The award for Best Overall Design in the Small Spaces Living section of the 2013 San Francisco Home & Garden Show was given to Madroño Landscape Design Studio and Bay Natives nursery for "Pacific Rim Fusion," an exhibit of California native landscaping with Japanese inflection.
California Assembly Bill 1750 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown today to enact the Rainwater Capture Act of 2012, a significant new measure clarifying that the use of rainwater captured from rooftops does not require a water right permit from the State Water Resources Control Board.
Contemporary Design Meets
Sept. 21, 2011 from 4:30 - 6:30 p.m.
California Academy of Sciences
May 14, 2011 from 2-3 p.m.
250 Visitacion Ave.
Brisbane, CA 94005
Consider the case of this San Francisco backyard: a sheer slope on the southeast face of Mount Davidson, where a concrete drainage trench carries winter's seasonal river and then runs dry for summer and fall. The trench cuts off houses from their gardens and limits human access to the yards uphill. At this particular house, the existing deck was built out to the edge of the trench, with no means of getting across.
Question: How to deal with this ugly yet necessary piece of engineering?
Answer: Add another level of deck to bridge the gap. Set the platform at an angle to diverge from the rectangular facade of the house, and to suggest triangular shapes in the landscape. Cantilever all four edges 24" over the beams, thus hiding the posts so the deck appears to float above the ground.
This deck, with bench and arbor, is both a place to inhabit and to pass through. We cut a path in switchbacks up the slope from the point of contact with the platform, removed all french broom, fennel, and ivy from the hill, and replanted with native pinegrass, junegrass, and needlegrass; a field of silver lupine and scattered Ceanothus to attract butterflies, especially the fabled Mission Blue; elderberries and manzanitas for bird-friendly flowers and berries; and more.
The marriage of living plants and cold steel ranks among the most enjoyable elements of practicing landscape design in the San Francisco Bay Area.
SCENARIO: Single-family residence on steep 2-acre property in Los Altos Hills, California. The lovely and level back patio was marred by the slope immediately above it: ugly bare dirt, too steep for traditional planting, and eroding at the base of the house's diagonal support beams. The situation called for a bold stroke of design creativity.
QUESTION: How to turn this liability -- a barren and degraded slope -- into a lush and attractive asset?
My comrade Pete Veilleux, native plant landscaper and bushwhacking enthusiast nonpareil, asked if I would like to join him on a hike to see a secret corner of Oakland. Not far from his house in the teeming East Bay 'hood where oaks no longer grow, steep mountains cleave the landscape and bulwark an ancient, fragrant forest of bay, oak, and madrone. So we climbed the ridge between Cull Canyon and the Upper San Leandro watershed, near Dinosaur Peak so-called for its rocky outcrops like the spiky plates of a stegosaurus, to seek out some of our favorite native plants and the hidden connections lurking in the everyday.
No trail marked our route; we parked on a friend's private property and walked for a spell up an old fire road, then plunged into the underbrush. Directions? We headed due southwest and uphill.
Veilleux waxed rhapsodic about the bay trees all around us: the manifold shapes of trunk, the lush color of the leaves when they catch the sun, and above all the scent, that wonderful smell. "I think Umbellularia californica is the most versatile and under-used California native plant in the landscaping trade," he said.
"Not in my yard," I replied. The mature bay reaches heights of 120 feet, and as wide. He allowed that regular pruning for size might be necessary. Mixed among the bays all around us, oaks and madrones whispered in the wind as if in awe of the bay's position as climax forest community, the ultimate dispatcher of other trees in the ecosystem.
Few explorers would expect to find a beach hidden in the middle of a redwood grove. Yet such incongruities lurk in the mountains above Santa Cruz, where ancient seabeds upthrust millions of years ago by tectonic turmoil gave rise to stark hills of sand now tucked among lush evergreen forests more than five miles from the sea. Fossilized sand dollars and shark teeth in the ground testify to the marine origin of these Santa Cruz sandhills, whose so-called Zayante soils support a rare and unusual community of native plants found no place else on earth.
The Bonny Doon Ecological Preserve is the largest and most accessible of these unique habitats, with 550 acres and a network of trails open to the public during daylight hours. Walking these paths of heavy sand, one expects to hear the roar of the surf around every corner -- yet the ear meets nothing but the sound of a mountain breeze whispering through the surrounding woods.
Here we find a dominant population of the rare and endangered Bonny Doon manzanita (Arctostaphylos silvicola), an upright shrub from 5-15 feet tall with gorgeous silver foliage and a gnarled trunk of deep red vein-like branches. Sunlight shining at an angle through the leaves can cause this foliage to glow as if from within, rendering the landscape otherworldly and magical.
