This section explores the zeitgeist of contemporary landscape design, sweeping aside cliché to consider new models of the built environment.

Native plants and modern materials always figure highly in our thoughts. 

Our most prolific contributor, Geoffrey Coffey, cut his teeth writing the "Locals Only" column on native plants for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Seminar on Vertical Gardens at the Going Native Garden Tour

GNGT-logo.jpgAt the upcoming Going Native Garden Tour, a free annual tour of private native plant gardens in Santa Clara Valley and the Peninsula, Madroño president Geoffrey Coffey will appear at Garden #16 in Los Altos Hills to serve as docent, where he will speak at length on Vertical Landscaping.

This garden features a modern green wall composed of perforated steel panels, designed and installed by Madroño in 2008. The four-acre property also features several mature valley oaks, one spectacular black oak, and a multitude of choice native flowering shrubs and perennials including Dr. Hurd Manzanita, Ceanothus 'Julia Phelps,' Redbud, Fremontodendron 'Ken Taylor,' Wax Myrtle, Bush Anenome, Western Azalea, and many more. 

This year's event will also feature a plant sale by Bay Natives nursery, featuring many of the same plants growing and thriving in the garden.  Please join us!

To get the address, you first must register on the tour website.

WHO: Native plant aficionados of every stripe

WHAT: Going Native Garden Tour

WHERE: Garden #16 (please register to get the exact address)

WHEN: Sunday, April 21, 2013, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

WHY: To meet Madroño president Geoffrey Coffey and learn about the benefits of green walls, to enjoy the pleasures of a private estate garden in Los Altos Hills, and to buy choice native species from Bay Natives nursery, the San Francisco source for native plants.

See you there!

Madroño Wins "Best Overall Design" at S.F. Garden Show

pacific-rim-fusion-PBF.jpgThe 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. 

The 8'x8' display included a milled redwood slatted screen with Japanese-style trim, designer teak furniture from Indonesia and Brazil, the ultra-modern Rimbou Venus sun shade, a custom concrete planter by Mary Oros, and choice native plants including bentgrass (Agrostis pallens), seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), Tule rush (Scirpus californica), and the Paradise manzanita (Arctostaphylos pajaroensis 'Paradise').


California Passes Rainwater Act

Cistern_san_francisco_rainwater23.jpgCalifornia 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.  

This much-needed liberalization of the law further permits holders of a C27 licence (landscape contractors) to prime contract for the construction of such systems when they are used exclusively for irrigation or as supply for a fountain, waterfall, pond, or other water feature.

Designed together with targeted overflow into bioswales and vernal detainment pools, rainwater management systems recharge local aquifers and liberate the gardener from the city garden hose. 

The new law also acknowledges change in precipitation patterns, with more changes to come:  

An increasing amount  of California's water is predicted to fall not as snow in the mountains, but as rain in other areas of the state. This will affect the local hydrologic cycle profoundly; much of that rainwater will no longer be held in existing reservoirs, which are located to capture snowmelt.

Snowmelt is also predicted to occur progresively early in the year, so reservoirs operated for flood control must release water early in the season to protect against later storms, thereby reducing the amount of early-season snowmelt that can be saved.

Expanding opportunities for rainwater capture to augment water supply will require efforts at all levels, from individual landowners to state and local agencies and watershed managers. 

Here at Madroño, we hope to serve ever more clients choosing to improve their landscapes so elementally.

Special Event at California Academy of Sciences

native-plants-through-a-modern-lens.jpgMODERN & NATIVE:
Contemporary Design Meets
California Native Plants

Join Madroño founder and president Geoffrey Coffey for a talk and slide show on modern design approaches using California native plants in the built landscape.

Sept. 21, 2011 from 4:30 - 6:30 p.m.

