Landscaping lessons from nature

2022-05-28 06:49:13 By : Mr. Steven Park

North Bay communities are surrounded by plentiful, diverse scenes of nature that not only enrich our lives but teach us about designing gardens, too.

The types, forms, foliage and growth habits of trees and shrubs in nature vary greatly and together create interest and beauty. The question is, how do we take lessons from natural scenes and incorporate them in our home gardens?

Take a few minutes to look at natural areas that are pleasing to you. Analyze the composition, patterns and colors of the landscape and how they interact. If you can, take photos for later reference — there is a lot to see.

Rolling oak woodland is dotted with rugged-profile oaks adorned with stalwart foliage, their long lives written on each turn of branch. Every tree reveals a personality: upright, neatly rounded, spreading or even weeping.

Redwood and fir trees, with formal and dark foliage, march up hills and down valleys. Contrasting with them are large-leaf, deep-green madrone trees with smooth, muscular bark. Bay trees are strong in stature, with lance-shaped or elliptical leaves that are green above and pale below and shield profuse pale-yellow flowers in winter.

Manzanitas in a mixed landscape or amid chaparral are almost unworldly in appearance, with smooth skinlike bark covering sinewy and muscular branch structures, like ancient Greek hero statues. Gray, green or white contrasting waxy leaves are decorated with delicate white or pink waxy bell flowers in early spring and muted reddish-ochre berries in summer.

The oaks, madrone, manzanita, redwoods and other native trees and shrubs are often pleasingly and artistically arranged in patterns and groupings over hillsides and valleys as if by an unseen hand, creating scenes of beauty both on a large scale and in more intimate settings.

The larger-scale elements of the landscape are complemented by an understory or lower layer of shrubs like smaller manzanitas, coyote brush, currants, coffeeberry, western hazelnut, dogwood and California lilac that also grow in patterned groupings.

Then there’s a ground layer of grasses, green and soft in winter and rough and golden in summer. A sprinkle of flowering bulbs and flowers sets off and provides a foreground to the larger-scale landscape elements.

Notice how the different layers of the landscape — tree, shrub and ground cover — interact to create a cohesive scene and move the eye from high to low, engaging it at each level.

Also notice how the plants’ different natural shapes — open, dense, upright and spreading — work to complement or contrast with each other. Look at how the formal shape of a fir tree contrasts with the dense, rounded form of a live oak; both are a dark, formal green.

Leaf shape and color are important landscape elements, too, from large, dark, oval leaves like madrones to smaller oval or rounded leaves, gray leaves like manzanitas or holly-like glossy leaves of mahonia.

We don’t need to faithfully copy the composition of the native plants to bring a similar natural beauty into our home gardens. But we can mimic nature’s repeated forms, structures, drifts and patterns on a much smaller scale to capture a similar flavor and atmosphere.

When selecting plants, use plants similar to those found in the North Bay or use some nonnative plants as stand-ins or representations of them. Large shrubs like California redbud, large manzanita and California lilac can stand in for the large trees many of us don’t have room for.

Madrone, which is hard to establish in home gardens, can be replaced by Arbutus ‘Marina’ or even the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. If you like a colorful garden, the native creek dogwood, Cornus sericea, can be replaced by the brilliantly colored Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerow’s Gold’ — a medium-size shrub much more treelike in form than the straight species.

Native penstemon like the blue-flowered Penstemon heterophyllus ‘BOP’ and the pink seaside daisy Erigeron ‘Wayne Roderick’ (or similar), combined with native fescues, can be used as understory plants.

Manzanita shrubs can have a ground layer of California fuchsia Epilobium Schieffelin’s Choice’ (or similar) and deer grass Muhlenbergia rigens or yuccas. Another possible ground layer around manzanitas or California redbud are native buckwheats (Eriogonum), the ground cover California lilac Ceanothus maritimus ‘Valley Violet’ and monkeyflowers.

Even if we can’t plant this year due to the ongoing drought, we can learn much from the nature around us to use when the rains return.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool.

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

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