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Light Reflections


“With only a few exceptions (mule ears), the leaves of dry-environment plants are thick and leathery, and they may be waxy to the touch. Some dry-environment plants also have hairy leaves, which retain dew and reflect light.” pg. 73, Laird R. Blackwell, Wildflowers of the Tahoe Sierra. This Silk Tassel or Bear Brush (Garryia fremontia) bears out the light-reflecting part.

Fine, I hear you thinking. Nice natural history. But what has that got to do with my garden?

Well, for starters, if you have a hot, dry climate (like mine in summer), you’ll know that plants with these kinds of leaves will probably be easy to grow. And if you live in a cool, moist climate, you know plants with these kinds of leaves may be hard to grow.  And if you look at your own wild plants, you’ll get more ideas about what will do well in your area.

Not that it’s that simple. Rhododendrons and azaleas, with those reflective leathery leaves, don’t like sun in my area, and do very well in the cool rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, many varieties come from there originally.

And many of your wild plants may not do well in your garden because they need to grow with other plants, or have very very specific requirements that a gardener just can’t meet (unless that gardener is blessed).

And many gardeners aren’t interested in growing what grows easily in their area; they’re in love with some plant and must have it. The gardeners I like talking (or corresponding) with most tend to be like this. They push the boundaries of their climates, in order to grow the plants they love.  But they also know and love the plants that grow easily where they live.

It’s the heart of wisdom to know the basics: what plants like my area? What do they need to thrive? How do they fit in? How do the animals in my area fit in with the plant’s lives? How do soil, sun, and water combine where I live, to make plants grow?

When we know at least some answers to these questions, we’re better gardeners. We also become more deeply rooted in our own landscape.


Laird R. Blackwell, Wildflowers of the Tahoe Sierra, Lone Pine Publishing, 1997

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond October 3, 2008, 5:50 am

    Great questions to be asking ourselves while we close this year’s garden and plan for the next.

  • Northern Shade October 4, 2008, 8:12 am

    Finding the plants that will flourish in your garden, but not overrun it is always a tricky balance. You’re right, gardeners have to think about how how much accommodating they want to do for their plants.
    Thinking about the local wildlife, as well the aesthetics makes a garden even more useful, and a natural part of the local habitat. Knowing that your garden is connected to nature, and not separate is very satisfying.

  • joco October 4, 2008, 8:08 pm

    When I consulted someone with a problem area in my garden, the first thing he asked was: “Are your weeds ill?”
    I looked at him in amazement and told him that I didn’t care tuppence about my weeds. How short-sighted can one be?

    He soon put me straight and made it clear to me that the native plants/weeds are an indication of the state of health of your garden and that we should take a lead from them.

  • Pomona Belvedere October 6, 2008, 11:26 am

    All of these comments very well put and useful to think about. It is a good idea to have this in mind in garden-planning season, especially before those lush beautiful catalogues have us under their sway.

    And accomodating plants and wildlife are important decisions in the garden, on a number of levels. Decisions which quite honestly I often make in a very slapdash fashion.

    I had heard of using weeds to identify soil types and water table, but I hadn’t consciously thought of them as soil health indicators. Even though I subconsciously register this in every landscape I look at. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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