California Academy of Sciences
(Use Staff Entrance on Middle Drive East)
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

(APLD members free)

More info here: Modern & Native

Program begins at 4:30 sharp. Meet at the staff entrance on Middle Drive East. Academy staff will escort us as a group to the lecture hall for this special event; please respect their time and be prompt.

RSVP to Alan Good,

Sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).

Laundry to Landscape Pilot Program

greywater-plan.jpgIn a push for citizens to install greywater irrigation systems in their homes, the SFPUC (city water department) has launched a program to offset the cost of materials for qualifying households.  The so-called Laundry-to-Landscape program requires a formal application with proof that the property has a working washing machine and a yard that is level or downsloping away from the machine's outflow.  The first 150 qualifying households will receive a 95% subsidy toward the purchase of a hardware kit (hub connectors, three-way valves, etc.) to divert greywater from the sewers and use it to irrigate the garden.

Only 1- or 2-unit residential buildings are eligible, and only these buildings are allowed to install greywater systems without a permit from the building department. To encourage and promote the use of graywater systems in larger and/or commercial or industrial buildings, the SFPUC also offers a rebate up to $225 toward the cost of obtaining a permit. To be eligible, the graywater system must be used for subsurface irrigation only.

For more information on the program, check the SFPUC's dedicated greywater page.  For help with the application and permitting process, or to order a professional greywater design for your property, contact Madroño.

Planting Planreservoir planting, long crop
Score a point for the city planners: their new landscaping at the Stanford Heights Reservoir, in the San Francisco neighborhood of Miraloma Park uses locally appropriate native plants in simple bold strokes of panache.  The design is a triumph of simplicity.

We are so frequently dismayed by the busy, overwrought planting plans brought forth by cookie-cutter "native plant designers" taking the wildlands as their only inspiration, who employ a hodgepodge of (too) many plant species because "that's how it looks in nature."

Here, the design chooses two beautiful species as a foundation for all the plantings adjacent to sidewalks: Carex pansa and Pacific Coast Iris.

The Pacific Dune Sedge (Carex pansa) looks like a  meadow grass, and it spreads underground by rhizomes like running bamboo.  It grows well in heavy soil (though it prefers sand) and can tolerate sun, drought, and the traffic of dogs.

The iris is gorgeous and locally authentic; Its blue flower and long pointed leaf may be as emblematic of San Francisco as any plant I know.

Together they bind the perimeter of the reservoir with sustainability and beauty.  Water-wise, insect-friendly, pleasing to the eye, and mostly self-sufficient -- what more can you ask?

The plan also called for sowing seed of blue-eyed grass (which didn't come up) and California poppy (which did).  Count my vote a yawn.  Haven't we had enough poppies?  So many other local and lovely annual wildflowers to choose from -- anybody for Clarkia?  Collinsia?  Lasthenia?  Limnanthes?  Anybody?

Talk & Slide Show at Brisbane Library

Join Madroño founder and president Geoffrey Coffey for a talk and slide show at the Brisbane Library on modern gardens using locally appropriate native plants.

May 14, 2011 from 2-3 p.m.

250 Visitacion Ave.
Brisbane, CA 94005

Sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

A Word on Modern Fences

Modern Fence in San Francisco
Urban living means density, and for city back yards that means fencing: we need clean lines of agreement on where my property ends and yours begins.

But so many existing fences in the city are ugly, common, built on the cheap, installed by rote with no insight, like mere place-holders.  We swoon at the magnitude of lost opportunities.  If well designed, the fence can strive for art even as it performs its necessary, divisive duties.  The key to the sublime lies in transparency to sunlight.

LUCCON Translucent Concrete

luccon1.jpgLuccon is a light-transmitting concrete made with multiple sheets of thin optic cables layered into fine-grained concrete cast in prefabricated molds. It allows sunlight, shadows, and colors to project through the concrete -- one of the most beautiful and ethereal materials we have seen.

