Slope Aesthetics in San Diego from a Natural Perspective

San Diego is mainly a series of canyons and mesas, which means that many homeowners must contend with landscaping on slopes.  But while successfully designing and installing a landscape on a slope is a huge challenge, it is also a potentially rewarding one. The issues that arise in relation to this challenge range from the difficulty of working on the slope–digging, walking about on it, and maintenance–to safety considerations, irrigation, and aesthetics. Because of these challenges, this will be the first of a five-part series. In this first installment, I will address aesthetic considerations from a natural perspecive.

A great way to think of how natural landscapes relate to cultivated ones is as raw material to finished product. One needn’t, nor probably shouldn’t, try and reproduce the full look of a native slope (unless your interest is in habitat restoration), but rather echo the local ecosystems in the designed landscape. Another way of saying this is that the designed landscape refers to or indexes the native landscape, but also sets itself up as its own entity. This thinking is originally Japanese, but it fits in well with modern sensibilities perhaps more comfortably than other aesthetics.

To see what I am talking about consider the following photograph of a native hillside in San Diego in late October. Keep in mind that this is the San Diego ecosystem at the end of its dormancy, the period just before rains start, so the plants look a little ragged:

Many people who see such a photo, or who see San Diego’s hillsides in the summer and autumn would be hard-pressed to find an aesthetic to work with given the overabundance of weedy looking, dried, dead, and brown foliage. But there is a lot more to appreciate here than dormant perennials and grasses. For one thing, the rocks provide an outstanding feature in defining the flow and curvature of the slope. The slope, it turns out, is anything but uniform: it folds into something of a gully, and the rock helps to define that.

San Diego native slope with evergreen sugarbus

The other outstanding element is the sugar bush (rhus ovata) that punctuates the vista at regular intervals with its beautifully-shaped evergreen leaves. It rises up out of the dormant plants in neat rounded shapes. So these are two elements that can be imitated in slope design. One needn’t use sugarbush specifically to create this effect. Its size makes it impractical for most of us. But its regularity and spatial properties provide inspiration.

Above is a simplified view of how this principle might apply to a slope in a residential neighborhood:

Sugarbush is probably too big a shrub for most landscapes, but the pattern can be reproduced with any number of medium to small-sized evergreen shrubs, creating a look that fits in nicely with San Diego’s native slopes.

A final caveat:  the look as described above goes against the principles that are typically taught in landscape architecture, in which plants are grouped into masses.  But this is most likely the influence of ecosystems from more northern places than San Diego on design principles , such as those found in England, for instance, where plants tend to grow tighter.  But if one looks at gardening traditions further to the south, say, in Italy, or even further south, to Egypt, one starts to observe a much greater use of space and focus on geometry.  And I would argue that this is the influence of the environment on people’s perception of  what is aesthetically pleasing.  Plants can only mass together when there is plenty of water to share, and if there is not a lot of it, they prefer to give themselves space.

Can a Green Wall Be a Problem Solver?

A green wall, or a vertical surface that is covered in plants, has one great advantage over other types of plantings in small gardens or patios:  it saves space.

One of the principles for designing small outdoor spaces, as many stagers know, is that the smaller the space, the greater the proportion of hardscape one has secure to make the space functional.  For plant lovers, this need for restraint  can be especially painful. Every trip past the local nursery or Trader Joe’s becomes an exercise in denial.

But there is a solution–a green wall.  By sending the plants up the wall rather than across the floor saves the space, and contrary to the usual rule-of-thumb, the more crammed with plants the green wall is, the better it looks.

In San Diego, green walls have a number of other functions worth mentioning:

  •  a green wall, which trickles water through a permeable membrane and planting matrix, cools the air through evaporation when it is very hot and dry
  • a green wall can be planted on two sides, acting as a screen, and doubling its effect
  • a green wall can be used to purify the air.  Many plants soak up volatile organic compounds that are toxic to people
  • plant lovers can have an outlet for their passion in a small space.

One thing to keep in mind is that green walls are not inexpensive.  However, if one is looking for bling in a fourteenth floor condo, renting one for a month is not a bad option.

