Beauty to Spare – Catie & Jim Bishop’s Desert Garden in Oroville

In the winter days, I spend my daydreaming time thinking about things I might want to change about my garden, or add to my garden. With such little precipitation in the past few weeks or in the coming few weeks, my mind keeps returning to the loveliness of the design elements and the plant choices in the Oroville home garden created by Catie and Jim Bishop. Thought this was a good time to re-run the piece. Happy winter dreaming and planning for your North State garden!

An Oroville couple brings their love and knowledge of the spare splendor shared by California’s deserts and alpine zones to their home with a low-water, low-maintenance, habitat-friendly, high diversity and high-enjoyment desert garden. Photo: Catie & Jim Bishop’s colorful desert garden in front of their Oroville home illustrates the beauty that a spare, dry garden can provide.

“It’s so spare, uncluttered. You can really see when you’re in the desert,” Catie Bishop says thoughtfully, describing her love of the desert – an environment she has visited and been drawn to her whole adulthood. This spare beauty is the inspiration behind a desert rock garden she and her husband, Jim Bishop, have been creating since mid-2010 on an unused area in the front of their home in Oroville. “Life is noisy. The desert is big….and quiet. I love to sit out there and listen to the wind, notice each plant, each animal It’s … peaceful.” Photo: In the Bishop’s desert garden, a bushy deep pink desert penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis), a taller, pale pink Penstemon palmeri, and a cheerful orange desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) provided weeks of bloom to the Bishop garden in the spring and summer of 2011.

Famed naturalist John Muir said “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” and the Bishop’s desert-garden-in-the-works is a lively embodiment of this: try to characterize the garden on its own and inevitably it is tied to this couple’s love of nature and of plants – in all their dynamic diversity. Their garden is tied inextricably to their environmental, botanical and educational work on behalf of the preservation and study of native plants and their environments for organizations such as the US Forest Service (USFS), the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) and GLORIA (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments; www.gloria.ac.at) over the past 20-plus years.

The Bishops have worked in and enjoy plant communities of all types. They enjoy deep, dense woodlands, high wetland fens, and open chaparral as well as the comforts of their own well-loved home garden. But the quiet, spare beauty of the desert, and likewise that found above tree-line in the alpine zones of the western ranges – where, as Catie points out enthusiastically “you can read the history of this land, in the rocks and landforms, the fossils, the specialized vegetation,” – has an enduring pull on the Bishops and informs this new garden the most. Photos – two above : Variations in plant forms, space between each plant, and interesting rocks from the Bishops’ years of collecting all add interest to the garden.

Currently aged 60 and 66 respectively, Catie and Jim met while working with Cal Fire in Calaveras County in the 1980s. Jim, with degrees in Geology and Physics from UC Santa Barbara and studies in Atmospheric Science at CU Boulder, Colorado as well as plant physiology at CSU, Chico, spent a 26-year career with Cal Fire ultimately becoming a Training Chief developing fire-fighting techniques based on extensive study of fire behavior. Catie, having worked jobs including building construction, was also a Cal Fire seasonal fire-fighter when the two met. Photo: Jim and Catie Bishop on the peak of Mount Barcroft, in the White Mountains, summer 2010. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

In 1990 the couple moved to Butte County and their current home in Oroville. Soon after moving, Catie saw a notice about a native plant hike being offered by the local Mt. Lassen Chapter of CNPS. She attended the hike and several more and so enjoyed the group of people she met that soon she and Jim were deeply involved in the group. The two have served tirelessly in both local and state positions for CNPS ever since.

Always interested in plants and biology, Catie really began to love gardening while living in Calaveras County and with the move north, she returned to school and took her Biology degree with a Botany emphasis from CSU, Chico. Shortly thereafter, she began working with the US Forest Service in the Plumas National Forest as a seasonal Biological Technician on botanical surveys throughout the forest. Photos above: Scenes from the Bishop’s home garden as a whole, which includes a nice variety of different environments including woodland garden, creek walk and a full sun vegetable garden and fruit tree orchard.

“I just followed Catie’s passion,” Jim relates, crediting that for the love of plants and plant sciences he has discovered by her side. When he retired from Cal Fire in 2000, Jim began to volunteer on botanical surveys for the USFS. In 2004, when the GLORIA project put a call out to the state office of CNPS for volunteers to help survey California’s alpine environments, they were referred to Catie and Jim Bishop. Photo above: An overview of the Bishop’s desert garden. Photo left: A peaceful Catie Bishop.

