Mimicking local plant communities in the garden

By Lauren Lewis

In the past I’ve written about the types of plant communities that are local to SF and the benefits we at SSG see in knowing and recognizing our native ecosystems. To connect with those ideas more deeply we can seek to mimic Bay Area plant communities when designing and updating our own personal outdoor spaces. Not only does this approach bring satisfying regional context to our gardens, tying us to our particular place in the world, but it can also result in lower input requirements for the garden- less water, less soil amendment, etc, because the plants we use are well suited to the space.

rtm6yubtsme0koxnmrpcw.jpgTo take this design approach, the critical step is to carefully observe the garden space, or the smaller space within the garden. Regarding sun exposure: which direction does it face? Does it have a slope? Does it have shading elements nearby, like buildings or big trees? Does the space have existing features that will stay, like a tree or large rock? Is the soil sandy, clay, or in between? These factors combine to suggest certain plant communities.

For a space with direct sun and some slope, chaparral or coastal scrub communities make sense. Chaparral is characterized by woody, hardy shrubs like manzanita, ceanothus and toyon, and the color combinations you can get from these shrubs are beautiful. Chaparral is characterized mainly by approximately waist-high plants, with very little low understory. If the garden gets direct sun exposure but is also often foggy then you can veer toward coastal scrub plant choices, which tend to be daintier: coyote brush, lupines, buckwheat. Add in very sandy soil to these characteristics and this suggests a sand dune community, where the plants are shorter still. Beach strawberry, bbej4hsqrqk4kj6rnfm7wg-e1551826450750.jpg
dune sagewort (a variety of artemisia), yellow sand verbena- these plants tend to create a carpet of succulent leaves and bright flowers.

Any fairly sunny spot, but especially a flatter one, would likely support a coastal prairie community, and we love these for their textural diversity and the way we can plant densely. Fescues, needlegrass, lupines, buckwheat (you’ll notice some overlap with the coastal scrub community), and douglas iris all work well here.

For a shady spot, whether shaded from buildings, existing trees, or trees you’ve chosen, you can take advantage of the shade to create a more woodland-leaning feel. Ferns are classic understory plants and they make a garden feel lush. We love native huckleberry and juncus for the mid-height, and for color in the low understory we use flowering shade plants like coral bells, hedgenettle, and yerba buena.


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