Raising the Bar: What You Should Expect from a Landscaper

My experience working for Blue Rose Gardening for the last eight years has taught me that what most homeowners want from a landscaper is someone who is competent to make the house look good:  weed, mow, prune, fertilize, replace the occasional sprinkler:  essentially be someone who will do the work  specified and follow directions.

This limited expectation homeowners have is based on a static view of landscaping as an industry and the landscaper as a kind of minimally-trained laborer.  It also implies a static view of the landscape, almost as if it were a kitchen sink, something that needs the occasional fixing in a mechanical sort of way.

You,  your landscape, and your landscaper are all capable of evolving, and ideally, your landscaper should act as a guide in the process.  Here are some areas where you can raise your expectations:


In the Southwest, and San Diego in particular, water is getting more scarce and expensive, and companies who manufacture irrigation products are constantly innovating to improve how water is distributed over the yard.  To give just one example, Valvette Systems, has developed sprinkler stems that have a nut in them, allowing a much greater control over the radius of a sprinkler than can be achieved with just a nozzle.

Little Valve Stems control water radius better than spray nozzles

It is a relatively simple and cheap procedure to change these stems out from an existing system, and having done so will cut down on the water applied to keep the plants happy.  Educated landscapers will know about  advances in irrigation technology, such as this one, and be able to recommend alterations.  Try asking.

Fertilizing and Managing Pests

The view of how one maintains plants in the landscape has shifted in the last ten years from a chemical perspective to a biological one.  Cutting edge farming and landscaping takes this new perspective into account and avoids using chemicals to control pests and improve fertility in favor of biological mechanisms. What do I mean by this?  It turns out that plants, rather than being passively attached to the soil, are actively creating conditions around themselves, especially around their roots.  In fact, these conditions  are so different from the conditions in the rest of the soil that biologists have given it a name–they call it the rhizosphere.  So for instance, it has been observed that certain plants can emit chemicals that attract predator nematodes (a kind of microscopic worm) when their roots are being attacked.   You can learn about the soil food web on your own, but you can also learn from a competent landscaper how to apply principles gleaned from this branch of knowledge to the specific conditions in your landscape to make it healthier–that is, less risk to you and your pets to chemicals–and more sustainable.

New Plant Introductions

“Walking on Sunshine” is a new floribunda hybrid, outstanding for its disease resistance and flowers.

Growers are constantly introducing new hybrids and ornamental plants into the landscape.  Some of these have advantages beyond aesthetics.  Many of the new rose hybrids, for instance, have much greater disease resistance than older plants, and thus require less inputs from you to keep them looking good.

As your landscape evolves over time, your landscaper should have recommendations for plants in places where other plants have not done well, or where some plant has gotten too big or is no longer viable.

Plants as Food

The old thinking about food was that once one had achieved a certain level of economic prosperity, food production could be relegated to the farmers and acquired at the grocery store.  Experts in nutrition, however, now tell us  that plants produce complex chemicals, called “phyto-nutrients” that are key to maintaining our youthfulness and health.  Many of these phyto-nutrients rapidly degrade once a plant has been picked.  So while we can get healthy organic food at the farmer’s markets, there is still no substitute for picking arugula from our own gardens and eating it in salads a half hour later.

Landscapers should support your efforts to grow the healthy edibles at the right time of year.

A landscaper should  be able to help you create a garden and manage it over the course of a year.  Here in San Diego, we can grow food every single day of the year.  A three foot by eight foot plot is plenty of space to grow fresh food for two people.

Final Word

As citizens and homeowners, all of us have a duty to manage the land we have available to us responsibly.  Just as many of us put placards in our yards for the candidates we supported in this last election cycle,  how we manage our land is also a political statement.  Of course our lives are busy; our ability to stay on top of technology and science is limited; and we have many obligations.  But give your landscaper the credit for what he or she brings to your yard.  Hopefully it’s more than just a blower and pruning shears.

If You Love Birds, Plant Scrub Oak

I recently met a woman, I’ll call Margaret for the sake of this article, who doesn’t care about gardening: she doesn’t spend time outside, has no interest in growing her own vegetables–not even tomatoes–she could take or leave flowers.  Her primary concerns in relationship to her landscape are that it not be an embarrassment for the neighbors and that she need put as little energy into landscaping as possible.  We all know have Margarets in our lives.  Some of us may even be Margarets.

