Chronicle SMa.rt: Why indigenous gardens?

Voltaire said it best at the end of his 1759 novel Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden”. This simple phrase has special meaning today as the environmental noose tightens with brownouts (1/4 of our city lost power for 4 hours on Tuesday), drought (the towering Hoover Dam rushing to functional collapse) and global warming (normally London hit 104 degrees F this week). Plants are a buffer against all these vicissitudes by providing us with shade, food, materials, colors, scents, and the drama of animals, among other benefits. They do this by anchoring in the specific local soils and microclimate (yes including fire) a dynamic vortex of pollinators, decomposers, predators and prey that constantly interact with or without human intervention.

If it weren’t for the humans in Santa Monica, left to fend for themselves, our town would look a lot like the native chaparral we see in the lowlands of the Santa Monica Mountains.

But over the past two and a half centuries, we have created an alternative plant ecology whose sustenance requires hard-working graders to relentlessly apply mulch (or its removal from the opposite leaves), pruning, pesticides, aeration, herbicides, fertilizers and incredible amounts of water. Since all the multiple costs of maintaining this alternative plant ecology keep increasing, especially as the climate changes, it quickly becomes unsustainable. Fortunately, we don’t need to persist in this losing battle with mother nature. By turning to pre-existing plant communities, we can get virtually all the benefits of plants without the high cost of pretending we don’t live in Southern California.

Native plants are perfectly adapted to our soils and microclimates. They support delicate nested communities of molds, insects, and birds among other animals that are, with very modest tuning, infinitely durable. Purists pursuing this approach will say that we should stick only to native plants (whatever definition you give) while others will include other plants from Mediterranean/desert climates, especially those that want their garden emphasizes food (eg citrus fruits, figs, etc.). Food-providing plants tend to be very water-intensive (almonds need a gallon of water for each nut), so there must be a trade-off between food need and water availability .

The size of the garden does not matter. It could be a small pot of rosemary, sage or oregano on a sunny windowsill or it could be our largest park, Palisades Park, which is about 2 miles long and 500 feet wide and is a mixture of natives and this organic wasteland called the Lawn. The important thing is that it aligns as closely as possible with native plant communities that have already spent millennia adapting to the climate, soil and water available; including a short one of about 15,000 years adapting to the presence of man.

In short, “our own garden” to which Voltaire referred should be interpreted as the one given to us before there were gardeners. By using this quirky plant palette as a starting point, we have the best chance of utilizing local tendencies inherent in nature instead of fighting a losing battle to impose a precarious new plant ecology on our urban fabric. Fortunately, there are many sources of native plants today. One of the best is Theodore Payne Foundation which offers classes, a nursery at Sunland and other services to help our gardeners grow their own beautiful gardens pictured here. Even a small change to native plants can dramatically increase our city’s sustainability and survivability.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA

SMart Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Future
Thane Roberts, architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, architect, Dan Jansenson, architect and building, fire and life safety commission, Samuel Tolkin, architect and urban planning commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA and urban planning commissioner, Marc Verville MBA, CPA (inactive), Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.
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