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Garden Design for the Greater Community

Articles: Garden Design for the Greater Community

Winter 2024 

Gardens have the power to bring us together. Discover seven public-facing, community-engaging gardens harnessing that power. Three of them are Design Futurist honors award winners: a Kinship Garden on San Juan Island, Washington, a San Francisco alley-turned-butterfly oasis, and a pollinator bike path energizing Davis, California. They show the peak of what’s possible – what can you do with an abandoned patch of earth?

It was a late summer afternoon, quiet at the community center when Jenny Harris looked up from her gardening tasks to see visitors.

“Go ahead and touch,” she called out. “The buds are sticky and the bees won’t sting.”

A young woman and a toddler crouched down, looking at Puget Sound gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) in full bloom. Leaf-cutter bees gathering pollen caught their curiosity, stopping them on their way. 

“Can we?” asked the woman as she extended her hand to feel the resinous plant. The child imitated her gesture, eyes wide with the wonder of it. Whispering their thanks, the visitors let Jenny know her work had touched them and transformed their day.

Are you familiar with the idea that a creative notion, whose time has come, is a thing of magic waiting to be plucked? Anyone can grab it from the ether and make it manifest. Often, more than one person will arise with the idea simultaneously and act on it, but in different ways.

Jenny Harris’s garden at the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center on San Juan Island is one shining example of such an idea whose time has come.

The Kinship Garden at the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center. Credit: Jennifer Harris
The Kinship Garden at the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center. Credit: Jennifer Harris

There’s a growing cultural impulse to create gardens that connect with the greater community. Recognized with honors for Pacific Horticulture’s inaugural Design Futurist Award, the Kinship Garden, as Jenny calls it, engages the people who see it in a way that old-school commercial landscaping never has.

In this essay, I’ll share examples of seven public-facing, community-engaging gardens from throughout the Pacific region. Three of them are Design Futurist honors award winners like Jenny’s. They show the peak of what’s possible.

Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson’s public project on Ridge Lane in San Francisco even attracts visitors from beyond the immediate neighborhood. They come to learn what to plant for butterflies, taking the meaning of “butterfly effect” to a new level.

Patricia Carpenter’s “Verge Experiment” of native and climate-adapted plantings along a bike path in Davis, California, are so beautiful that a woman visiting her mother in hospice nearby always stopped for the peaceful renewal of it.

Ridge Lane, San Francisco, CA. Credit: Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson
The Verge, Davis, CA. Credit: Patricia Carpenter

The other examples may be more humble but are equally important. The smallest reclaimed ground, planted with care, makes a significant difference when it’s available to everyone.

Let the stories of these gardens fertilize your own will to act. That grand gesture you’ve imagined when you see an abandoned piece of ground could become the best thing you’ve ever done!

Let Nature Inspire

Long before San Francisco’s Ridge Lane was drawn on maps as a street never-to-be built, it drew generation after generation of butterflies, moved by the call to mate.

Abandoned by city planners, left to collect the detritus of humanity, the sheltered site continued to draw butterflies when Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson first walked its length. It was this that Nahal says was the “afflatus” of the design.

As a form of divine inspiration, the butterflies guided all the design choices that followed—from the segmented layout of the paths that mimic the veined patterns in wings, to the new plants that feed larvae and adult butterflies.

Here, the endangered Pipevine Swallowtail and Green Hairstreak butterflies now find their larval host plants, Dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia californica) and buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.), once again.

All the gardeners I spoke to shared this site-specific inspiration for their projects. The nature of their unique places compelled the change-makers to do things in particular ways. They’re having a conversation with the site, listening and replying, rather than imposing.

Ridge Lane, a pollinator's paradise. Credit: Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson

For this to be a theme of public-facing gardens feels of the moment. It wasn’t long ago that replication of styles from the Old World or plant collections from abroad were the trends for those who wanted to show off their gardens. However, now that we’re living with the impact of biodiversity decline, nurturing what’s hyper-local has emerged as the greatest trend of all.

Inspiration also comes, as Paul Symington of Seattle says, from “the sort of natural landscapes I’m into.”

When he removed load after load of English ivy from the grounds of his grandfather’s commercial property, he looked to Garry oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems, especially around Victoria, BC where he’d roamed, to inform his plant choices.

Paul Symington's Seattle Garden. Photo: Paul Symington

The nearby remnant wild places that touch something in you are worthy of studying, even more than British garden design books, collectors’ nursery catalogues, or Instagram.

Paul also referenced the shrub-steppe communities of Beezley Hills in Central Washington with their drought adapted wildflowers thriving in lean soil. The urban microclimate he gardens in Seattle, surrounded by heat-absorbing pavement, is unlike the fertile savanna it once was. A wider net of natural inspiration is called for to suit the current conditions.

