Be water-wise and still have a beautiful garden.

Spring on Black Mountain

Spring has sprung and the natives are flowering on local hillsides. I especially enjoyed aIMG_1231 hilltop just north of Black Mountain Rd. It recently burned and was not weedy. Here’s a great combination of Dudleya pulverulenta surrounded by a gazillion Dichelostemma capitatum  I also saw nice Allium praecox and Stipa cornonata.


Interview with Terrain Landscape

Questions of sustainability swirl in our heads daily as we go about the business of improving residential landscapes. At Terrain we’re constantly reevaluating our approach and refining our techniques with an eye toward superior results. Lance and I sat down to chat about some of the things that have popped up in recent weeks and I’ve transcribed our conversation below.

Lance: Hey Nate, I have more and more people telling me each day that they want to replace their front lawn and put in artificial lawn. As a landscape professional working in a drought plagued area, do you think this a sustainable option? What other options are there for lawn replacement?

Nate: I don’t think artificial turf is really a sustainable option. It does cover the ground and it is reprocessed post consumer waste, but then again so is asphalt, shredded rubber tires, and bags of fast food thrown out of car windows. I don’t think any of the above have a place in a residential landscape. My personal preference is to work with real, living plant material, not pretend plants. Drought tolerant plants in combination with porous path or patio surfaces like gravel and flagstone are a great solution for reclaiming the lawn space and turning it into something much more attractive, productive and dynamic.

Lance: People want to beautify the front of their house and add to their property’s curb appeal. What do you think they can do to renovate their front yard landscape and upgrade their house image and still abide the eventual increase in water costs and water restrictions imposed by municipalities if this drought continues?

Nate: For me there is no compromise between beauty and drought tolerance. It’s 100% possible to have an outstandingly beautiful front yard landscape without breaking the water budget. At Terrain we tend to like a mix of plants from mediterranean climates from around the world accented with california native plants to give the property a sense of place. I think one of the big challenges for most people is imagining what the space might look like if it weren’t lawn, but we address that in the design process by creating photorealistic collages which can help people see their landscape’s potential. It’s a failure of imagination more than a biological or climactic limitation. A house with proper landscaping has way more curb appeal and is more joyful to live in.

Lance: Do you see artificial lawns as a viable replacement if they are looking to make the most environmentally responsible choice for their front yard renovation? Are there any health concerns with using the artificial materials for kids and pets?

Nate: I have heard people express concerns about about the plastics off gassing and leaching chemicals into the soil, but I haven’t done the homework to determine whether those concerns are valid. Many artificial turf systems use ground up tires as a filler to keep the blades from matting down. I’d be willing to guess that ingesting the dust and bits of metal from the ground tires is not a good thing. Whether or not those concerns are based on sound science is irrelevant for me because there are so many more satisfying, functional, beautiful and affordable alternatives. For kids, I think boulders, flagstones, gravel, and just plain old dirt are more dynamic and interesting surfaces to play on… and of course there is always real turf.

Lance: You have a dog, he is an important user of the home landscape and keenly aware of their horticultural surroundings. Do you think they would enjoy artificial turf as much as a renovated drought tolerant landscape?

Nate: As a place to pee and poop I’m sure the artificial turf would do the trick, but I find Rudy (our dog) likes to exploree and sniff and check things out. He likes to nibble on the ornamental grasses. I don’t think I’d feel so good about him nibbling on the plastic. He also likes to burrow in amongst the grasses… it’s one of his favorite places.


Lance: If we are not suggesting people put in artificial turf to replace their existing front lawns, then what are your current favorite sustainable plants and environmentally friendly materials that you are suggesting they use?

Nate: Ornamental grasses. They’re fast growing, pet and kid friendly, pest free and generally drought tolerant. As a design element used in mass they can help unify scattershot planting designs. I’m nuts about Leucadendrons for me they look a lot like our native manzanitas, but they’re from South Africa and they have great foliage color though the year. I love manzanitas just as much. I’m especially fond of A. manzanita ‘Dr. Hurd’ which sits stately in my front yard. So elegant. For use areas I think it’s hard to beat a nice sand set natural flagstone patio. The stone has so much character that can’t be reproduced in man made materials. It lends an informal feeling to the space but in a classy way.


Introducing Terrain Landscape

Happy spring! Some of you may have been aware of changes afoot at Nathan Smith Landscape. As our network and demand for services has grown we’ve been adapting to meet out clients needs. Over the course of the past year we’ve been nursing new ideas and approaches, developing what I’ve come to believe is a superior approach to landscape. I’m pleased and proud to announce we are breaking new ground with a new company: Terrain Landscape. We have developed integrated landscape design and construction processes that result in gardens with distinctive style, environmental benefits and consistent, outstanding value. I invite you to come visit our new website and stay tuned as we roll out examples of projects, new design tools, and tidbits of wisdom garnered from our experienced team.