I met this woman in front of  the narrow dirt slope that was her front yard after a palm tree and a pine had been removed.  Given the limited space, I had trouble imagining what it must have looked like before, much less how a palm and pine could have looked attractive together.  Talk about an odd couple!  After talking for a few more minutes, in which I desperately searched for any sign of interest in the outdoors, she finally said, “The birds will miss it.”

“The birds will miss what?” I asked

“The pine tree.  The birds were in it all day long.  I would like to re-plant something for the birds.”

I noticed, somewhat surprisingly, that there was a bird bath sitting amidst the dirt of the barren slope.  I had overlooked it before.  Her observations about her lost pine tree were probably correct.  Pine trees, it turns out, support a wide variety of native insects, which in turn support birds, which need the protein insects provide.

Bushtits in Scrub Oak

A little exploration into native ecology reveals that there is a hierarchy among plants in terms of how attractive they are to wildlife in general.  The measure for this  is lepidoptera–that is the butterflies and moths–because these insects have been studied more than any other group.  The more species that like a particular genus of plants, the more essential that genus becomes in supporting animals.   In documenting this, an east coast biologist Douglas Tallamy has come up with a list ranking plants by their ability to support the class Lepidoptera, and thus animals in general.  You can view this link at Wildlife Food-bank (this is my name for it, not theirs).  The pine family, it turns out, are  reported to support slightly over two hundred species of moths and butterflies, which is pretty good.

But topping the list–one can think of it as an All-You-Can-Eat Bird Buffet–are the oak trees.  Oak trees, according to Tallamy’s list, support over five hundred–let me repeat–five hundred species of moths and butterflies.  That is more than double what one can expect from a decent pine tree.  And even though this work was carried out by an east coast biologist, I found out upon doing a little research that the oaks, the great big ones and also their scrubby relations, abound throughout the North American continent.  I found studies talking about their importance in Pennsylvania, in Florida, AND in California.

But this woman had no room on her small plot of land for our large native oaks–the Coast Live Oak, the Interior Live Oak, or the  Canyon Live Oak.  These trees can grow to seventy-five feet tall and have trunks ten feet around.  The only home, in fact, where I have seen a mature Live Oak fit in comfortably in a residential landscape is at the Marston House in Balboa Park.

Scrub Jay in Oak

But this woman had another option, often neglected by homeowners.  She could plant scrub oaks.  These little guys top out at ten or fifteen feet.  Although they probably have deserved their name “scrub” for a reason, they needn’t be in the least bit homely.  With intelligent pruning, these trees can be miniature versions of their grander cousins.  In other words, they can be bon-sai’d.  There are a number to choose from all native to San Diego County:  Quercus, berberidifolia, Quercus dumosa, and wislizenii.  I’ve heard of a fourth, too, Quercus acutidens, but I haven’t been able to verify this one.

If this woman were to plant three scrub oaks on the shallow slope in front of her house, she would create an attractive display of leaf, acorn and bark that would be as appealing to the neighbors as it would be to the birds, that, one would expect, would want to hang out there all day long.  Underneath, I imagine on this dream slope, some of the lovely Pt. Reyes manzanita, which stays low to the ground and gets covered with tiny pink flowers in the Spring.  Small bunches of Douglas  Iris or Snowberry could also help to paint the picture.  And a rock!

Mountain Chickadee on Scrub Oak
Mountain Chickadee on Scrub Oak, common in San Diego

Local Nursery Goldmine for Stagers

Gorgeous Cattleya hybrid only available at Rex Foster Orchids

Orchids for many years have been a staple of stagers’ arsenal.  They impart instant bling better than perhaps any other single feature of a well-staged property.  They also are peculiarly adapted to doing well inside a home: They require watering only once a week, and the blooms can last for months.

