan Nascimbene, my favorite artist, plus lots of photos of Davis and other spots in California that describe the idea of environmentally responsible landscape gardens.

"I picked Yan as the illustrator because I love his drawings and felt he could help us make our philosophical ideas accessible and engaging for a more popular audience," said Francis. "His drawings in the book are purposely occupied with human activity, not simply pretty pictures of gardens. I think this is how we actually use and experience gardens. Yan did a terrific job and his drawings make the book truly unique," he added.

And where did the impetus for the book come from?

"Andreas and I, as landscape architects, were frequently asked by our clients to help them design gardens and public open spaces that reflected their larger concerns about the environment. We felt something was needed to inspire and help home gardeners express these values in practical terms. We also wanted to express our own strong affection for the beauty of the California landscape," Francis said.

They also wanted to bring the history of California garden design up-to-date, since much of the past design of California gardens were influenced by modernism and horticultural fashion.

"We feel strongly that the California garden has evolved to the point that there is now a distinct California garden style that is reflective of the unique ecologies and cultures of the state," he said.

And they wanted to help home gardeners express their environmental concerns.

"We felt a bioregional approach that showed in practical terms how the larger landscape could be brought into the home garden was sorely needed. There have been a number of books on natural gardens but nothing written specifically on California," he said.

Francis said his own work expresses design ideas that are reflective of ecology and culture. Perhaps his best known local design is Central Park and the Davis Farmers' Market.

"My idea there was to create something different from the typical Davis grass and tree park. The public garden (along B Street) is an example and was an attempt to apply results of research I was doing on urban gardens in public parks. The garden is a collection of theme gardens (rose, herb, butterfly, peace) with plants selected for their habitat value. Professor Art Shapiro has told me that he observed more species of butterflies in Central Park than any other park in California, which is some indication that we were successful."

I particularly like the idea of addressing an environmental concern by creating a toad-friendly garden. The idea of creating hundreds of small local gardens kind to toads should be a big hit in Davis since we are home to the much abused and misunderstood toad tunnel, which was designed to be a corridor connecting toads to their pond habitat.

Francis says UCD's Charles Goldman, the man behind the idea of a Davis toad tunnel (but better known for his work keeping Lake Tahoe blue), also has some ideas for making toads at home in your back yard. These principles are included in the book. Toads are nocturnal animals that need several cool damp hiding places for their daytime naps and a safe water supply to visit at night. He describes a few simple steps that can be taken to encourage toads to take up residence, thereby adding a new dimension to the garden.

Without too much effort, native habitats can be created right in our own back yards. Francis and Reimann show us just how to do it. Their book is bound to become a standard for gardeners and would-be gardeners throughout the state. I'm glad they wrote it.

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