Mostly natives – clearing space for what makes sense

It’s not often that I work with a garden design client who says ”Don’t you think this should ALL be natives?”  Standing at the entrance to her property in Portola Valley, looking out at the spectacular view – my answer was a resounding ‘Yes!”  At that point, to actually see the hills beyond, you had to look past a huge wall of oleanders and bottlebrush.  Our goal was to frame the view, and create a water-wise garden with year-round interest that fits seamlessly into the valley beyond.

We started by taking cues from what existed naturally — the site was surrounded by oaks, toyons and manzanita.   There were many non-native specimen plants on the property – these were incorporated into the overall design where they made sense and were good partners with natives both culturally and aesthetically.  Agaves were relocated and now frame the entry gates softened by native grasses and edged by buckwheats that turn a wonderful rusty pink – and match the color of the slate entry pillars.

As you come through the gates and up the drive – the view is center stage.   Native evergreen shrubs and grasses now provide structure (coffeeberry, toyon, manzanita, ceanothus, deer grass) and mimic the same dark greens and beiges you see in the surrounding hillsides.  With the existing oaks, these plants function as a subtle yet elegant picture frame around the glorious views west into the hills.


Most everything is planted so it has room to grow into its mature size.  Since the garden is only six months old, this left lots of open space.  The homeowner loves to see richly planted, colorful spaces, so we tucked in big swathes of white, yellow, mauve and blue annuals and perennials that knit all the plants together– native iris, California poppy, tarweed, foothill penstemon, tidy tips, matilija poppy, sages and blue-eyed grass.

Toward the house, we’ve added plants that work well with natives and complement the architecture.  The front door is framed by Arbutus ‘Marina’, with its spectacular rust-colored bark and rich, dark green leaves.  This tree is partnered with natives that include coffeeberry, grasses, lilac verbena, and dudleya (a succulent that mimics the icy grey color of the fountain as well as non-native cape rush for it’s rust-colored seed heads.  The homeowner loves succulents, so they’ve been tucked in throughout.

Now, the garden is not quite ALL natives – but it’s mostly natives – and it looks and feels like it belongs in the space.

This article, in a shorter form, originally appeared July 27, 2011, in the Los Altos Town Crier: Mostly natives – clearing space for what makes sense.

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