Less well-known, however, is that in San Diego there are a number of local growers who are hybridizing varieties not available in Home Depot, Costco, or Trader Joe’s.  Most of the orchids you see in these venues come from Hawaii and Asia–and the orchids they produce thrive in their tropical climates and are mass-produced there.  By contrast, local growers tend to focus on varieties that do well here and take more patience to flower.  Local orchid enthusiasts bring these orchids indoors when they’re blooming and stick them outdoors in partial shade the majority of the time.

John Walters with two of his hybrids, the flowers of one even blending in with his shirt!

Chief among these local varieties are the Cattleyas, commonly known as the “corsage” orchid because their blooms are often the centerpieces of corsages.  One local nursery that hybridizes these gorgeous creatures is Rex Foster Orchids.  (The link works, but the website is currently being re-vamped).  The plants you can get here are unique because the growers pollinate and cross the orchids themselves.  John Walters, head nurseryman at Rex Foster, has been working for years to produce smaller plants  (more convenient for inside the house) that keep their large blooms.  And of course they are always working to produce new color and bloom characteristics, and the variety is spectacular.  The only part of the spectrum missing is blue.

Another way to startle prospective buyers, and also hybridized at Rex Foster orchids, is to place a Tolumnia in a otherwise neglected corner.  The flowers hang like jewels in the air, and almost nobody knows what they are.

A diminutive Tolumnia on black background

Kathy McLorg, a seasoned stager working in Marin County, the county that produces more tax revenue than any other in California,  has some advice on using orchids for staging:  she suggests placing them on coffee or dining room tables “when clients want real.”  She puts moss around the plants and uses curly willow to add to their appeal.  Ms. McLorg also points out that Grape ivy combines well with orchids and has similar watering requirements.  She reminds stagers to be sure to put  large plastic liners in each container because you “don’t want to come back to a ruined table.”

Whether you stage with Phaelenopsis or Tolumnias or Cattleyas, they should all be watered only once a week, and for the tolumnias , always in the morning. Kathy McLorg suggests using a couple ice cubes for the Phaelenopsis, but this won’t work for the Cattleyas.

The best way to get local orchids is by emailing Billy Baker at or you can call him at (619)316-4331.

Some additional pics of Rex Foster Orchids:

Another interesting Cattleya hybrid

How to Hire a Real Estate Agent

by George Herman

Now that you have decided to hire an agent to help you sell your home, you are faced with the question of who to choose.  A competent real estate professional will help market your home and manage the sale, provide you with negotiating expertise, knowledge of your local market, and cost management.  Also—and important for us Garden Stagers—is that hopefully your agent will assist you in maximizing home value by suggesting necessary repairs and fix-ups, making your home attractive to prospective buyers.

Competent real estate agents know their business. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What is the profile of potential buyers for my home?
  • How will you protect my legal and financial interests throughout the selling process?
  • How will I obtain the maximum price for my property in the shortest time?

Hopefully, in response to this last question, the prospective real estate agent will encourage you to stage your home.  Staging increases market value and your final selling price while reducing its time on the market. A thoughtfully staged property will sell for more money and quicker than one that is sold in its “lived in” condition.

Staging goes beyond the interior of the home. In fact, buyers decide how they feel about a property as soon as they see it from the street.  On the day of the open house, many agents watch ruefully from the kitchen of the unstaged house as cars pull up along the street only to speed off again, not even setting foot inside.  This phenomena, referred to by some as “slow and go” has taught them that the exterior of the home should be inviting, or they risk missing out on a buyer. Real estate agents also know that a potential buyer who does walk through the door, willing to look at such a home,  is going to expect a discount on the price.

The good news is that any home will demonstrate perceived higher value with thoughtful improvements. In fact, the return on investment can be high. It has been determined that the landscaping of a property contributes between 5 and 11 percent of the home’s value. For example, if a property is valued at $500,000 with bad curb appeal, the landscaping contributes about 5% or $25,000. If the curb appeal is improved, then the value of that same home should be $530,000 or a 6% increase. Usually landscape staging can have good effect for less than a third of the available $30,000.