Distant rumblings from city hall portend a boom on Treasure Island, the former Navy base on the brink of becoming San Francisco's newest residential neighborhood. This exercise of urban planning in the middle of the bay will be a closely watched experiment. Early drafts of the master plan have called for sustainable design and green building development, for example, including an open space and landscaping component that emphasizes the use of locally native plants.
No plant is native to Treasure Island -- this 400-acre landmass was built of quarried rock and bay-dredged landfill in the late 1930s. But the first seawalls for that project were raised from the northern shoals of Yerba Buena Island, the natural island now joined with man-made Treasure Island like a siamese twin. And the steep slopes of Yerba Buena Island, though radically altered by invasive weeds and the hand of man, still harbor remnants of the original native flora, a population from which the landscape planners may wish to draw their inspiration.
Consider the coast red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa), enthusiastic seeder of moist forest margins, a proven survivor even in the deepening shadows of eucalyptus and monterey pine. This robust deciduous shrub can reach tree-like heights of 15-20 feet, filling the middle space beneath a taller canopy with a cheerful bloom of frothy white blossoms from March through July. Just now the fruit has begun to form, dramatic clusters of scarlet berries adored by birds. After the leaves drop in late fall, the bare elderberry still holds interest for its branches, which have a large pith and are easily hollowed out. The Ohlone used these twigs for flutes, whistles, and clapper sticks (a drum alternative); indeed, the genus name Sambucus pays homage to the Greek sambuke, a musical instrument made from elder wood. Excellent as a specimen plant in the garden or as a focal point in an urban park, and a tasteful alternative to cotoneaster, the coast red elderberry should rank high on anybody's landscaping wish list.
Water paints with shifting colors the divided contours of the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma, California. The blues and greens of oak and bay forests on protected north-facing slopes complement the fire and earth tones of chaparral on the south-facing sides. Here at the southern end of the basin, riotous riparian woodlands follow snaking Stuart Creek through a steep canyon to Agua Caliente, the pepper of volcanic springs beneath the valley floor. Lowland meadows collect water in seasonal puddles, where vivid wildflowers come and go with the equinox.
On two sides of the Old Sonoma Highway, one such meadow is divided by two authorities. The southwest side of the field falls within the boundaries of Sonoma Valley Regional Park, a public 162-acre parcel near Glen Ellen; the northeast side belongs to the Bouverie Preserve, a 500-acre jewel in the private necklace of Audubon Canyon Ranch.
A former quarry beside the Bouverie visitor center (rumored to have supplied the stone for the nearby Jack London House) is today a vernal pool, a depression of hardpan that fills with water in winter and goes bone dry in summer. Smaller pools and swales sweep the adjacent meadow in a network of linked seasonal wetlands -- up to Highway 12, of course -- then continue as another isolated system on the other side of the road. Spring sees the transition from flood to drought in these unforgiving flats, a mere sliver of time in which a succession of highly adapted native plants take the stage and dance with the reaper for a week or two, then disappear again.
Passover comes this Sunday, a rite from the Biblical story of Exodus, wherein the enslaved Israelites win their freedom from Pharaoh. It seems a fitting context for a discussion of The Acres, an indentured ecosystem on the wildland-urban interface.
These substantial and privately-held native grasslands rise between the town of Brisbane and the state and county park of San Bruno Mountain. A walk here is like a page from the California history book -- steep hoary stands of melic and fescue athwart canyons of buckeye and oak, and vast savannahs of butterfly sage punctuated by johnny jump-up, silver lupine, and broadleaf stonecrop, the larval food plants of rare and endangered butterflies.
Carved into jigsaw-puzzle pieces by an "unrecorded subdivision" (i.e. illegally) in the 1930s, with titles now held by hundreds of individuals, The Acres live in a state of bondage. Houses already cover twenty of the original 111 parcels (all on the lower slopes), and developers have mapped routes for possible roads and building envelopes throughout the remaining 120 wild acres. Opinions among owners radically diverge: some would like to preserve their land as open space, while others want to build. One fellow proposed turning his one-acre parcel into an Indian casino. Where is Moses when you need him?
The near-horizontal pitch of these slide-prone grades would appear to discourage your average builder -- but the Bay Area real estate market is anything but average. Already the narrow private roads on the lower, comparatively gentle slopes "typically do not meet fire code standards," according to the City of Brisbane. Some of the proposed new streets in the steeps are merely drawn on paper; others follow the mad path of Virgil Karns, an eccentric local landowner from decades ago who joyrode his bulldozer up and down these sheer ridges in his spare time.