Time to “fall back” on you irrigation controller

The days are shorter and cooler, and with any luck more winter rains are on the way. Consider increasing the time between irrigation events. For many people that could mean removing one day a week from the schedule. For some it could mean turning the irrigation off altogether.

One of my pet peeves with many so called “smart” controllers is that they simply adjust the run times in response to changing weather. Ideally they would keep the same run time, and adjust the interval between watering events. For any given station the run time (or cycles of multiple run times) should to get water into the soil deep enough to cover the entire root zone and encourage deep rooting. By reducing the run times some “smart” controllers are putting down less water but are watering less efficiently. Irrigation events with short run times tend not to penetrate the soil as deeply, evaporate more quickly and don’t encourage the plants roots to go deep to seek moisture. Shallow rooted plants are less drought tolerant.

Depending on your garden you may want to irrigate even though it has rained recently. How do you know? Stick a shovel in the soil and see if it’s wet. Here in San Diego we often get light rain which may not penetrate the mulch layer and get down deep into the soil.

Irrigation scheduling can be tricky but by using gardener smarts and a your own five senses you can go a long way toward conserving it.


Adding Depth to Your Garden

I initially built the walls pictured below to divide my flat and featureless garden, taking the eye away from the prominent edges of our relatively small suburban lot in Leucadia. The division also helped create a distinct space on the far side of the wall. From the house it provided some screening from the expanse of dying bermuda grass, dog eared fence and busted up concrete that lay behind it. Staggering the walls and leaving gaps between them helped make them feel less monolithic and allowed for interesting shadow play. More about shadows in another post!

A few years have passed since the walls were built and I felt like they were setting the stage for something in front of them, I asked my father if he’d be interested in making a sculpture to sit where the blue pot is. Having a mature artists restraint he suggested instead of adding more to the composition (the plants are looking pretty awesome) to instead take something away by cutting windows into the walls. Brilliant! Ten minutes later we were hacking away with the diamond blade saw. I’ll be finishing the interior cuts on the to side walls with a welded steel frame similar to the one in the center when I get a little break from the run of new gardens we’re building. The windows provide tempting little views into the back garden that invite exploration and add a layer of depth and mystery to the garden.

For the plant nuts: The fine textured smaller “grass” is a drought tolerant native sedge (Carex pansa), the big grass is palm grass (Setaria palmifolia), , various bromeliads whose names I’m never sure of, a hybrid Aloe, wallflower (Erysimum ‘Jenny Brook’), lime (right),  artichoke (way back), lemon grass and more…







Landscapes for modern architecture

Clean lines and bold colors made this University City remodel work.

I’ve recently had run of requests for landscapes to complement modern architecture, and thought I’d share some photos and thoughts on the subject. I’ve had the pleasure of working on recent projects designed by talented architects including Architects Magnus, Domus Sudio, and Sanctuary Architects. I certainly appreciate the clean lines and simplicity of modern architecture, but sometimes it just feels a little to cold and hard for my personal taste. I believe that you can achieve lots of variety and color through plant selection which and can bring to life some of those modern spaces that feel hard, cold and dead.

I think there are sensible lessons that can be drawn from the modern style and applied generally to all landscape endeavors. Keeping paved surfaces simple, clean and neutral is just good planning. I believe the design of hard surfaces should be conservative. Done well, they should last for many decades and endure through changes of taste and style. Overbuilt, complicated outdoor kitchens with multiple appliances and fire pits with faux finishes were never my thing. I’ve already seen a number of them look dated. I believe in the near future they’ll be considered the landscape equivalent of the humvee. Cooking and eating outdoors is a fantastic idea, but the design response should be kept simple, flexible, efficient and clean.  If you want to get wild and creative in your landscape do with your plantings, not with constructed elements.

I love concrete, stucco and steel. They seem to be the materials of choice for modern landscapes. Natural materials have a more organic feel and lend themselves to naturalistic shapes, but talented designers and architects can do a great job of blending natural materials with clean modern lines.

Cape Rushes make great linear shadows on the fence of this Domus Studio designed house.

When it comes to planting design the best plants to complement modern architecture are textural and linear in nature. Each plant has it’s own architecture and character that can complement the built elements. Grasses and grass like plants work especially well. The cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) is one of my favorites. Succulents such as Dasylirion and Agave work well too. I tend to avoid billowy rounded perennials and shrubs for modern applications. However, linearity has it limits, I do not recommend trying to create lines or geometric shapes with plants! Plants are living, variable and irregular. Attempts at geometry and symmetry with living materials are difficult and fraught with failure. The loss of a single plant in a long linear arrangement ruins the entire effect, and instant replacement is usually impossible.

Stainless steel LED fixtures play off the clean and square lines of the architecture, light placement was critical for the shadow effect of the house numbers.

