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Designing for Today’s Garden

Articles: Designing for Today’s Garden
The Harborton Hill garden of Bob Hyland and Andrew Beckman. Photo:
The Harborton Hill garden of Bob Hyland and Andrew Beckman. Photo: Bob Hyland

“We need to look at the landscape in new ways. I think we need to have an understanding of our place.” — Michelle Sullivan

West Coast designers and horticultural consultants Michelle Sullivan, Tom Fischer, Bob Hyland, and Phil Van Soelen, discuss new ways of looking at the landscape and designing gardens that are resilient, adaptive, and beautiful. [click link  below to watch video]

As a principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates, Michelle Sullivan utilizes advocacy as a design tool to re-stitch nature back into our cities, restore ecological functions, and improve the quality of urban life.

Tom Fischer is senior acquisitions editor at Timber Press where he works with many of today’s creative horticulturists who are reinventing how they design and maintain gardens.

Bob Hyland is a Portland, Oregon-based horticultural consultant and designer who believes boldly beautiful gardens are important and charismatic instruments for helping everyone, not just gardeners, navigate today’s environmental challenges and lifestyle shifts.

Phil Van Soelen, co-owner of California Flora Nursery, encourages gardening with native plants as a means to creating sustainable gardens and foster respect and a deep attachment to California’s unique plant and animal biodiversity.


Photo: Garden Tribe

“A lot of insects are under threat because their habitat is disappearing under pressures from agriculture and development. So we need to make the difference, and certainly home gardeners are in a great position to do that.” – Tom Fischer


Resources from Pacific Horticulture archives:

Backyard Bee Haven” – Tips for creating a refuge for pollinators by providing a long season of flowering plants that serve up pollen and nectar for as much of the year as possible. You’ll boost your harvest of fruits and vegetables and play an important role in supporting the health of the environment.

Gardening for Native Bees, UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab” – University of California professor Dr. Gordon Frankie and the UCB Urban Bee Lab have been studying relationships between California’s diverse native bees and their favorite flowering plant at an evaluation garden since 2003.

Gardening with Head and Heart” – Four West Coast gardening professionals—designers, writers, community activists, or a combination of all of the above— discuss why they think gardening matters and what keeps them engaged.

Hedgerows as Habitat, Planting for Wildlife and Birds” – A historical planting convention with relevance for today, densely planted and diverse shrub borders provide shelter and sustenance for birds, insects, and other wildlife, while also contributing beauty and sometimes a bountiful harvest to the landscape.

Opuntia polyacantha ×macrorhiza and Viola cornuta hybrid seedlings against Rhus typhina 'Tiger Eyes'. Photo: Mark Turner
Opuntia polyacantha ×macrorhiza and Viola cornuta
hybrid seedlings against Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’. Photo: Mark Turner

Northwest Xeric, Success with Dry Plants in Wet Conditions” – Contributor Mary-Kate Mackey captures a delightful he-said-she-said exchange between Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne as they discuss their ambitious Oregon garden. Don’t miss the linked companion piece, “A Year in a Pacific Northwest Chaparral Garden.”

Pollinators: An Information and Action Guide for West Coast Gardeners” – Learn how and what to plant to create a healthy and supportive environment gardeners buzzing with life and filled with blooms.

Pollinator Projects for Citizen Scientists” – A list of resources for everyday citizens—gardeners, nature-loving hobbyists, school-age kids, and concerned environmentalists—who want to pitch in and make a difference.

The Melissa Garden, A Sanctuary and Season of Honey Bees” – Barbara and Jacques Schlumberger consulted with apiary experts and hired designer Kate Frey to create a landscape to venerate and sustain honey bees.

Sherrie Althouse tends young plants in one of the nursery’s hoop houses. Photo: Jennifer Jewell
Sherrie Althouse tends young plants in one of the nursery’s hoop houses. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

The Spirit of Place: California Flora Nursery” – For 35-years Phil Van Soelen, along with Sherrie Althouse, has co-owned California Flora Nursery in Fulton. Phil and Sherrie describe their nursery on their website as a “small unconventional nursery devoted to natives and habitat gardening with an exceptional diversity of offerings.”

Voices in the Western Garden: Bob Hyland” – Here’s a horticulturist who has covered a lot of ground both professionally and geographically as he’s moved back and forth across the country —several times. Bob believes that beautiful bold gardens are an important instrument for helping everyone, not just gardeners, navigate today’s environmental challenges and lifestyle shifts.

