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The Dry Garden: Bob Perry publishes
the ultimate book on landscaping for California

February 19, 2010 | 10:00 am
Green_PerryJacaranda copy

If you followed my advice last week and went to a Southern Californian botanic garden to see spring unfurling by the acre, then you’ve met the plants. Now it’s time to meet the new book that will teach you how to select, place and irrigate them. That book is “Landscape Plants for California Gardens” from Land Design Publishing.

Green_Perry Author Bob Perry, right, has written and published three books on landscaping in California. Two of them, “Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes” (1980) and “Landscape Plants for Western Regions” (1992) are classics. The newly published “Landscape Plants for California Gardens” is not only destined to join their ranks, but for sheer quality it should supersede any other text on the subject, including the household staple, “Sunset Western Garden Book.”

Why? For Sunset, garden books are an industry. One size fits the whole West, Alaska to Arizona, California to Colorado. Hawaii, British Columbia and Wyoming too. By contrast, Perry’s books amount to a life’s calling. In this new volume, he addresses only California with its singular Mediterranean, desert and alpine climates and their limited water resources.

Licensed as a landscape architect in 1972, Perry has been a working garden designer for nearly 40 years. He also has taught plant identification, ecology and landscape design at Cal Poly Pomona, UCLA and USC.  In his first decade at Pomona, he applied for sabbatical to do a book. “It was one of those life stories of not knowing what you’re getting into,” he said, laughing ruefully during an interview last week in his Claremont design studio.

Green_PerryCover He soon realized that he would not only be writing the book but also publishing it. “I discovered that Sunset didn’t do single-author publications," Perry said. "Other publishers said, ‘The market’s too narrow and that’s not a good investment strategy.’ It led to discovering that you can find your own printers, you can see what the costs are to print. You can discover how to ship things.”

Becoming his own publisher emboldened Perry to break from standing conventions, particularly the notion that a garden bible directed solely at California was somehow too micro to succeed. “Each book I’ve done," he said, "I’ve thought, ‘Hey, I’m in charge here.’ ”

His first focus was on plants that are “appropriate” for California, if not necessarily native. The early books would show where plants would thrive, and on what water budget. Horticulturist Lili Singer, who will be having Perry lecture Feb. 20 at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, recalls the sense of epiphany when his 1992 book grouped compatible plant communities by palette, directly relating a garden’s cultural needs with an overarching aesthetic. “He was the first author I’m aware of to do that,” she said.

Asked about it, Perry chuckled. “Ultimately this is what designers do, but that’s the hidden phase.”

Green_PerrySection1 The desire to unhide the art and science of landscape design underpins all of Perry's books. Although they are suitable for amateurs, Perry’s biggest following has been among landscape architects and designers. That following will likely intensify sharply with the new book. Under Assembly Bill 1881, a statewide landscaping ordinance that passed into law late last year, professionally installed new gardens must work within a water budget based on evapotranspiration rates, or how much water they will give up to the atmosphere. Perry’s new book opens by breaking down California’s climate zones, then linking them to master lists of plants and their respiration rates. He explains how to create “hydrozones” in gardens, and he gives efficiency rankings for different irrigation systems. Those struggling to figure out how to comply with the new law can stop fretting. Perry has figured it out for them.

He covers plants by regional style: California natives, Mediterranean, Southwestern, subtropical, woodland, Asian, coastal. He also breaks them down by type: flowering, shrubs, vines, ground covers. Then he breaks them down again, this time by function and aesthetic: street trees, monumental trees, courtyard and patio trees, hedges and screening plants, fragrant plants, butterfly plants, hummingbird plants, plants for containers and shade. Every plant description comes with a graph explaining its irrigation calendar.

If this sounds technical, it is – the kind of technical that means you won’t plant a garden full of expensive mistakes. But this book is no mere manual. It’s almost as pretty as a coffee table book, and with reason. Aesthetics lie at its core. Midway into the volume, Perry pulls his 1992 trick of grouping plants by palette, except this time, he connects water adaptations to color schemes more explicitly and lavishly. Starting with the bright wet palette of the woodland and subtropical plants, he takes the reader through the drier, duskier foliage of Mediterranean and Southwestern plant communities, at each turn showing how to group the plants to their best advantage.

Finally, there is a fully illustrated A-to-Z listing of 2,100 plants. Although the Sunset book has 8,000, it covers 13 states and two Canadian provinces.  Break it down, and the Perry book has many times the value for California gardeners in plant descriptions alone. In fairness, it should be added that Sunset includes food plants such as tomatoes and squash, while Perry does not.

At $65, “Landscape Plants for California Gardens” is not cheap, but it’s all the book you will need if you live in the Golden State. And at 652 pages, it’s not small, but by happy accident, it just fits the postal service’s new medium flat-rate box. For online free previews of the book, or to order, go to Land Design Publishing

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here weekly.

Credits: Page views and book cover courtesy of Land Design Publishing. Bob Perry photo by Emily Green.

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