GLORIA is an international group whose purpose as stated on their website is to “establish and maintain a world-wide long-term observation network in alpine environments. Vegetation and temperature data collected at the GLORIA sites will be used for discerning trends in species diversity and temperature. The data will be used to assess and predict losses in biodiversity and other threats to these fragile alpine ecosystems which are under accelerating climate change pressures.” Since 2004, the Bishops have worked setting up GLORIA sites and collecting data in the Great Basin National Park, Tahoe’s Carson Range, the Central Sierra and in the White Mountains to the east of the Sierra Nevada. Photo: Jim and Catie Bishop are natural and encouraging teachers. Here Jim shows two young naturalists some interesting aspects to one of the stones in the desert garden.

The White Mountains, which lie in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada and are often described as ‘desert-like,’ are where the Bishops have spent a good portion of their time with GLORIA over the past seven summers. They have helped to not only implement GLORIA surveys but have also helped to develop data collection methods now known as the “California Method,” and “downslope surveys,” which document and collect other important and interesting data from the transition environment between true-alpine areas down to where the forest begins again at tree-line. Photo: The open spare beauty of the White Mountains. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

In such surveys, working in 10-day blocks at each of up to two sites in a summer season, the Bishops and the rest of the GLORIA team painstakingly scrutinize a nested series of survey plots from large sections to 10 cm squares. From each of these sections, detailed lists are made of everything found within them, including each specific plant, animal droppings, bare soil and rocks, lichens and even litter. “Soil temperature is also monitored continuously on each aspect,” the Bishops explain. Resurveyed every 5 years, these observations tell the story of changes over time in these delicate environments.

“It’s rugged work – often hot, very cold or very windy, thunderstorms, climbing, scrambling and long working hours,” Jim notes. But, they both continue, “Just to be out there, seeing the country, sharing it with interesting hard-working people. It’s amazing.” Catie goes on, “It’s fun finding something unexpected. One summer on Dunderberg Peak in the Sierra, I noticed a small whitebark pine tree, maybe 700 meters above the tree-line – way above where it should have been. I thought maybe it was a stray seedling, but eventually we learned it was likely 20-30 years old.” It is always “intriguing to consider the survival of life in these harsh environments,” Jim finishes, “ what lives successfully in the dry deserts, or the cold alpine zones. It’s always amazing.” Photo: Jim and Catie getting the larger stones into position for the desert garden. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

This sense of the amazing is brought home and made evident in the desert garden addition to the Bishop’s garden, construction which began in 2010. Gardeners from the start of their lives at their Oroville home, the Bishop’s larger garden already boasted dryland native plantings such as buckwheats, sages, as well as wetter creekside plantings, woodland areas and a sunny, open orchard and vegetable garden area. But after some excavation work for a French drain on their property, “we had a lot of rocks,” Catie says wryly. Photo: Beautiful prickly poppy in bloom in the Bishop’s desert garden, spring 2011. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

The Bishops brought their knowledge and love of the dry, exposed environments that often pull them into the greater outdoors to bear on this little piece of those environments now in their front yard: their “desert garden.” Working together, the intrepid pair placed their large rocks in a sloping, varied topography which they describe as “roughly paramecium shaped, covering 320 square feet,” over a base of 3 – 4 inches of mixed sand and native soil to allow for some nutrients as well as the drainage and microclimates desert plants enjoy. They then filled around the large rocks with another 3- 4 inches of ¼ minus sand. “This filling sand in around the rocks after they’ve been placed is an important step,” Jim emphasizes. “It looks less natural if, especially the larger rocks, are not settled-into the sand some by filling around them after they’ve been placed.” While there is no irrigation, many of the plants may need some minimal supplemental water in the 18 months after planting to ensure they establish well. The Bishops do not anticipate fertilizing the desert garden. On the contrary in fact, they believe “it may take some ongoing effort to keep the soil from gradually becoming more fertile and less porous as things (like leaves and weed seeds) accumulate in the sand, and encourage not-so-desert-like plants.” Photo: A lizard sunning itself on a warm rock in the desert garden, spring 2011. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

In December of 2010 the Bishops planted their first specimen – a potted ocotillo cactus – into the new garden. Native to Sonoran desert areas of California, the ocotillo was started from seed that Catie purchased at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. By spring of this year, the ocotillo had been joined by yuccas and other succulents, as well as a striking and floriferous white prickly poppy, and several penstemon, including the stately pale pink Penstemon palmeri, seen in spring and summer throughout the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts. Some of the plants are from native plant nurseries, such as the nursery at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California and Floral Native Nursery in Chico, others are from friends. The Bishops have also “collected some seed from wild desert plants to propagate for the desert garden. Seeds can be collected from places in which that is legal and proper,” they point out. This year’s spring bloom portended colorful things in years to come. (Author’s note: Catie and Jim Bishop are thoroughly knowledgeable about the sites and plants from which they might collect wild seed. The ethics of collecting seed from wild plants for small-scale personal home use, varies by site and conditions. Do your research on what is legal and proper with, for instance, public-land agencies or botanic gardens before collecting seed if you are new to it. Always ask permission from landowners or determine in advance if you need a permit on government property. Do not harm plants while collecting seed, collect seed when it is fully mature, do not collect more seed than you will use, and do not collect from endangered or rare plants. Finally, be careful not to collect and/or inadvertently disperse seed from invasive species. Photo: The spiny architectural branching of the ocotillo cactus softened and complemented by the prickly poppy in bloom in the Bishop’s desert garden, spring 2011.

