By Lauren Lewis
At Small Spot Gardens we are working to eliminate the need for ongoing irrigation in the gardens we design. In California. Where yesterday we had our first little sprinkling of rain in over 6 months. It’s certainly a challenge to create verdant, lush-feeling urban oases when the rainfall is so sparse and sporadic and unpredictable, but it can be done. A lot can be done using desert-adapted plants like succulents of all sizes (there’s a lot to love!), but for the diversity and textures and density we aim for, we’re taking another approach too: embracing the dry, the brown, the unsung sculptural elements of the garden.
The seasons are a little harder to notice in California than elsewhere, but we do have them, and that gives our gardens the potential for interesting variability over the course of a year. Rather than using irrigation to create consistency, we argue that visual variation is an asset and to maximize it we have to incorporate and embrace a wide color palette; one that goes well beyond green and into shades of brown. Brown is often the visual cue for what should be trimmed and removed from the garden, but especially in our climate we can boost the visual interest of our gardens by using the shades of brown that plants give us, rather than shying away from them.
We draw some inspiration for this approach from the New Perennialist movement, made most famous by Piet Oudolf. This gardening movement has been around a long time, but gained wider recognition from its use in New York’s High Line Park and Chicago’s Lurie Garden. The look is characterized most often by closely-packed swaths of perennials and grasses that create an effortless prairie vibe. At Small Spot Gardens we are big fans of dense plantings as opposed to plants spread out in a sea of mulch, as well as the interesting colors and textures that you get from grasses and prairie flowers. You can achieve a lush, soft feel in a mainly brown palette using this approach.
So this month on Instagram we’re doing our part to give brown and other underappreciated garden colors their moment in the spotlight. In our gardens we’re finding the plants that are visually interesting at various moments in the year, and we’re aiming to do that with boldness and confidence. A left-over unpruned flower is one thing, but a whole shrub of purposefully retained browned leaves makes a statement.