Posts tagged California native plants

It Takes More Than Bollards to Build a Bike Paradise: “Some cycling capitals are less well known. Take Nijmegen, a mid-sized Dutch city near the German border, where bikes boast an inner-city modal share of 60 percent. Last year, the Cyclists’ Union of the Netherlands voted it the best bike city in the country (and thus probably the universe)—toppling other towns that regularly garner international praise. What’s the city’s secret? A new documentary by Streetfilms shot during Velo-City, an international biking conference recently held in Nijmegen, hits on key points.”

Atlas for the End of the World: “Coming almost 450 years after the world’s first Atlas, this Atlas for the End of the World audits the status of land use and urbanization in the most critically endangered bioregions on Earth. It does so, firstly, by measuring the quantity of protected area across the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots in comparison to United Nation’s 2020 targets; and secondly, by identifying where future urban growth in these territories is on a collision course with endangered species.”

LANDSCAPE: All Night Menu Stirs the Plot: “Here’s how Sam Sweet describes his All Night Menu project: “A periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories. Its only objective is to make the invisible equal to the visible.” The series of five handmade booklets explores Los Angeles’ sprawl with gritty elegance. Each story unveils multilayered narratives from otherwise overlooked corners. On this episode of LAndscape, Sweet joins Frosty on a jaunt around Los Angeles to flip some stones. Hear about the extraordinary, unsung characters who’ve roamed these streets and the music that moved them.”

California Plant Communities by Zipcode:
These lists are an attempt to define what plant community(ies) exist for every city, town and zipcode in California. Although we’ve traversed most of California, it seems humanly impossible to track every road and village in one lifetime. Works like Munz’s California Flora, McMinn’s Shrubs of California, Abram’s Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States, or the original Jepson Manual (Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, by Willis Linn Jepson) continually amaze me with how few hillsides they missed. They didn’t have zipcodes then.”

The Last House On Mulholland – HOME: Stories from LA: How will we live in 20 years? Or 50? Or 100? A one-of-a-kind, only-in-LA plot at the very end of Mulholland Highway inspired some of the world’s best designers to think hard about the home of the future, in Los Angeles and beyond.

Photos: Wendy Chan

Photos: Wendy Chan

I was fortunate to attend an elementary school situated next to a natural hillside. Appropriately named Hillside Elementary School, I remember observing the seasons change across the school’s hillside from green, to green with brown tips, then finally to completely brown. I loved watching the brown grass sway with the wind, imagining them as prairie fields with a mythical creature living inside a small cave nestled into the hillside.

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As a kid I perceived this hillside scene as the definition of nature’s beauty, even though in reality it was just an undeveloped hillside within the Los Angeles urban environment. Now that I am older, I appreciate these moments and the feelings the Los Angeles landscape still evokes: the way the brown grass sways with the breeze, the sight of Yucca flowers dotting the hillsides, or the lone tree standing tall above a field of native grass. The Los Angeles landscape has a unique charm and beauty, and photography gives me the means to capture the natural beauty endemic to Southern California that continues to inspire the imagination.

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Photo: Calvin Abe

I have dozens of Agave attenuata – aka Fox Tail Agave – in my backyard. The species is one of my favorite plants because of their beauty, sculptural qualities, subtle luminescence and, of course, their drought tolerance. They look healthier if they get some occasional water since they are from an arid tropical area of the world (South America). I love to photograph them because of the way they capture and naturally reflect the soft qualities of sunlight.

Photo: Calvin Abe

Photo: Calvin Abe

“Agave” is Greek for noble or admirable (Munz, Flora So. Calif. 864). The word “attenuata” refers to the tips which are produced to a point. Their form is quite majestic and elegant if you look closely at them. This particular plant is commonly found in Southern California gardens. Along the coastal areas, they are adaptable in both shade and sun, but they will grow slightly faster with a bit of sun. They are also great accents in the garden if used as focal points.

Photo: Calvin Abe

Photo: Calvin Abe

Agave attenuatas look spikey, sharp, and dangerous. They are not. Unlike other beautiful agaves, like ‘A. Deserti’ or the large ‘A. Americana’, this particular variety is soft and flexible. Nurseries typically sell them in 5 to 15 gallon containers, which are 12″ to 14″ wide. Don’t be surprised if after two to three years, the plant expands to a beautiful 30″ to 36″ width. Plant them 5–6 feet apart, and with a little patience they will grow in size to become sculptural elements in the garden. Make sure they have a neutral background to show off their spikey cluster.

Lastly, if you’re into photography as I am, the Agave attenuata is a brilliant specimen to visually capture and experiment with. I’ll share more as we go.

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

In 2010, I began to think about my front yard again. I decided that I wanted to convert the space into an edible garden, thinking it would be cool to grow strawberries similar to what I grew up enjoying throughout my childhood growing up on a farm in Sacramento. However, this idea wasn’t the first attempt to re-think my garden.

