Bob Perry has written three books on landscaping in California. "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 destined not only to join their ranks, but also to supersede any other text on the subject, including the 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 new book addresses only California — the Mediterranean, desert and alpine climates, their limited water resources and the best ways to plant and irrigate them.
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 a 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 in his Claremont design studio.
He soon realized that he would be not only writing the book but also publishing it. "I discovered that Sunset didn't do single-author publications," Perry said. Other publishers told him the market was too narrow.
Becoming his own publisher emboldened Perry to break from conventions, particularly the notion that a garden bible directed solely at California was somehow too micro to succeed.
His early focus was on plants that are "appropriate" for California, if not necessarily native. The early books showed where plants thrived, and on what water budget. Horticulturist Lili Singer recalled 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.
The desire to expose 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 probably intensify sharply with the new book. Under a recently updated statewide landscaping ordinance, 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 needs throughout the year.
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 pretty, 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 the main 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 previews of the book or to order, go to landdesignpublishing.com.