Top 5: Must-Have Books for California Gardening

East Bay MUD Book

Click the book cover to visit EBMUD

Very few people really have the time to read a lot about gardening. We all have busy lives and other areas of expertise. So, a question I get asked a lot is, “If I’m only going to get a couple of books, which ones should they be?”

California is a huge state with an enormous variety of ecosystems. Fortunately, there are a couple of key references that will help most homeowners maintain a healthy California-style garden. If you’re keeping it simple with a family friendly, low-maintenance garden, these will help.

Some of you may have figured out from Sweet Hollow Almanac that since I live out in the stix, I’m an Amazon Prime junkie. For convenience, the links below will take you straight to the Amazon page to purchase, and will help support your local independent landscape designer, *moi.* Naturally, if you have a local independent bookstore, support it! If it takes you an hour to get there and you’d end up purchasing 10,000 Fancy Nancy books to extract you and your munchkin from it, by all means, click and purchase in your PJ’s and snuggy, from the comfort of your own armchair!

East Bay MUD book1. “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region,
or as everyone in the industry refers to it, “the East Bay MUD book.” If you only buy one book–either to get familiar with the basic landscaping you have, or to get inspired by plants in order to communicate with your designer–this is the book to get. The East Bay Municipal Utility District published this book to encourage water-wise landscaping.  It’s chock full of drool-worthy full-color Saxon Holt photos of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, garden-friendly plants.

The secret sauce for those Sunset-magazine gardens is in these pages, but it is most certainly NOT comprehensive. There are lots of plants you grew up with in Massachusetts or Virginia or Texas that you will not find here, because they want regular summer water. If it’s not in this book and you request it from your designer, know that you are asking for a higher maintenance garden.

You will also notice that there are lots of bunch grasses (“ornamental” grasses) listed, and lovely pictures of meadows, but no section on lawns. Lawns are thirsty and high maintenance in our climate, and the point of this book is to inspire Bay Area residents to landscape with something *other* than lawn.

For more about alternatives to lawns, or just to be inspired by more of Saxon Holt’s incredible garden photography, check out John Greenlee‘s The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn. It’s not on my list of basics because I think of it as more specific, but it will definitely be featured on an upcoming list of Top 5 something. For modern gardens particularly, it’s never more than a few feet away while I’m doing a planting plan.

Sunset Western Garden Book

2. Sunset Western Garden Book, of course. This is the comprehensive “bible” for west coast gardening. Why isn’t it listed first? Because as more of an encyclopedic reference, it covers a lot of imported plants that are higher maintenance, and few pictures. There are hand-drawn illustrations for each of the entries. Once your garden is installed, the detailed care information on each type of plant, and callout sections on certain topics like fruit trees, avocados, or roses is very helpful.

Edible Landscaping

3. Edible Landscaping. Rosalind Creasy lives and gardens in Los Altos, and has created an absolutely charming book with big, full color pictures covering the basics of *designing* your landscape for edibles. This book and Pam Pierce’s Golden Gate Gardening (below) go hand-in-hand for any gardener serious about making their 1/8 of an acre serve up dinner and look fantastic doing it. I’m a serious bookworm, but most garden books I kind of flip through. Who wants to read about gardening when you can be doing it? But the day this arrived in the mail a couple of years ago, I sat down and read it nearly cover to cover. The writing is engaging and straightforward, even for non-gardeners or those just beginning.

Golden Gate Gardening
4. Golden Gate Gardening, 3rd Edition: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California. This is on my list because so many of my clients like to incorporate fruit trees and edibles into their landscapes, especially if they have children. This one and Edible Landscaping are really tied for third, since they cover the same subject from two different angles. Golden Gate Gardening is really more of an encyclopedic reference, with lots of charts and data to help you produce the most out of your backyard plot or raised beds every month of the year. I’ve been frustrated with most edible gardening resources, where everything is about raising food in the summer. If you are gardening with the intent to eat in the Bay Area, this is absolutely a must-have. Now you too can have heirloom kale in January!

Plants for Play
5. Plants for Play: A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments. I get asked about this subject a lot, since so many of my clients are starting their families. We are so far removed from knowledge of just the basic plants surrounding us–how do we know what’s safe? How do you plan a garden where kids can explore beyond a dedicated fruit or vegetable area in relative safety? What plants can inspire play in the garden, rather than just surviving it? How do I make my garden fun if I don’t have space or time for a lawn?

This book was originally published in 1993, and remains useful today because the plant lists focus on the two ends of the spectrum–what to plant for play value, and what not to plant, due to toxicity. There are additional details about the source of the toxicity, which helps for gauging risk level in a garden. All kids and pets are different, so risk factors to consider will vary from garden to garden. But this is a wonderful resource to get you started. This book is thin and there is a lot it doesn’t cover, but I still have not seen a more recent book on this subject that is more helpful in the design phase. If you know of one, please leave me a comment, I’d love to review it!

Is there a book you consider a must-have for California gardening that I haven’t mentioned here? Leave me a note and I’ll check it out.

What do you think? Let me know!

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