Patricia Carpenter of Davis, California understands the nature of her site through the broader patterns of its Mediterranean climate.

As I sit now listening to the patter and tap of rain outside my window, it’s hard to imagine six months without it, but Patricia’s gardens along the bike path verge are informed by that reality, and they’re thriving beautifully without supplemental irrigation.

The Verge, Daivis, CA. Photo: Saxon Holt

One section is dedicated to California natives—those plants that evolved specifically with the local, summer-dry climate. Another garden zone expands to include plants from elsewhere that are similarly adapted to the heat and aridity of Mediterranean-type summers.

Taking her cues from the climatic nature of her site has been so successful that a cyclist once called out as he zoomed by, “Always my favorite part of the ride!”

Experiment at Any Scale

Outside his microbiology professor’s classroom, nursing student Augustin Garnier clasped his pack as he bent low to get a closer look. Striped black, white, and yellow caterpillars, tucked amidst slender branches and curled around tattered leaves, had caught his curiosity.

Since that first encounter, Augie continues to be fascinated by the entire ecosystem that can be witnessed on a single milkweed (Asclepias sp.) plant. However, before he came to be known as the “Monarch Man” of Redondo Beach, California, it took his friend Tom prodding him to “step up his game.”

Augustin Garnier's garden, Redondo Beach, CA. Photo: Augustin Garnier

The joy he got from growing a small butterfly garden at home could become something more. He dared to experiment with a project that could educate, that could reach more people, and create more habitat.

It was this experimental courage that led to his creation of the Xerces Society designated Pollinator Habitat garden at the Redondo Beach Library.

The second theme I noticed in talking to the creators of these community-engaging gardens was this spirit of experimentation. Again, any idea whose time has come manifests in a diversity of approaches and in a wide range of scales, and there are many “right” ways to go about it.

Of course, freeing yourself to experiment takes courage, but it also means that any action you take, no matter how small, is a positive contribution that enhances both the human and more-than-human residents of your community.

Kristina Lefever of the Pollinator Project Rogue Valley puts it succinctly when she advises that “you don’t have to know it all” to reclaim a piece of land for a habitat garden.

The small plot on Main Street in Phoenix, Oregon where she and her fellow volunteers planted a native demonstration garden started with just twenty species. They got to know those plants well before expanding to the current fifty-plus perennials and ten annuals.

Their trial-and-error approach has led to meaningful encounters with small creatures, confirming that their modest efforts matter. Now, native sweat bees, never seen in town before, frequent the blooms of tarweed (Madia elegans) and Idaho gumweed (Grindelia nana).

Once, Kristina even laughed out loud that “the garden is raining caterpillars” when she came around the corner and nearly stepped on two fat, green caterpillars that had fallen from a nearby penstemon.

Nahal and Eric echoed the idea that no action is too small when I asked what advice they would give to someone who wanted to do something similar to their Ridge Lane project in San Francisco.

Her gaze soft with feeling, Nahal told me how it’s the small, intimate moments we experience that change us. Eric agreed that no lot is too small to make an impact.

Click the image above to visit the Design Futurist Award webpage


Imagine coming upon a once-neglected pocket of land to find a humble seat surrounded by flowers and the hum of pollinating insects. Your heart opens, your brow softens, and you pause in your day to witness how deeply intertwined you are with nature.

Regardless of scale, experiments in garden-making contribute positively to our well-being.

Early in her trials with California native plants, bike path gardener Patricia created what has come to be called the “I-had-no-idea-what-I-was-doing” garden. She wanted to see how nature performs with little or no help.

Similarly, Seattle guerrilla gardener Paul launched his gardening experiments with the “reckless abandon and naïveté of a 20-something.”

Their passion, curiosity, and willingness to try are the foundation of the gardens that we admire today.

Foster a Sense of Belonging

Here in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, Mary Briggs and her neighbors transformed a small traffic diversion island from a hodgepodge of invasive species into a native demonstration garden with educational signage.

The newly layered plantings included one star specimen madrone (Arbutus menziesii). With the advice of a local nurserywoman, Mary had carefully installed this hard-to-transplant species.

You can imagine her heavy heart when she discovered a raw, empty hole where the madrone had once been. She tried to let it go, and focused on the success of the other plants, especially the native annuals like farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) and globe gillia (Gillia capitata) that she’d started from seeds.

Mary Briggs traffic diversion island garden, Eugene, Oregon. Credit: Leslie Davis

It wasn’t until a new little madrone seedling mysteriously appeared in the vacant spot that Mary understood the true impact of the garden. It provides a sense of identity for all her neighbors. Whoever planted the new tree responded to the theft with their contribution because the garden belongs to them as much as to anyone else.

When you make a garden that engages your community, you give a gift that anchors residents to their place, creates something to take pride in, and allows them to take ownership and responsibility for its care.