In order to maximize the full scope of service that you are paying for, it’s important to understand that you may well find that you resist the advice given by your real estate agent. Selling a home is a very emotional time, stressful, and complicated.  If you are like most of us, you probably think your house is worth more than what the market allows.  Be prepared to hear as much from your agent, if you have made a good choice.  A good agent will provide you with the data to demonstrate what you can realistically expect for your house.   Finally, a good agent will be able to speak to the reality of the situation, even when you don’t want to hear it.

Lawns and Manliness

What says more about one’s manliness than the perfect lawn?  The clean lines, the controlled height, the absence of  offending weeds.  Lawn exemplifies, it might be said, man’s pursuit of the domination of nature.   After all, you walk on it.  And then there is lawn as backdrop for macho sports such as baseball, football . . . possibly soccer.  Further, a well-maintained lawn implies a sort of technological expertise with its edgers, mowers, weed-wackers–all of them dangerous, gas-powered, and noisy.

Where is the lord of this manor?

This all came to my attention recently when I met Sylvia Kellogg at her new listing  9135 Spice Street in the Mount Helix area.  It wasn’t that this home had a lawn–it is set off by gravel–but what Sylvia told me about her experience in Indian Wells, a place from which she recently moved:

“They would tear up all the grass in October and plant new grass,” Sylvia said.  I was a little surprised to hear this, and she added some more explanation.  “The grass that grows in the summer–it can get up to 118° F you know–can’t survive in the winter when everything freezes.  And then they tear it all up again in the Spring and put the summer grass back.”

Lawn in Indian Wells, a place nature never intended it to be.  The trick for conquering Mother Nature, it turns out,  is to alternate two grass species instead of just one.  But this is such a Herculean effort that even the government has stepped in (no pun intended) .  Ordinance number 628 orders landscapers to reduce their watering in the fall to kill off the Bermuda grass that was lovely all summer, mow it down as close as possible to the soil, over-seed with winter rye, and start watering again.  In the Spring, when it gets too hot for winter rye, they are expected to do the reverse.

Beyond this, the government leaves landscapers and garden warriors up to their own devices when it comes to managing the intruders this situation naturally encourages.  I refer here to dandelions, clover, nut sedge–weeds–to which the soil is vulnerable when most of the grass is removed.  Like a military campaign, killing weeds requires know-how, timing, application of herbicide,  and measured effect all carefully strategized and executed, all of them satisfyingly macho activities.

Sylvia and I wandered over from the kitchen window and looked at the Jacaranda and an ornamental deciduous tree.  The shadows were moving across the gravel, making interesting patterns.  “You know, the gravel looks pretty good,”  I commented.  “And relaxing.”  Sylvia agreed with me.

You can reach Sylvia to discuss the listing at 858-444-5712.  Or go to her website at

Gravel with shadows

Mental Preparation for Selling a Home

From an emotional point of view, selling home is tough.  When we look at our homes, we see more than brick and mortar–we also see memories of our past.  The driveway where the old Volvo station wagon used to sit, dinged up from all the kids learning to drive; the entrance that had been variously decorated for the Halloween trick-or-treaters, the birthday parties, and homecomings; the kitchen where everyone crammed down breakfast before heading off to school and work.

Not all the memories of home are necessarily pleasant, however.  Some of them are of leaking roofs, a rat caught dead behind the refrigerator, a crack in the patio cement that got bigger every year from the roots of a misplaced ficus.  Given our blood, sweat, and pocketbook, it’s also not surprising that we hold certain attitudes about our homes that may not fully correspond with reality:  Typically we all think our own home is the best one on the street.  We also often take the position that if something is amiss, and we can live with it, so can somebody else.

Given such strong attachments and attitudes, both good and bad, it’s easy to understand how, once we’ve made the decision to sell, we don’t want to put any more energy into our homes.  Not a dime more.  The thought of spending after all those years on remodeling, landscaping, or staging is about as palatable as being asked to wash your own dishes after eating at an expensive restaurant.

But–here’s the kicker–if we can get past our emotional responses to our homes and look at them more objectively as what we propose they become–houses/ commodities–the financial reward is likely to offset the exercise in detachment.  Consider your home from the buyer’s point of view.  Whereas you see memories gone by, the buyer is likely to project possibilities for a happy future.  What you don’t want to do is color those thoughts with the possibility that the garden party gets cancelled.

