Regional Flair: Bring it Home With Native Plants

***This is a bit of a local rant, but I do have a point that relates to designers and anyone who expresses themselves artistically in the garden.***

I’m lucky: my college town’s somehow managed to stay funky, cool, small and walkable, and above all, different from any other town in the world. Because us Arcata peeps are a bunch of hippies (or, ahem, forward-thinking individualists who appreciate eco-friendly living), we tend to reject that corporate sameness that’s endemic to so much of the US right now. We limit our chain stores, and most locals go out of their way to support local businesses who have tailored their wares to what WE want.

That’s not to say that big box stores are all bad; rather, that they bring with them a sense of scale that’s not always in line with what’s comfortable for people to live around. The sprawling Wal-Marts and open malls of chain stores tend to discourage the slow, human process of strolling to town, since there’s not much to look at for the ten minutes it takes to walk past.

Add to that the fact that most of the big boxes seem architecturally designed to stick out; their goal is corporate continuity, not continuity with the town or region. Designs are created in an office many states away, their chief aim of course is to bring in as many customers as possible. The landscapes are particularly bad, with no regional harmony or uniqueness to soften the looming buildings. The same islands of ‘Stella ‘d Oro’ daylilies and red barberry line the parking lots of all of the stores in a five-state area.

This is unattractive when a big box store does it, but it’s understandable given their goals.

When a college gives way to this aesthetic, you have to wonder: what in hell are they thinking? You don’t just drive past a college, and have the bright tones of its paint and its barberries lull you into a drugged-out buying mood in which you sign your life away for four years. Rather, you think about what type of person you want to become, and you choose a college that speaks to your soul. Sorry if that sounds hippie, but 18-year olds are kind of woo-woo like that.

My town’s college? It draws forestry and natural sciences students from many states away. These students connect with the trees, they think about birds and swimmy things and ecology. Our community is able to attract these fine people in large part because of our quiet, environmentally-sensitive community, and the majestic redwoods that provide the backdrop to everything we do.

So why in the world did Humboldt State University, known for this:

Darin Price at HSU entrance

and this:


do THIS?



A 200 foot long field of yellow daylilies, against buildings of yellow and red? Really? It’s like somebody plopped a giant McDonald’s in the middle of a small historic neighborhood. I’m a gardener, so I’ll pass up any additional shots at their overblown architecture and drive-thru burger color choices and get to the issue I care most about.

What were they thinking in their landscaping? First they cut down a number of mature trees that created a park-like entrance to the college, then when replanting, they chose the most generic parking-lot plants possible, crammed them together in segregated monocultures, and completely ignored any possible connection to the redwoods and the forested surroundings that make the area what it is.

My local paper recognized this sad fact in “Facelift or Faux Campus Improvements?“. In it, they quote our local author and native plant enthusiast Peter Haggard (Insects of the Pacific Northwest):

“It seems like they are in a tiny fishbowl,” Haggard said. “They’re making decisions without any background and creating an alien environment. It just doesn’t reflect us at all.”

I couldn’t agree more. Lately, I’ve been realizing that many of the beautiful gardens I see around town, in magazines and online, could occur anywhere in the US. Roses, dahlias, daisies and other traditional garden plants are lovely, and definitely have a place in the landscape.

But think about why you live where you do. You may have to think back a bit, to that initial sense of wonder you felt when you first saw the mountains soaring above your town, or the spiky saguaros or the deep, soothing green of the redwoods.

Then think about where you choose to go on vacation. Is it in the snow of the mountains where you can hurdle down the hill on your skis? The red rocks of Sedona? Or the crazy diverse excitement of New York City? We like these places because when we’re there, we’re part of something greater and more meaningful than the $5 off savings you get at your local big box. It’s different!

So when we landscape, does it not make sense to try to reflect that deeper meaning? To use plants that reflect a sense of place, and remind you of why you live where you do? The plants that are native to our region give back so much in the regional character they provide.

Even if it’s not practical or desirable for every homeowner in my area to have redwoods in the backyard, we can bring in some red flowering currants or Douglas iris, plant our native columbine with our spring bulb display, and have that small touchpoint with nature. Even in a strongly-themed garden, there are natives that can pull off formal Japanese, English cottage, swaying and beachy, black and gothy looks. You’re not stuck with a woodland theme just because you live among the redwoods.