Juniper, Ivy, Driveway. Not exactly a compelling entry.

I worked with Jon Dominy (Domus Studio) to relocate the garage door and design a pedestrian entry through the new courtyard garden that sets a more functional contemporary tone for the house.

This courtyard garden captures the morning sun and provides a great introduction to the house.


I’ve attached some pictures below from my recent projects that I think are relevant to the discussion.   Enjoy!

Sweeps of grasses, succulents and native plants are shown against the architects rendering of this Del Mar house designed by Sanctuary Architects that’s now under construction.

Specimen tree Aloes make a statement in this La Jolla courtyard garden.














The warmth of rust and wood balance out the hard lines of concrete in this Mission Hills project.


SEE AND KNOW THIS: Now is the time to enjoy Ceanothus

I have noticed Ceanothus flowering spectacularly this season in San Diego on the hills east of Encinitas. Two different Ceanothus species dominate these local hillsides, one with blue flowers (Ceanothus tomentosus) and one with white flowers (Ceanothus verrucosus). In addition to being spectacularly lovely when covered with flowers both species are fragrant and attractive to bees. The flowers of Ceanothus tomentosus range in color from intense violet blue to a pale sky blue. The entire range of colors is quite attractive and seeing them in habitat never fails to give me a small thrill.

Ceanothus verrucosus (white) and C. tomentosus (blue) together

A closeup of a Ceanothus tomentosus inflorescense


The hills in flower have a bluish cast, my forearm has a bluish cast too!

I first noticed the white Ceanothus verrucosus flowering this year in the San Elijo hills during one of my many unfortunate trips to the Kaiser medical facility in San Marcos. The abundance of white flowers was such that it looked as though the hillside was covered with snow.
Ceanothus are easy care, pest free garden subjects as well. There are more than 40 species of Ceanothus native to California from varied habitats and ranging in size from ground covers to small trees. One of my favorites is a hybrid called Ray Hartman that grows quickly to 10-15 feet and has medium blue flowers. Many nurseries now carry native plants including  Cedros Gardens in Solana Beach which features a large display of natives grown locally by Moosa Creek Nursery. All Ceanothus appreciate full sun and well-drained soils. Most are drought tolerant once established but they do need regular watering to get started. Ceanothus garden subjects.
As much as I love Ceanothus in gardens I find visiting them in natural areas to be the most inspiring. If you go soon to seek them out I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring as well. There’s a great short hiking trail and look out on Double Peak in San Marcos. If you take San Elijo Rd., three miles east from Rancho Santa Fe Rd. you can turn left on Double Peak drive and follow it all away to the top of the hill which affords you spectacular 360 views. The trail winds across the north slope.


Ceanothus hillside near Double Peak

Modern Patio in Mission Hills

We recently completed this little project in Mission Hills. Designing, fabricating and installing this steel edge planter was something new and fun. My pop makes beautiful brass and stone doorknockers , I guess metal work is in my blood.  Magnus Architects  did nice work on this modern style house.

Citrus, Fertilizer and Drip Irrigation

Warming weather and longer days have spurred our citrus trees into active growth. Now is a great time to feed your citrus. Unlike most of the ornamental landscape plants I tend to use, citrus are heavy feeders and need regular applications of fertilizer for best appearance and production. I fed my trees back in February and the winter rains helped wash the organic fertilizers in. Worm castings and composts are great if you have them, but for a more concentrated fertilizer Gro-power  is one of my favorites I’ve also used EB Stone. It’s important to think about building soil fertility and going organic especially when it comes to edibles.

Those who have worked with me are aware that I’m a big fan of drip irrigation and mulch but when it comes to fruit trees they present some challenges. The rains are tapering off and without overhead water to wash the nutrients down fertilizer applications may not be terribly effective, especially if applied on top of a thick layer of mulch. To effectively feed your trees it’s important to rake back the mulch, apply the fertilizer and wash it in with a garden hose, preferably a couple different times, and of course, put the mulch back in place.

The tender new shoots of citrus are especially appealing to aphids, so while you’re out there with a garden hose take some time to spray the new growth to remove aphids if you have them. I tend not spray for the aphids just a few passes on a semi regular basis with a garden hose seems to be enough to keep them under control, and at the same time I can hose the soil surface to wash nutrients down into the root zone.

Green Wall San Francisco

I was up in the San Francisco Bay area last week for a meeting of APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers) and to visit friends. UC Botanical Garden Horticulturist Meghan Ray and husband Eric Anderson kindly hosted me a day and took me to see the recent installation by green wall guru Patrick Blanc at the Drew School in San Francisco. It’s a remarkable installation and features a palette of mostly California native plants. I especially liked the diagonal sweeps of blue fescues and monkeyflowers.  There were a few plants I was surprised to see, including Fremontodendron in the upper reaches of the wall.