There’s a saying I remember from my early permaculture education: “the problem is the solution.”

For example; do you have a limited budget? When Jenny on San Juan Island faced this problem, she turned it into an opportunity to involve a wide range of volunteers from the greater community.

She talked to Master Gardeners and people keen on natives about her project at the family resource center. Their participation not only offset costs, but, more significantly, built a stronger sense of ownership and pride in the garden. Now, the Kinship Garden really feels like it belongs to everyone.

During the pandemic lockdown, Patricia’s garden along the bike path became a hub of connection. Neighbors and other people out enjoying the fresh air and the healing qualities of nature in the garden were able to visit safely and experience community.

Even now, with Covid restrictions lifted, people passing by continue to feel a sense of belonging. Patricia says that when folks ask questions about the plants they admire, the chance to share and inspire enhances her own well-being. Anything shared grows more meaningful.

On San Francisco’s Ridge Lane, where the garden paths are open and create versatile space, neighbors gather for Tai Chi, maintenance days, and block parties. The shared space acts as a social glue, bridging generations and backgrounds.

In fact, long-time volunteer Robert Muehlbauer spoke about the diversity of backgrounds as foundational to the motivation to contribute. Some community members enjoy the history of Ridge Lane; why is an unimproved, mapped city street here in the first place?

Others are moved to create a butterfly sanctuary, or to promote easy access to public transportation and reduce car dependence.

When you foster a sense of belonging, your garden will be enriched by the diversity of volunteers.

The Verge, Davis, CA. Credit: Saxon Holt

Extend Belonging to Native Wildlife

On San Juan Island, Jenny knew in theory that native plants were important for pollinators, but was surprised by how many different insects found the small garden in the midst of parking lots and commercial landscaping.

With a plant list that reads as an extensive study of locally adapted native species, wildlife feels right at home. She planted “everything I liked,” starting from bareroot plants and seeds without regard to prescribed ideas about spacing.

From pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Davidson’s beardtongue (Penstemon davidsonii), to mountain coyote mint (Monardella odoratissima), native plants layer and jostle, romp and roam around the grounds.

The result is seasons-long activity of winged visitors foraging the diversity of pollen and nectar.

Her use of sand as a planting medium and mineral mulches of gravel increased habitat even more. Ground nesting wasps and bees find easy digging here. It’s truly a wonder to get down on a knee and enter the world of all these small creatures.

The Kinship Garden at the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center. Credit: Jennifer Harris

She’s not alone in this experience of native plants bringing more life to the garden. Kristina in Phoenix, Oregon sees so many different sizes and species of wildlife in the native garden now.

Mason bees, leaf cutter bees, bumblebees, small blue butterflies, moths, wasps, hoverflies, lady beetles, lizards – and more – animate the scene that previously resembled the visual equivalent of “a bunch of random, beat-up furniture.”

Visiting Mary one day last summer at her traffic diversion garden in Eugene, Oregon, we marveled at the clouds of pollinators hovering and descending upon the yarrow (Achillea millefolium), showy tarweed (Madia elegans), large-flowered collomia (Collomia grandiflora), and winecup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea).

Bending closer, she gasped at the hundreds of shiny, little beetles bumping around on the collomia and blue globe gillia (Gillia capitata). Gardening culture is slowly shifting to embrace insects eating our plants, but the long history of fear and insecticide use is hard to quiet.

Luckily Mary’s curious nature led her to research the beetles before leaping to catastrophic conclusions. She learned that they’re harmless, beneficial even, as a member of the ecosystem that feasts on the abundance of native annual wildflower seeds.

“Yay life!” She texted me later that day. Going from “pests are eating my crops” to “gosh, wow, my garden’s an ecosystem” is a huge leap. This mindset shift comes from direct observation and experience, along with accessible research and information.

Even signage can influence change, like the one making the social media rounds that says “if something is not eating your plants, then your garden is not part of the ecosystem.”

Planting locally adapted native species is an important gesture that extends a sense of belonging to your more-than-human community members.

Both Paul in Seattle and Augie in Redondo Beach say that seeing the bumblebees and butterflies arrive soon after planting is their greatest reward. Camas (Camassia quamash) and milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) are beautiful garden plants worthy of growing for their floral splendor alone.

When you embrace these natives for their role in enhancing habitat in your local ecosystem, your garden grows to become something bigger than aesthetic preference. It becomes a contribution towards a solution. It inspires wonder and awe and connection to the cycles of life.

Read Next: And the Design Futurist Award goes to…

The Design Futurist Award collects the very best, most exciting examples of problem-solving by visionary designers and regional plantspeople. The Award exposes the “inner beauty” of landscapes built to conserve plants and wildlife, treat our water and soil as precious, and hold the well-being of human beings at the center of our gardened environments. >> Read More

Observe the Butterfly Effect

“Pipevine caterpillar eating a pipe on a pipevine I was inspired to plant when I heard about the Ridge Lane pipevines!” reads the somewhat Seussical caption of a photo showing an otherworldly, orange-spiked, maroon caterpillar clinging to the underside of a torn, tubular bloom.