Photo: Garden Tribe

“This is a new time and it’s exciting. It’s ok to take steps; we don’t have to have all the answers, none of us do. We need to work together so that we can make a healthier future.” — Michelle Sullivan


Further Reading


California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, by Gordon W. Frankie, Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter, Heyday, 2014

Years of observation in gardens across California (many in the Bay Area and Central Valley) have gone into this field guide/reference book detailing the lives and characteristics of the major families of native bees in the state. (PHS Review)


California Native Plants for the GardenCalifornia Native Plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2005

A comprehensive and inspirational resource for anyone interested in—and passionate about—including California’s rich native flora in their garden. (PHS excerpts here and here)



growing CA native plants

Growing California Native Plants, by Marjorie G. Schmidt and Katherine L. Greenberg, University of California Press, 2012

Katherine Greenberg, author of the second edition of Growing California Native Plants has done a great job retaining the spirit and best qualities of the original while expanding and updating its content. The result is a wonderfully contemporary expression of native plant horticulture. (PHS review) 


Mediterranean Gardening, A Waterwise Approach, Heidi Gildenmeister, University of California Press, 2002

Gardening in harmony with a Mediterranean climate means taking advantage of winter rain and allowing the garden to rest over hot summers. Whether you live in hot, dry Southern California or the modified-mediterranean climate of the rest of the West Coast, this book is a valuable resource for our unique growing conditions.

plant-driven-designPlant Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit, by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden, Timber Press 2007

With insights garnered from years of garden-making in Colorado and Texas, the Ogdens describe and share tips and techniques for cultivating a plant-centric approach to making gardens. The process has taught them that “careful plant selection and placement is their essential design consideration.” (PHS review)



Planting Design for Dry Gardens: Beautiful, resilient groundcovers for terraces, paved areas, gravel, and other alternative to the lawn, by Olivier Filipi, Filbert Press 2016.

Even if you garden in a region that could naturally support a lawn with rainfall, Filippi’s many alternative garden approaches inspire change. In a summer-dry region, converting a lawn to one of his many captivating examples results in a water-conserving garden filled with visually dynamic plant combinations based on foliage texture, flower color, and height differentiation, and introduces beneficial plants to the landscape. (PHS review)

Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, East Bay Municipal Utility District, 2004.

An informative resource about native plant communities, California seasons, designing for summer drought, and how gardens mature over time. A relevant guide that remains applicable to gardens today, more than a decade after it was first published. Photography by Saxon Holt is beautiful and inspiring.


Reimagining the California Lawn, Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2011.

Traditional turf offers practical functions and unique design strengths but in the arid West, there’s simply not enough water to sustain lawns. In this valuable resource the authors provide design suggestions and practical solutions for creating a vibrant landscape appropriate for the California climate and beyond. (PHS review)

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Design an Abundant, Flower-Filled Yard that Nurtures Bees and Supports Biodiversity, by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn, Ten Speed Press, 2016 In

The Bee-Friendly Garden, award-winning garden designer Kate Frey and bee expert Gretchen LeBuhn provide everything you need to know to create a dazzling garden that helps both the threatened honeybee and our own native bees.

The California Native Landscape: The Homeowner’s Design Guide to Restoring Its Beauty and Balance, by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, Timber Press, 2013. This book addresses smart garden design with regard to plant selection, soil preparation and other factors that promote successful use of native plants to create lush, water wise, fire resistant gardens.

drought defying california garden

The Drought-Defying California Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape, by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, Timber Press, 2016.

Homeowners faced with lingering drought conditions and a confusing number of options about how to create a waterwise garden will appreciate this resource for successfully cultivating California native plants. (PHS review)


Tomorrow’s Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening, by Stephen Orr, Rodale Books, 2011. In the crowded field of garden writing, too few books cover small, intimate spaces the likes of which most of us tend. With beautiful photos and equally practical advice, this book serves up smart ideas and accessible inspiration for beautiful sustainable landscapes of all sizes.

waterwise plants cover

Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens, by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden, Timber Press, 2011.

From trees to cacti, this resource covers 200 waterwise plants. Chapters are divided by type and cover an ambitious palette of plants. The authors, who have 30 years of experience designing and maintaining gardens in zones 4 through 10, provide detailed growing information and design suggestions for each 1-page plant entry. (PHS review)

native plants GT
Photo: Garden Tribe

“I really want there to always be gardens! I know that people will look for ways to garden intelligently in ways that still feed the soul. It’s going to take experimentation, it’s going to take smarts, and it’s going to take determination. But I think gardeners will always have those qualities.” – Tom Fischer

 Additional resources:

Gardening in LA – A website managed by respected Southern California Master Gardener, Yvonne Savio, provides links to gardening resources for the greater Los Angeles County area and beyond.

BugGuide – Identification, images, and information about insects from all over North America. www.bugguide.net

The Xerces Society is a comprehensive resource for habitat conservation, gardening, and species information. www.Xerces.org






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