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

When I moved into my home in 1991, the front yard was your basic Bermuda grass lawn, similar to practically everyone else’s front yard in the neighborhood. Over the last twenty-five years, I redesigned my front yard four times. Each new attempt was an exploration of a different design idea that was of interest to me.

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

Photo: Laure Joliet for Sunset

The fruits of a gardener's labor can last well beyond the season of fruits and vegetables with a little preservation.

The fruits of a gardener’s labor can last well beyond the season of fruits and vegetables with a little preservation. Photo: Laure Joliet

If you were in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s, you will remember that we were experiencing another drought, one which was viewed then as an “irritant” to our everyday lives. As a Landscape Architect, I was interested in adaptable landscape design, but most of my clients were very resistant to an aesthetic that wasn’t green and tropical. We often used the term “xeriscape” to describe this landscape typology, which never really caught on because many people thought only nature lovers would appreciate it.

Photo: Calvin Abe

US Borax Headquarters in Valencia, California – Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

In 1992, I remember working on a landscape concept for the US Borax Headquarters in Valencia, California. The corporate President at that time was British and he was very interested in the corporate gardens. Because of the drought, I discussed with him this question: What would a landscape that didn’t require water or energy look like? This piqued his interest and the resulting design was our first corporate garden that truly expressed an environmentally sensitive concept, which I called “The Garden of 20”. The project was also our first large scale landscape that used California native grasses. I loved it, and our client really appreciated the aesthetics and what it represented.

About a year later, I received an apologetic call from the US Borax President who told me that the native grasses were being replaced with a traditional lawn. He was given a petition, signed by 500 employees, indicating the headquarters staff no longer wanted the native grass look, voting it be replaced with a lawn. He felt he had no choice. This story does not have a happy ending, but it does convey a larger cultural story of our relationship to the land.

Well, I’ve talked about this cultural narrative for the last 25 years. Today, I think it is almost second nature to prepare a landscape design that is more in tune with our natural rainfall, especially with today’s new drought situation. When I look at the images of my front yard strawberry patch, I see a culmination of many changing cultural attitudes. After five years in the making, last weekend marked that last phase of my strawberry patch. To continue the edible garden idea, I have planted my front yard as a vegetable garden with tomatoes, squash, green peppers, eggplant and others varieties. This time, however, I am finding my neighborhood changing as well. New lawn replacement projects are happening everywhere, on almost every street in Westchester.

What is next?

A California native, the Buckeye butterfly is amongst the pollinators found at the Natural History Museum's native garden. Photo: NHMLA

A California native, the Buckeye butterfly is amongst the pollinators found at the Natural History Museum’s native garden. Photo: NHMLA

On a field trip to the Nature Gardens of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Carol Bornstein, the gardens’ Director and also co-author of, California Native Plants for the Garden, and Dr. Brian Brown, the museum’s Entomology Curator, served as our guides. Our visit was an inquiry into native gardens within urban settings, a subject of ongoing interest to us as designers of urban spaces.

My strongest impression of the day was the different perspectives of the gardens we heard and experienced. We listened to Carol Bornstein, who is a horticulturalist, describe how her staff is maintaining an aesthetic and cultural balance with the plants of each garden and talk about the plants’ life cycles and care. I smiled in appreciation when she said, “brown is a color too,” a familiar statement to most designers of California native gardens.

Back in 2011 the NHMLA's Curator of Entomology, Dr. Brian Brown brought in an extra piece of redwood from his yard, and with the help of the museum's exhibit technicians drilled over 200 quarter inch holes to turn the wood into bee hotels.

Back in 2011 the NHMLA’s Curator of Entomology, Dr. Brian Brown brought in an extra piece of redwood from his yard, and with the help of the museum’s exhibit technicians drilled over 200 quarter inch holes to turn the wood into bee hotels.

With Dr. Brown, we adjusted our viewing lens as we shifted our listening from a discussion of shrubs and trees to bees and flies. He talked about pollinators and directed our attention to the gardens’ native flies, butterflies, bees and other insects. We learned from him that there are over 500 species of native bees in Los Angeles (wow!), and that Argentine Ants, an introduced species, have displaced many of our native ants.


I was then drawn to the gardens’ other visitors, the people for whom these gardens were created. I watched as school children navigated the landscape and discovered the things that we discussed with Carol and Brian and which make these gardens special. They entered the woven willow playhouse and followed paths leading to bee hotels, insect traps, a pond and other finds. They curiously investigated the gardens’ Living Wall – and perhaps, I wondered, contemplating a climb.

We started our visit thinking about the performance of native gardens within urban settings. We wondered about how urbanization affects plant culture, pollinators, and wildlife habitats. We observed, asked questions and listened. The day was not about answers.