In coastal Central California, the Monterey Peninsula is an area of great beauty, of rocks meeting an energetic sea, of hillsides of sweeping grasses and garigue, of gnarled old coastal live oaks, Monterey pines, and cypress trees. In its natural state, it has a palette of subdued greys and blue-greens.
When Western settlers came, the Spanish missionaries, the Californios, and then the US military and civilians who built Monterey, the first gardens were cautious affairs, with courtyards around a grandfather tree or a maze of paths between raised beds. Mediterranean in tone, cautious in water use, they made a design statement of respectful restraint.
In the early twentieth century, irrigation made possible sweeping gardens of plants that weren’t native to the area, that had aquatic needs that reflected owners’ memories of previous homes: lawns, colorful flower beds, gardens reminiscent of the East or the Northwest. Later in the twentieth century, when I moved to the area, nearly annual water rationing was forcing a rethinking of these lavish garden designs.
I had trained as an architect and landscape designer, so when I realized the challenges of landscape design there, I joined with horticulturist Duane Graham, himself a fourth-generation Monterey resident, in a drought-tolerant landscape business, called Water-Less Gardens. We worked together, tearing out lawns and replacing them with carefully sculpted land through which we wound dry stream beds and around which we placed native or Australian plant material, watered by drip irrigation. We did pocket gardens and large areas, including one ten-acre spread whose owners didn’t want deer fencing. In that instance, we compared lists of deer-resistant plants, charted the overlaps between the lists, planted a structured garden near the house that dissolved into apparent wildness as it moved out. We brought in enormous oak trees in huge wooden frames, and mixed wildflowers with grasses. The deer came, nibbled but did not destroy, and then settled down to sleep on the plants under those oaks.
My own garden in Carmel had redwood decks that appeared to float perfectly level above a sloping base of decomposed granite. Things slid past each other. Everything touched the ground lightly, and the plant material was all in the low-water-use color range. I moved away nearly twenty years ago but I still remember it fondly.