Katherine Greenberg’s Mature Lafayette Native Garden

Owner | Katherine Greenberg

Story and photos by Kathy Morrison

In the patio area, Katherine Greenberg stands next to a Pajaro manzanita (Artostaphylos pajaroensis ‘Paradise’), one of several in the garden

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.

Sculptural trunks with characteristic mahogany-colored bark distinguish this Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’), which was planted in 1980.

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.’

The garden on the uphill side of the driveway includes Dr. Hurd manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita ‘Dr. Hurd’) with the tall flower stems of the silver-leaved white sage (Salvia apiana) in front of it. Several Howard McMinn manzanitas are beyond the Dr. Hurd manzanita, with coast live oaks and a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in the background. The grasses are leafy reedgrass (Calamagrostis foliosa).

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.

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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.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the inspirational moment! As someone just 3 years into transforming my garden as native sanctuary, it is so great to have the long view.

  2. Beautiful garden! As an evacuee of the Kincade fire (and so thankful to the firefighters- our property was spared), I am most interested in fire-resilient CA native plants. Are there any examples in the Greenberg Garden? Our climate is very similar to theirs, except that madrones grow well here.
    Sadly, manzanita is a no-no, according to our Geyserville fire dept., but plants that can handle drip irrigation in the dry season are good. The fire dept. approved of our drip-irrigated penstemon, native Rudbeckia, yarrow, monkeyflower, blue flax, sages , etc But what fire-resilient CA native shrubs would survive with occasional drip irrigation? We have to replace our manzanitas near the house. We have a native budleya and a lavatera that can handle summer irrigation, but that’s all I’ve grown so far.
    Thank you, and be safe.

  3. Thanks for the inspiration. I tried going native about 5 years ago but over the last two years I’m seeing lots of plant mortality and very limited growth (baccharis pigeon point, ceanothus Joyce Coulter, Eriogonum fasciculatum ‘Warriner Lytle’, toyons, oaks, and more all suffering) . Did you see anything like this? Any suggestions or insights much appreciated.

    1. Scott,
      I am about to embark on turning our front yard all native, and plan to include many of the plants you mention. Now I’m worried! (-; I’m sure you’ve heard, as I have, that many natives are killed by overwatering or repeated drip watering. Could this be the problem? Maybe a neighbor’s watering regime is making your soil too wet? We’ve got heavy clay so that is sure to be an issue for me. I also have read that baccharis can look better/live longer with dramatic pruning to the ground (coppicing).
      Good luck to you. If you do figure out the problem, we would all love a followup post. Always trying to learn!

  4. Barbara – very interesting. I think it is going to take us a while to separate the opinion from the facts, regarding fire safe landscaping. The CNPS booklet is a great beginning.

    Just wondered – What is “a native budleya?”

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