“Plants are the backbone of any ecosystem; they are the bottom of the food chain in any environment,” adds Jim, “and so to be able to see each plant for itself [in this garden], the way you can in the desert or in alpine zones, is something we enjoy and are aiming for in our desert garden,” Jim explains. The “guiding goal” in choosing and placing plants and rocks in this garden is “diversity – of plant type, species, form and color. Diversity of rock shape and size as well.” Photo: A native black bee pays a visit to the pink desert penstemon, spring 2011. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BISHOPS.

When deciding on plants they would like to include in their new garden, the Bishops look for “attractive plants, reminiscent of the desert, attractive to pollinators and other creatures,” but they avoid plants “that will overgrow what should be a sunny, open habitat.” Photos: (double-click on photos for larger view) Form and function are largely at play in the plants chosen by the Bishops for their garden, different shapes and interesting foliage are sought after. Left photoforeground is an airy black dalea (Dalea frutescens), background is the eye-catching radiate and fleshy form of chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta); Right photo shows the fine-foliage of the not-yet-blooming pine-leaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius), same photo in mid-background right-hand side is the spiky and politely-sized Hesperoyucca whippleyi.

The Bishop’s recommendations for creating a home-garden scaled desert garden include:

1. Choose plants from dry (xeric) habitats. They can be succulents, shrubs, perennials, or annuals, keeping diversity in mind. Such plants will require minimal water.
2. Choose plants that will not get too big. For example, we have a smallish hesperoyucca but would not choose a nolina (which get huge) even though it has the same overall form. We’ll put in some small cacti, but would not plant one of the prickly pear cacti that do well in the valley and can cover large areas of your yard and be over 6 feet tall. Don’t plant too densely…leave each plant plenty of space (though some can be clustered), and leave some open spaces with just rocks and sand…the rocks are part of the garden view too.
3. Flowers are pretty, and there are many nice choices of flowering desert plants, but another attractive aspect of any plant is its form, and we like varied forms. For example, yuccas have a nice spiky, radiate form. Shrubs are dense and domelike, cacti and other succulents are usually rounded and full in shape. Flowering annuals and perennials often have nice leafy bases with flowering stalks reaching out above the base. Another nice form is something airy and open—some of the leguminous plants such as fairyduster (Calliandra eriophylla) are good. Photo: The low, radiate and fleshy form of the Dudleya (foreground) plays counterpoint to the floriferous and shrubby mallow (background) in the Bishop’s garden, illustrating nicely the diversity of form for which they are striving.
4. A few of the plant groups that offer good desert plants include: buckwheat, penstemon, yucca, cactus, astragalus, some legumes.
5. If you see or hear of a plant you think you might want, look it up in a book such as “California Native Plants for the Garden” by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, or “Native Treasures, Gardening with the Plants of California” by Nevin Smith. Alternatively, many resources are available on the web to determine if a plant you like has needs that are compatible with your area.

“It’s already fun to watch the plants develop – to be able to see pollinators visit them, lizards poke their heads out of little holes in the sand beside rocks in this new garden,” Catie says.

While both of the Bishops say emphatically that “it’s hard to beat” the beauty and quiet of the spare desert or the breathtaking alpine zones, the little piece of quiet, spare, sustainable beauty they’ve brought to their own home garden in Oroville does a nice job trying.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Chico News & Review. More of my environmental writing can be found in the Chico News & Review, and Pacific Horticulture Photo: An interesting little pollinator sits on the buds of an Eriogonum fasiculatum about to break into bloom.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar KarenC says:

    Jennifer, what a great article. Might you know what the rock is called in the photo. I love the beautiful rust color.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      I will ask the Bishops. I know they harvested the rock from their own property as a result of having to install a french drain. The ethical and low-impact collection of decorative rock is important to keep in mind as we garden. I will follow-up. J

  2. Avatar Ginny says:

    Looks lovely, and sure doesn't make a drain on our underground acquifer. Wish more would use the same technique to save our water.

  3. Avatar Allen says:

    I love this article. We are starting a similar garden at our house in Oroville. The rocks are native to the land. We have plenty on our property for a nice rock garden.