Katherine Greenberg’s Mature Lafayette Native Garden
Owner | Katherine Greenberg
Story and photos by Kathy Morrison
California native plants are Katherine L. Greenberg’s passion and her career. So it’s no wonder that her own garden is almost 100 percent natives. After nearly 40 years, the plants have grown in and settled, providing an excellent example of a mature garden of California flora.
Greenberg is a garden designer and native plant consultant, and has served on the boards of the Pacific Horticulture Society, Mediterranean Garden Society, and the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, among many garden activities. She has been a CNPS member since the late 1970s. In 2012, she wrote the second edition of Growing California Native Plants (University of California Press), an expanded and updated version of the 1980 first edition by Marjorie G. Schmidt, whom she never met but feels she knew. “Her voice came through so strongly,” Greenberg says. She also counts California native plant expert Wayne Roderick, who died in 2003, as one of her mentors.
She began work on her own native garden about the time Schmidt’s book was published, which also was not long after an extended drought in California. The north-facing hillside had been cleared for agriculture before it was sold as a homesite. The property had mostly non-native grasses on the top portion, while a blackberry bramble extending down the hill to a creek covered the remaining third of an acre, she explains.
Keeping the natural scarcity of water in mind, Greenberg set out to create a native landscape, drawing from her childhood memories of Monterey County native flora as well as the habitats of the East Bay hills. She warned her children that there would be no lawn at the house— there was plenty at the nearby school, in any case — though they could have a pool.
These days the Greenberg home fits so naturally into its landscape, it’s as if the house were a native plant, too.
“It was not an instant garden, by any means,” Greenberg says. She experimented, drawing ideas from some of the state’s established botanic gardens, including the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in the Berkeley hills, and sometimes propagating plants. Some plants, such as madrones, simply did not take, she says. Others she found she could grow in pots easier than in the ground.
These days the Greenberg home fits so naturally into its landscape, it’s as if the house were a native plant, too. The garden is gently layered, with oaks, manzanitas, toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California wax myrtles (Morella californica), and a host of chaparral perennials providing the structure at the top of the property. One heritage valley oak (Quercus lobata) shades a corner of the house. Moving toward the lower slope, visitors can watch the breeze-fluttered branches of vine maples (Acer circina- tum) and California bays (Umbellularia californica). Below those trees, the hill is covered with dry shade plants, including western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii), and Douglas irises (Iris douglasiana). An ancient California black walnut stands guard at creekside.
Benches offer resting spots in niches, where visitors can watch deer wandering through the understory down to the creek. Greenberg’s garden has no fences and many deer-resistant plants, including a Sonoma sage variation that was discovered onsite and named for her: Salvia sonomensis ‘Greenberg grey.’
Greenberg’s overriding desire in planting the garden was to include visual and wildlife interests at each stage of the year. Just as the western bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa) are fading, for example, the snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is coming into its own. And this native garden is full of color, from the cinnamon-red bark of the manzanitas to the bright berries of the coffeeberry (Frangula californica) and toyon to the sparks from golden-yellow bush monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus) and bright coral California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). Leaves are the only mulch, and some soil is left bare for burrowing native bees.
“Growing California Native Plants” includes several photos from Greenberg’s garden, augmented with many pictures from the Regional Parks Botanic Garden.
About the Garden
Garden location: The hills of Lafayette (Contra Costa County), looking north toward Mount Diablo
Garden size: 1.3 acres
Style inspiration: “A refuge for people, plants and wildlife.”
Design and Installation: The Greenbergs built their home on a hillside where non-native grasses had taken over land once cleared for vineyards. Just a few trees were on the property; now there are at least 70. Katherine Greenberg employed a landscape designer to help install some of the larger plants, but has done much of the work herself over the years.
Go-to native plant nursery: California Flora Nursery in Fulton, Sonoma County.
Irrigation: An irrigation system is installed in only the upper acre of the property, with 16 stations, a mix of sprinkler heads, and drip lines. Greenberg runs it manually, only about once a month during the dry season, on cooler days with no wind, to reduce evaporation.
Maintenance: “I am the gardener,” she says. “I can weed the whole property in an hour.” An arborist helps with pruning trees when needed. Greenberg is out in the garden every day that she is home, tending and watching the plants change through the seasons. “It’s pretty self-sustaining at this point. I now take my cues from the plants.”
Wildlife spotted: Greenberg welcomes deer into her garden. She also has seen mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, frogs, lizards, salamanders, squirrels and “many hungry birds,” including a Cooper’s hawk that nested in the garden. Wild turkeys wander into the pool area; motion-sensing sprinklers are used to keep them out.
Favorite element: The natural elements of the site are incorporated into the whole garden.
Biggest challenge: “Patience!” she says. That also is her advice to anyone starting their own native garden.