CALIFORNIA NATIVE LANDSCAPE DESIGN
My story with California's native landscapes began back in the 1960’s in the eastern foothills of
San Diego County. Being a fourth–generation California native, I was raised hearing stories from
my grandfather about his dad and older brother, Bert. My great–uncle Bert was a prominent civil engineer, and was known for sowing seeds of
our state flower, the California Poppy, at roadside stops as he traveled the US Highways, up and down the state.
My grandfather also shared the tale of their father’s harrowing trips by horse and buckboard; from the downtown
area of San Diego to the Imperial Valley where my great–grandfather Edmund Moore had a ranch procured by
His story would begin as his big brother and father would leave the family home located at Fifth
and A streets in the downtown area of San Diego. The home was his grandfather's, renowned California pioneer and
builder Colonel Garrett Garreon Bradt. Before daybreak, they would load the buckboard with supplies
and head east making it all the way to Lakeside by the first night. Tired and road weary, they would overnight at the famous Lakeside
In order to beat the heat, they would get an early start, continuing east as far as Pine Valley by
the second night. Finally, they would arrive at the eastern edge of the Jacumba Mountains by the third afternoon
where they would brave the Devil’s Slide before descending to the desert floor and finally arriving at their 100
The Jacumba Mountains were of particular interest to me as a child because this was the location of
the Desert Lookout Tower. It was surrounded with giant boulders and featured fascinating rock
carvings as well as a little shop/museum where artifacts, souvenirs and refreshments were offered. The tower was
constructed in the 1920's and was staffed by a friendly gentleman who sold admission tickets and offered up
historical information printed on a pamphlet. After ascending a few flights of stairs to the top of the tower we
would be rewarded by an amazing 360 degree view of an ‘other-worldly’ landscape with segments of the old auto
trail road winding down the steep incline. I found the varying terrain and native flora fascinating, and I loved
experiencing it by way of regular road trips with my grandparents, my grandpa narrating all the while.
As a young child I always enjoyed these road trips to the back–country. We would drive up
old Hwy 80, bouncing along to the rhythm of what seemed like an endless succession of
expansion joints; stop a mile or so south of the Los Terrinitos/Descanso junction and eat lunch under the Coast
Live Oaks. This shady destination featured a natural roadside spring and was known as Ellis Wayside rest stop,
named for Charles Ellis who was Station Master of the Coyote Wells Stage Stop circa 1865.
I was fascinated with the history of the meandering old concrete highway and the circuitous path it
wound through giant boulders that jutted out of the chaparral. Manzanita covered the hillsides and I remember being
intrigued by their smooth red bark and how green the country side was at the height of the summer. All the while, I
was being drawn in by stories of the old stage coach road that my grandpa's older brother and father traveled back
and forth from the Imperial Valley to San Diego at the turn of the century.
When I was ten, my mom re–married and we moved from Lakeside east to an unincorporated area near
Alpine known as Flinn Springs. This exciting new place I was lucky enough to call home, was a vast, wide-open
plant community, known in California native plant circles as interior sage scrub. I spent countless hours
wandering the hills, exploring, and familiarizing myself with the native flora and fauna. The ubiquitous aroma
of Black Sage and Artemisia filled the air as I wandered the seemingly endless trails and pushed through the
Chamise, always careful to avoid the sharp spines of the Yucca whipplei. I scrambled over huge granite boulders
hunting for snakes, lizards and horny toads. During the hot inland afternoons I would find respite in the cool
shade of a grove of Coast Live Oak in a nearby canyon, an area we simply referred to as ‘The Oaks’.
I got to know the critters that called this community home, as well. Jack rabbits would appear out
of nowhere, bolt across my path and disappear into the brush a few seconds later. Flocks of our state bird, the
California Quail, with their signature three-tone call exemplified the ‘sound’ of the chaparral.
Occasionally, I would see a greater roadrunner with an unfortunate reptile dangling from her beak.
I heard that seeing one of these birds was good luck, so I was always excited when a sighting occurred, hopefully
optimistic that something good was going to happen to me in the near future! Of course, I was always on the lookout
for rattlesnakes and ever aware of the red-tailed hawk circling high above in search of his next meal. With so many
new discoveries and experiences, this was a truly magical time of my life!
Unfortunately, this magical time was to be short–lived. As I was enjoying a care–free life in the
sage scrub, a large developer was meticulously plotting to implement a much different vision for my beloved open
space. With final approval from the County, his bulldozers began the process of systematically destroying this
paradise I had grown so fond of. We had heard rumors but that didn’t soften the shock that fateful day I came home
from school only to see acre upon acre of scrapped hillside, literally stripped of all vegetation.
The vernal pools left over from winter rains where I caught frogs and pollywogs in the spring, the
great granite boulder that had been precariously embedded in the side of the hill for thousands of years—a place
where I built a make–shift Indian enclosure under a Laurel Sumac which grew from its base, even the bike trail and
dry creek bed that my brother and I would race through, flying up and out of the other side—in a matter of
My family and I moved shortly after construction began, but I never got over the sadness I felt
from losing this place. I carried it with me for many years longing to return to the wild place where I felt so at
That experience was indelibly imprinted in my malleable young mind. Throughout my adulthood I would
notice feelings of sadness and frustration rising whenever I saw native land being cleared for a new housing
project or shopping center. I always wished that there was something I could do to rectify what I saw as an
on–going wrong, being perpetrated on our natural environment.
As fate would have it, many years later, as I was finishing up my education in ornamental landscape
design, I happened across an advertisement for a course in designing landscapes utilizing California native
plants. It was offered at the Theodore Payne Foundation located in Sun Valley. I was intrigued and, even though it was
a long drive from my home in Orange County, I decided to enroll.
At some point over the course of the four weekends I spent there, while walking through their
nursery, the realization struck me. I realized that the plants I had loved so much in my childhood, were not only
available for purchase, but could be grown in suburban gardens, and that as a Landscape Designer, there
was something I could do about the on-going destruction of our native open spaces. Like the proverbial
apple falling on my head, I was overcome with a feeling of joy, one that I had known as a child growing up in the
wild places in the back–country of San Diego County, the feeling of coming full-circle, of coming home.
At that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had discovered my calling: California
native landscape design. Today, with every garden I design, assist others to create through consultation, lecture,
blog, or writing, I am recreating that lost paradise from my childhood. I am restoring
California’s native landscape, one design at a time!