29. Landscape Design with Native Plants

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Landscape Design with Native Plants

Friday, October 21 at 3:00-4:40 pm, Oak Room

Session Description: Native plant landscapes provide a variety of ecological benefits and can beautifully fit a variety of design aesthetics. This track will examine best uses, emerging trends, and innovations in landscape design.

Session Chairs: Kate Hayes, RLA (Miridae Landscape Architecture + Construction, Sacramento, CA, USA) and Billy Krimmel, PhD (Miridae Landscape Architecture + Construction, Sacramento, CA, USA)

29.1    Biodiversity and aesthetics: The learnings from a San Franciscan native plant test garden

Alexandra Harker (Field Collective Inc. San Francisco, CA, USA), Nicki Copley (Field Collective Inc. San Francisco, CA, USA

The increased use of native plants within landscape projects is essential to improving our local biodiversity, yet California’s native plants are seen by many in the industry as untidy and too ephemeral. Landscape professionals need examples of aesthetically-successful native plant mixes to draw from to increase their success in specifying native plants in their projects and obtaining client buy-in. At the community-led Eco-Patch test garden (900SF) in San Francisco, we are experimenting with eight different plant combinations or mixes to gain insights into how aesthetic and biodiversity considerations can overlap to create beautiful and ecologically resilient habitats.

One key innovation we are testing is the use of layers. We are experimenting with groundcovers to achieve 100% plant cover so no soil is exposed. Thus far we have found groundcovers, including Dichondra donelliana, to be successful weed suppressors and to have substantial aesthetic value. Another layer we are testing is the structural layer, consisting of evergreen shrubs and bunch grasses. The ‘structural’ and ‘groundcover’ layers provide the overall evergreen structure, whilst ‘seasonal’ and ‘filler’ layers allow for California’s beautiful ephemeral plants to play their essential yet more fleeting role. One ‘seasonal’ plant we have found to be particularly successful is the rare Erysimum franciscanum. Other aspects we are experimenting with include bloom timing, color palettes, repetition and the use of local plant communities as design inspiration. Our presentation will cover the theories behind our planting strategy, and diagrams and photos that document our process and results.

Our overall aim for the test gardens is to gain and share insights so we can mainstream the use of California’s native plants within the profession of landscape architecture and allied industries. 

29.2    Resilient Landscapes: In defense of California native plants in the fire-prone landscape

April Owens (Habitat Corridor Project; Resilient Landscapes Coalition Member, Sebastopol, CA, USA), Jon Kanagy (Sonoma Ecology Center; Resilient Landscapes Coalition Member, Sonoma, CA, USA)

The Resilient Landscapes Coalition (SonomaResilientLandscapes.com) was created after the 2017 fires in Northern California. Wildfire threats were driving an increased fear of native plants in the landscape, and we wanted to create a forum for sharing information on habitat rich, fire resilient landscapes. We have worked to create collaborations with fire agencies, non-profit environmental and fire safety groups, and residential homeowners to build bridges of understanding about how we can enjoy landscapes that are firewise, biodiverse, and water wise. While it hasn’t always been easy, the Coalition has been able to sway fire professionals to our side AND learn that they love plants and landscapes, too. Collaboration and relationship-building have been the key to our model.

We secured grant funding in 2021 towards our workshop series for landscape professionals and residential homeowners, a new website, and several videos. We want to share our model with folks from across the state in hopes that the message of biodiverse fire resilient landscapes is spread.

The Resilient Landscapes Coalition is a partnership between the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Habitat Corridor Project, UC Master Gardeners of Sonoma County, and Fire Safe Sonoma, and has reached hundreds of people already. We will share how we were able to create this coalition, tips for replicating this idea in other areas, and of course, how to defend the biodiverse native plant palate we all love here in California.

This talk is not a how-to workshop (though we will share beautiful landscapes that are fire-wise and biodiverse) but a discussion about how to talk to homeowners, landscape contractors, and fire professionals about the importance of California native plants in the defensible space zone.

29.3    California Native Plant Landscaper Certification

Alejandro Lemus (Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, Sun Valley, CA, USA)

California Native Plant Landscaper Certification (CNPLC) is the flagship program of Theodore Payne Foundation professional educational offerings. This 10-class series, offered in English and Spanish, provides a comprehensive overview of the ways in which native plants should be selected, planted, and cared for. While native plant gardens generally require less weekly maintenance than lawns or conventional ornamental landscapes, they do require a nuanced understanding of the principles of native plant gardening. The CNPLC program gives students a solid foundation in these fundamentals, empowering a new generation of landscape professionals to re-imagine the urban and suburban landscapes of Southern California. Since the program’s inception in 2020, more than 300 professionals have received the Native Plant Certification.

29.4    Landscape as Laboratory: Experiential learning, research, outreach, and stewardship

Haven Kiers (University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA)

Lessons gleaned from the field of education posit that learning is most effective when students are given opportunities to formulate ideas, test them through concrete experiences, and reflect on the outcomes. Universities have increasingly embraced these pedagogies of experiential learning, adapting classrooms to increase flexibility and engagement. However, this shift has not been fully explored for campus landscapes. If students learn best through immersive experiences, how can our landscapes contribute to that learning? Campus landscapes function as ideal experiential laboratories — well equipped but loosely programmed spaces that encourage collaboration and allow students to propose projects, execute them, and learn from their successes and failures. 

The Landscape Lab at UC Davis flips traditional technical landscape architecture curriculum by disposing of a classroom and lectures as the primary teaching tools, focusing instead on creating knowledge through shared experience. Students gain hands-on experience not only in assembly, installation, and project management, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in sustainability, design, and stewardship. This effort of co-creation by students, faculty, and campus staff fosters student empowerment and interdisciplinary collaboration, while simultaneously improving landscape performance and biodiversity. Just as many scientists use the campus lands and fields as their primary research laboratory, the Landscape Lab allows students to use the core campus to test applied research and theory on social/environmental function, operational management, and the integration of native plants into mainstream landscape design.

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Please join us in thanking our major sponsors for making this year’s event possible! Become a sponsor today.

Giant Sequoia


Valley Oak


Moulton Niguel Water District

White Sage

H.T. Harvey & Associates Ecological Consultants
East Bay Municipal Utility District

Melo Gardens

California Poppy

Westervelt Ecological Services

Carol Witham

Jepson Herbarium
Helix Environmental Planning