Recently in Natives Category

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?
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.

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.