The Ridge Lane Facebook group is full of shared moments like this. People who live blocks away from the gardens are planting pipevine (Aristolochia californica) and other native butterfly host plants.

Not only do the gardens provide a touchstone for those who walk its accessible paths, but they also educate and influence those nearby to plant their own habitat gardens. This is the butterfly effect in action

Ridge Lane, San Francisco, CA. Credit: Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is understood as the phenomenon where “a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere”. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Obviously, it doesn’t always involve actual butterflies, as in the example at Ridge Lane. It describes the spreading of ideas, of culture, of change. All the public-engaging gardens I’ve explored share this positive ripple effect outward into their communities.

A UC Davis student was so moved by the beauty and native plant diversity of the Verge garden that she sought Patricia out to ask questions, and to learn more as an intern. 

Educational opportunities are a hallmark of public gardens. And how better to spread ideas but through experiential education?

Countless visitors to the Verge have seen that water-efficient gardens are not only possible, but attractive enough to prompt them to create their own at home. The gardens are growing both as satellites of biodiversity in these separate home gardens and right along the bike path, with two neighbors extending what Patricia started.

Augie’s efforts at the Redondo Beach Library got the librarians thinking about the educational opportunity growing right outside their doors. They asked him to create curriculum for both adults and children, which delights Augie because, “if we’re not educating our kids about it, then we’re just spinning our wheels.”

Investigating the tawny, drying seedheads on madia, clarkia, and gillia last fall, one of Mary’s neighbors asked if she could make seed bombs with her grandkids. The small packets of potential held within the seeds are now dispersing to hard-to-reach niches throughout the neighborhood by small hands with playful tosses of the clay balls.

Both the Pollinator Project Rogue Valley Garden and the Kinship Garden are also spreading abundance outward through shared seeds harvested on site. A little bit of the flowery wonder you admire at these places can take root in your own garden through the real magic of a sprouting seed.

From there, the butterfly effect continues to ripple change on to another and another. Maybe you pass seeds on next year, or talk to a neighbor, or invite a neighborhood kid to play. By doing so you perpetuate the flutters of change.

The Seed You Sow

There’s a seed of an idea I’ve been working like a worry stone. I want to rally my neighbors to transform our parking strips into pollinator meadows. After talking with other gardeners focused on community, I know the effort will be more than worth it.

My hope is that this spectrum of offerings and their stories will inspire you too, to pluck your own seed of an idea and make some magic in your community.

Favorite plants and combos from each story

Nahal Sohbati and Eric Arneson, Ridge Lane

Red bush mokeyflower is “fantastic” (Mimulus aurantiacus var puniceus),

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’) and California lilac (Ceanothus griseus horizontals ‘Yankee Point’) make a great ground cover combo over a rocky hill.

Jenny Harris, Kinship Garden

Love this combo in a lightly shaded, no water zone: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucous), Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), coast strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis) under red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).

Patricia Carpenter, The Verge

The silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons) is thriving and has really “blown me away!” Also the bulbs like Autumn daffodil (Sternbergia lutea) create little surprises.

Paul Symington, Seattle, WA

May blooms of Puget balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea) with camas (Camassia quamash), and the March and April blooms of ephemeral shooting-stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum and D. hendersonii) and Oregon fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) under Dr. Hurd manzanitas (Arctostaphylos manzanita ‘Dr. Hurd’).

Kristina Lefever, Pollinator Project Rogue Valley

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), low beardtongue (Penstemon humilis), and a silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons), with some Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) scattered in is amazing.

Mary Briggs, Eugene, OR

Farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) blooming together.

Want to create something similar in your community?

Here’s what our contributors advise:

Nahal and Eric: “No lot is too small. Create small intimate moments—these are the experiences that change us.”

Robert of Ridge Lane: “Regarding volunteers: flexibility is critical. Almost everyone associated with the project is a volunteer and each has their own ideas and talents they bring to the table.”

Patricia: “Start with the right plants, plant correctly for your soil type, and water well to establish.”

Jenny: “Throw out the idea of plant spacing. Spend some time outside or at native plant nurseries and grow them all!”

Paul: “Weeding, mulching and picking up trash is not very sexy but just as important as new installations.”

Augustin: “Seek out an under-used plot of land within the city and make a proposal including soil sample analysis test results, landscaping layout blueprints, and the cost.”

Mary: “Starting in Fall is fantastic. Sowing seeds is low cost and quickly rewarding.”

Kristina: “First, think about and get to know the site: what natives will do well in that site’s soil, sun, shade, water.”

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