Is this an argument against our traditional flower garden plants? Well, yes and no. It’s an argument for using both types of plant. Landscapes made up entirely of natives sometimes seem to reject human interaction and human artistry; a state of affairs that doesn’t encourage connection.

But the recent trend of rejecting natives is missing something as well. Not only regional connection, but a connection to our ecosystem; a connection to the specialist insects and birds that simply don’t show up if their native host plants aren’t present. Think about how you feel when you get to see hummingbirds or sparrows chirruping or drinking from your flowers. You can magnify that sense of awe by inviting the less common wildlife into your garden as well.

As for my local college, I can only hope that once they’ve had to rip out masses of their overplanted and inappropriate plantings, they’ll take a few hours to consult with local designers and ecologists to help select some plants that DO reflect something of our region. Because without regional diversity, we may as well live someplace else.

(photo of original HSU entrance credited to Darin Price)

27 responses to “Regional Flair: Bring it Home With Native Plants”

  1. Excellent rant. Are they having enrollment issues? Perhaps they are trying to provide a sense of comfort to young students who have grown accustomed to Walmart parking lots.

  2. Wow, talk about out of context. Never seen that motif in So Cal or the Desert SW before …..

    Except in Abq, ‘they would have used 10% of those plants in a random /chaotic design, a sea of brown gravel, and the plants would include aspens and other lollipop trees (choking on desert heat and aridity), with lavenders to be trendy, and maiden grass longing for Japan. Oh, and blue avena grass on a south or west wall to really get tortured. And with the same exact wall, stucco, and everything. So it could be worse!

    Yes, embrace one’s sense of place, including the native plants that make it great. Right you are, and natives are ultimately just plants – just plants often more in-tune with one’s environment than habitual exotics. Your shots of the forest say it all, comparing grandeur to mediocrity.

    There *may* be a place – with water – for those traditional landscape models and lawns, in a limited use in the right context. But there is *always* a place for generous use of a locales’ native plants. I might be almost as passionate as you about your own place – and I’ve never been closer, at least ecologically, than my sisters’ former homes in Santa Cruz County CA!

    Rant more! We need it!

    • David, this is what I love about your own blog – the sense of place. I can’t see any of the photos of your landscaping without immediately being transported to the Southwest and feeling that twinge of excitement from imagining the hot desert air.

      Why do so many people reject that sense of place in their landscapes? It is a lack of awareness that they could do something so much greater, or is it willful ignorance? I have to think it’s just that people aren’t thinking about a sense of place as being as important as considerations like color, texture, and water use. I hope and expect that will come in time.

  3. Like it!! Up here in Seattle, more gardeners/landscapers are going to turn to natives as our rock solid hardy choices aren’t so hardy or reliable anymore in the changing climate!

    • Elise, we’re lucky in our Pac Northwest climate in that we have SO many lovely natives to choose from. I’m in such far Northern Cali that many of my forest natives are the same as yours.

  4. Great point…if you’re rejecting natives you’re missing the connection to our ecosystem. Insects and birds won’t show up if their native host plants aren’t there. I’m also going to have a new opinion of red and yellow color schemes, haha.

  5. The abundance of Stella d’ Oros in itself is a landscaping sin (seriously people … when did Stella d’ Oro become the world’s best plant?) but what they’ve done to the rest of that place that is so rich in natural goodness is truly criminal. Good rant, Gen. If I were you I’d send the university president and board of regents (or whatever kind of governing body they have) a copy of it.

    • I know, Erin!! Hello? Stellas suck! Here, they look good for all of three months, then implode into a mass of icky brown leaves by the end of summer. They’ll come back with an early fall bloom, but by then, who cares? The whole plant looks terrible. Plus, they need fertilizing, irrigating, and winter whacking back to look OK.

      If they were suffering a lack of creativity, a simple Ceanothus groundcover would have done, and it would have needed little futzing with.

