Oroville native-plant advocates Catie and Jim Bishop bring desert and alpine splendor to their own garden
“It’s so spare, uncluttered. You can really see when you’re in the desert,” said Catie Bishop, describing her love of an environment she has been drawn to her whole adult life. “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.”
This spare, soothing beauty is the inspiration behind the dry-landscape rock garden Catie and her husband, Jim—longtime native-plant enthusiasts and advocates—began creating last fall at their home in Oroville.
The 320-square-foot rock garden is composed of native stone—ranging from large rocks to coarse sand—and desert plants that will thrive in Northern California’s lower-elevation climates. It is arranged in a careful, open, minimalist manner harking back to both desert and alpine zones—areas in which the Bishops have spent a considerable amount of time.
No irrigation is necessary, but minimal supplemental water the first season is helping the plants establish.
The making of the drought-tolerant garden is tied inextricably to the couple’s environmental, botanical and educational work over the past 20-plus years on behalf of native plants and their environments for organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) and the Austria-based alpine-plant observation network, Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA).
In December 2010, after the rocks were in place, the Bishops planted their first specimen, an ocotillo cactus, native to Sonoran desert areas of California. By spring, the ocotillo had been joined by yuccas and other succulents, as well as a striking white prickly poppy, and several penstemons, including the stately pink Penstemon palmeri (aka Palmer’s penstemon), seen blooming in spring and summer throughout the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts.
It is in such stark places as desert and alpine zones, Catie pointed out, that “you can read the history of this land, in the rocks and landforms, the fossils [and] the specialized vegetation.”
“Plants are the backbone of any ecosystem; they are the bottom of the food chain in any environment,” added 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 fun for us.”
The Bishops met while working for Cal Fire in Calaveras County in the 1980s—Jim as a captain and Catie as a seasonal firefighter. In 1990, the couple moved to their current home. Both Catie and Jim—60 and 66, respectively—soon became involved in the local Mount Lassen Chapter of the CNPS, and have served in both local and state positions for the group. Catie also returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a botany emphasis, from Chico State. Shortly thereafter, she began working with the Forest Service in Plumas National Forest as a seasonal biological technician, doing botanical surveys.
“I just followed Catie’s passion,” Jim related, crediting his wife 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 Forest Service. 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 Jim and Catie Bishop.
GLORIA’s purpose as stated on its website is to “establish and maintain a world-wide long-term observation network in alpine environments.” Since 2004, the Bishops have worked setting up GLORIA sites and collecting data in the Carson Range near Lake Tahoe, the central Sierra Nevada mountains, the White Mountains in east-central California, near the Nevada border, as well as in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park.
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 not only to implement GLORIA surveys but also to develop specialized data-collection methods for the organization.
In such surveys (which take place worldwide), the Bishops and other members of each summer’s regional GLORIA team painstakingly scrutinize a series of survey plots ranging from large sections to 10-centimeter squares. From each of these sections, detailed lists are made of everything found within them, including such things as each specific plant, animal droppings, rocks, soil temperature—even litter. Resurveyed every five years, these observations tell the story of changes over time in these delicate environments.
“It’s rugged work,” said Jim. “Intense sunlight, very cold and very windy, thunderstorms, climbing, scrambling, and working long hours.”
“It’s fun finding something unexpected,” added Catie. “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.”
“[It is] intriguing to consider the survival of life in these harsh environments, what lives successfully in the dry deserts, or the cold alpine zones,” said Jim. “It’s always amazing.”
This sense of the amazing is also evident in the Bishops’ new rock garden.
“It’s fun to watch the plants develop, [and] to be able to see pollinators visit them, and lizards poke their heads out of little holes in the sand beside rocks in this new garden,” Catie said enthusiastically.
While both of the Bishops say emphatically that it’s hard to beat the pure beauty and quiet of the desert or the breathtaking alpine zones, the little piece of spare, sustainable beauty they’ve brought to their own home garden in Oroville certainly comes close.