Because the fibers have such a small diameter, the strength and durability of Luccon is the same as for that of conventional concrete. The blocks appear comparably massive as well as translucent, with an unique light pattern created by chance. Blocks can be cut to achieve elements of variable thickness and size.

The most striking effect is the silhouetting of shadows cast behind the concrete.  It raises wonderful possibilities for use as a garden screen, for example, or as the wall for an outdoor shower.

Landscape design can bridge otherwise impassable hurdles.

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.

Los Palmos -- BEFOREQuestion: How to deal with this ugly yet necessary piece of engineering?

Los Palmos -- AFTERAnswer: 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.

In Praise of Carex Pansa

carex_pansa200x300.jpgConsider the sedge (genus Carex), that vigorous and beautiful groundcover, when thinking about plausible substitutes for lawn.

It may look like grass, but the sedge is a botanically distinct member of a completely different family.  With an estimated 2000 species worldwide, the sedges can offer many different sizes, colors, and exotic textures for the adventurous landscape designer.

However, here in the American West we should always be aware of garden water needs (or lack thereof), thus restricting our range of choice -- most Carex species need lots of water.

But not the Pacific Dune Sedge (Carex pansa), found natively in sand dunes from central California to British Columbia.  It has grown here since before the time of gardeners and water hoses; it drinks when it rains.  This makes it an excellent choice for low-maintainence, drought-tolerant alternative lawns in the San Francisco Bay Area.


songwood-shorter.jpgThis high-tech lumber from Boulder(CO)-based Engineered Timber Resources is manufactured from 100% reclaimed and recycled Poplar wood veneer sourced as waste from the furniture and pulp industries. 

The reclaimed fibers are cleaned and sorted by color, then kiln-dried, layered to resemble the texture of real wood, mixed with a low-VOC resin, compressed under 1800 tons of pressure, and finally cured with slow heat.  

The resulting log is not only durable and hard-wearing, but also extremely stable. And its appearance can be customized based on the raw material inputs and the desired outcome; the product can be infused with organic dyes and colorants before compression, for a solid-body integral color that is therefore sandable.

Songwood can be milled into any shape and used for any of the traditional interior or exterior applications of regular wood.

In addition to Songwood, the company produces other modern reclaimed wood products including BURL (designed with a marbleized texture), Mulberry (compressed mulberry branches sourced as waste from the silk industry), and many varieties of compressed bamboo fiber (in colors and textures both natural and dyed to resemble exotic species).

A round of applause, if you please, for ETR and other manufacturers who divert waste from the landfills to create attractive and long-lasting building materials.

To Build a Green Wall

The marriage of living plants and cold steel ranks among the most enjoyable elements of practicing landscape design in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Green Wall -- live plantable retaining wall by Madrono landscape design studioSCENARIO: 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.

Big Bad Slope -- BEFOREQUESTION: How to turn this liability -- a barren and degraded slope -- into a lush and attractive asset?

Big Bad Slope -- AFTERANSWER: Save the slope with a green wall of perforated steel plates, coconut coir, and local native plants.

Stormwater Infiltration Sidewalk Planters

sidewalk infiltration planters, longThese sidewalk trees fronting a big-box store in El Cerrito may appear ordinary, but they warrant a closer look.

sidewalk infiltration planters, medium Each concrete planter box is outfitted with multiple intake gutters to capture stormwater.

sidewalk infiltration planters, closeRunoff from the street flows down these narrow gutters and into the planters.

Good native plants for stormwater infiltration planters Hardy California native plants like Mimulus (monkeyflower), Calamagrostis (reedgrass), Juncus (wild rush) and Danthonia (oatgrass) love to be saturated with water in winter, then go bone dry in summer .

Care and Feeding of Cotoneaster

A simple maintenance program to keep Cotoneaster looking its best:

Gently prune and shape the main stems with a case-loader.

Trim all secondary and tertiary branches until you have achieved the desired shape

A good Cotoneaster is a clean Cotoneaster.

Fare thee well!

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.