  6. YES to using natives mixed with other plants that work well in your climate and that you love. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But growing at least *some* plants that reflect your region gives you a connection to the place you call home, helps keep our great country looking diverse, and also gives native insects, birds, etc. a source of food and habitat. Win-win!

    • Pam, you are so right! It’s not an all-or-nothing deal. You certainly show amazing examples of what that kind of regional diversity looks like in your landscapes. . .

  7. Amen! great rant! I agree completely! What are those buildings in the background? New apartments? Looks like they hired an architect from Arizona who didn’t know the area at all. wow.
    On another subject, I think nurseries should carry more native plants! I have to drive a couple hours to go to a nursery with a decent native plant selection. But, it’s been worth it!

    • Oh, Gina, I am so with you. I think that many horticulturists have gotten a bit jaded in what they choose for the nursery, just because years of seeing the flashy things sell have trained them to only buy the bright, bred stuff. But it does seem to me that one of the noblest things about a local independent nursery is that they can hand-sell the things that are of true value, if their staff of knowledgeable and enthusiastic enough to do so.

      I wish I could buy some of the cool natives I’m reading about in a few books right now – I have to do a special order for them and just cross my fingers!

  8. I think I might start including more natives in my designs…the hardest part is availability though. I can put down day lily and I know my client will find them no problem. I start to put down things like mountain mahogany and rabbit brush and I also have to include the one nursery and several mail order places that you can find them, plus they can cost more. Part of getting more native plants in the landscapes is getting more native plants in the nurseries. But often they are difficult to propagate, so are not widely available and often very expensive. Still, there are always plants like columbines that are available and native.

    • Liz, you are so right about availability. How can we achieve any kind of regional interest if our own local independent nurseries don’t stock these plants? It’s a tough conundrum, because I see their point – if it’s hard to sell and doesn’t take well to living in a pot and being propagated, then it’s not a great business decision. I think our demand can help, though. Most natives look better when they’re fresh in a pot and haven’t been sitting, so the more of us purchasing natives and asking about them, the more it will become a good business decision for them to carry natives.

  9. Wow, this post actually hurts! That a decision like this could be made in this day and age is pretty unbelievable. I was recently given the 1954 first edition copy of sunset’s western gardening book, and was surprised to see that even then, they were talking about using native plants, and how easy they were to take care of. I have a front yard of ribes and ceanothus, mimulus, penstemon and ca poppies, and I get so many compliments on my yard, with minimal upkeep. To actually cut down trees (and habitat) for something that, besides being ugly and out of place, will be hugely expensive — if even possible — to maintain is pretty crazy.

    • Wow, Wendy – somehow I think of using native plants as a resurging trend, but turns out it’s been good practice all along. In the 1954 Sunset no less. Neat!
      Your garden sounds gorgeous. You’ve chosen a bunch of my favorite plants! Low-care and high-beauty. If you ever want to email me photos, I’d be honored to see them. It’s hard to find native plantings that have been put in with an eye towards design. I am hoping that will change in the coming years!

  10. I’m so sorry, Gen. It must make you and so many others sad to see someone barge in and plop this down in the middle of your beautiful town. Great rant, and I agree with the person above who said you should absolutely send this to the college. Who knows – maybe they’ll listen to you and ask you to consult!! Wouldn’t that be perfect??!!!

    • Thanks, Rebecca. I will! It would be amazing to be asked to consult on a future iteration of this. I know the city was extremely anxious to help review the plans and give aid in making them gorgeous and fitting, but apparently state colleges do not HAVE to go through any design review or other local processes, so I guess the college opted not to even have a casual back-and-forth about it.
      Daylilies!! Any gardener here could tell you that’s a bad idea en masse!

  11. Oh, dear, looks like someone has tried to absorb Humboldt into the “neverywhere” alternate reality universe, and the must be stopped. And also like some (dare I say Landscape Architect or Engineer?) decided to recycle that signage from their Casino Signage CAD file. Hideous.

    A couple of questions immediately come to mind- did the qualify this high water use project for the new, mandatory Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance? How can new turf grass plantings EVEN be justified these days? And ifvwe tried, could we come up with some genetic time bomb to cause Stella D’Oros to self destruct en masse? (admitting I’ve pal nted a few in my day.)

    Rant on!