I cannot speak with any authority about the interior of a house, but I can speak to the landscape.  Typically, the effect of the landscape on price ranges between five and eleven percent of the total cost of a house. (If you want the academic references for these estimates, send me an email.)  This means that for a home worth $300,000, the landscape is typically contributing between $15,000 and $33,000.  That’s a range of eighteen thousand dollars.  It’s easy to see that given this scenario, investing a couple thousand in the landscape, even when our emotional response to the extra expense tells us to run for the hills is misguided.

George Herman clinging to home

My advice is get the house up to snuff so you can maximize your enjoyment of it well before you plan to sell.  But if you are one of those who has let the fruit trees languish, the weeds invade the lawn, and the ficus push up the sidewalk, and you are thinking of selling–grit your teeth before you call your real estate agent and consider your prospective buyers first and yourself second.

Casual Symmetry

With its mesas and valleys, La Mesa as a rule is a tough locale for a formal garden, so I was more than a little surprised to visit Marcia Tolin at her new listing at 4180 Hurley Drive.   Here was this house on the west side of Eastridge’s steep hillside that pulls off a formal look without much effort.

Whoever designed the front yard deserves a medal for thwarting an isosceles triangle of a slope and allowing it to fit in with the usual regularities–even numbers of plants, regular spacing, strict geometrical shapes–that characterize the formal garden.

So how was this effect of casual symmetry achieved?    Well, with respect to the afore-mentioned slope, containment seems to be the plan.  Below, the incline is defined by  six rounded pittosporums (five show up in the photo above).  The clean wall with brick that matches the house borders the drop-off at the top.  Myoporum–not my favorite plant but certainly serviceable and easier to manage than ice plant — provides  green uniformity to the the slope, and even allows the indiscretion  of the occasional boulder.

Even the orb spider is tricked out in yellow at 4180 Hurley Drive.

My favorite, touch, though, is the use of yellow.  Yellow is arguably too playful for the formal palette, but here it is used to great advantage in the euonymous that punctuate the date palms in the planter next to the house . . .  and in the brightly painted corbels and trim.  The suggestion that the formality shouldn’t be taken too seriously is perfect for the ethos of La Mesa.  To see more of this house, especially, the inside, which Marcia has done a great job of staging, visit her at Marcia Tolin.

Euonymous:  a well-behaved, drought-tolerant shrub

Rock Solid Advice

Kathleen Brand is a sought-after landscape architect in La Mesa who specializes in designing therapy gardens, or gardens to help people recover from illness or connect with themselves, others, and the natural environment.  These gardens often use rock as an important element in healing.  I asked her recently about the place of rock in gardens and how they are important in landscape staging.

Her main point is that, carefully chosen and placed, rocks help the house look like it belongs:  “Rocks are prominent in the Southern California landscape, especially anytime you get out of urban areas.  So they look natural here, and they work well with our homes based, as they tend to be, on natural materials like stucco and adobe.”  (Stucco is made from sand and a cement binder, such as portland cement.)  Further, Ms. Brand added, “Rocks provide a defined sculptural element to the landscape.  Most people can appreciate them, especially since we don’t have to settle for the pink lava rock and the crushed white quartz that our parents had to choose from in the seventies.”

I prodded her further, asking what some of the advantages might be.  Her points:  apart from the up-front installation, rocks require no maintenance and no water.  They can be functional as well as aesthetic, offering natural seating.  And with their solidity, architectural form, and colors–often veering toward the warm end of the spectrum–they compliment the cool greens of native plants.

“Rock as gravel provide a great mulch and a place where you can create pattern and movement in the horizontal plane,” as is the case when the shadows of tree leaves move over it.

Kathleen Brand’s advice for placing rocks is to use them as focal points.  Their number is also important:  even numbers look unnatural, so go with one three, five, or seven in a group.  They should be used to define scale in the space.  Finally, an important rule of thumb is to bury a third of them below grade so that they look natural and stable.  A rock sitting helplessly atop the ground creates uneasiness.

You can reach Kathleen at (619)922-2121 or visit her website at