Designing the Best Landscapes for our California Climate

Before you plant, consider the location.

Not all climates are created equal, as a Chicago transplant Tom Hansen noticed when he moved to Marin Country nearly 20 years ago. After about a year in his new home, the lush and lovely garden he started with began to unravel before his eyes. According to Sunset magazine, “Hansen noticed that the landscape architect–chosen, one-size-fits-all plantings of Japanese maples, ferns, azaleas, and rhododendrons were struggling despite his constant care. He could keep them alive, but he had to use more water than he thought appropriate for waste-wary California. And the color palette looked out of place on the dry, terraced hillside.”

“Of course, Hansen had expected a change in the weather when he moved from the Midwest, but he hadn’t fully realized something that gardeners new to the Bay Area soon learn (and that the home’s landscaper had ignored): He was now living in a Mediterranean climate. Aridity replaced the hot, wet summers he was accustomed to. And gardens didn’t just stay awake in winter; California natives and other Mediterranean climate plants, such as South African Leucospermum, came alive. Yes, there was summer fog, a downer to newcomers, but the mist seemed a small price to pay for mild winters and an endless growing season.”

After doing some research at local nurseries, Hansen discovered California native plants, and other agreeable species, that would thrive on his acreage for years to come. These include a number of low-water herbs (lavender and rosemary), succulents and small trees like the pomegranate.

For Sunset, he offered a few helpful tips to other California garden enthusiasts. Here’s a couple:

Combine function and beauty

“After transforming a storm ditch into a refined water channel, Hansen surrounded it with a playful mix of lavender, artichoke, and Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). A tank at the top of the slope collects and recirculates water.”

Go for more lushness with less water

“A bed of green Aeonium, strappy Beschorneria yuccoides, and coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) provides a verdant low-water entry garden. The coppery orange hues of the urn and pincushion flowers add vibrant color.”

Anchor a gorgeous view with a focal point

“The big statement piece in this outdoor room is a singular Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) that takes up little ground space but provides a generous canopy. A miniature fig climbs the fountain and the retaining wall that encloses this casual gathering spot near the house.”

Get more advice here.