As part of the Landscape Design OH70A class, we take a field trip to see nature’s designs at work.  The place we go to is San Bruno Mountain.  It is close, it is ancient, and it reveals much about our landscape and our history.  We do the summit loop trail to learn about how what plants are adapted to the site, and in what kinds of combinations.  We talk about the importance of soil and drainage, and how all the forces interact to create the magnificent scenes we behold.    We check out the view of the surrounding cities.  Okay, here we go!

Startin’ off at the summit, you get a good plan view of the tip of this peninsula which comprises San Francisco north, Colma and Daly City to the west, Brisbane to the east, and South San Francisco to the south.

On the west side.  Alright, let’s pick out the main green features.  Theres ol’ Lake Merced, which was once salt water, part of an estuary that mixed with the sea.  The big green spaces are mostly all golf courses and cemeteries.  Theres a few little parks, but in town, most of the rest is houses and retail.  


Yup, thats about it until you go south towards San Mateo and Skyline and Crystal Springs reservoir where ridges of coastal mountains couple with old douglas fir trees.  Note the onshore wind and oceanic fog that influence the plant matrices and how they grow.


On the east side going north from San Bruno Mountain.  This is the more protected side of the mountain, veering towards shade as the trails start to point north towards downtown San Francisco.  There is the small town of Brisbane, its lagoon, and the dump site by the railroad tracks.  Green space wise, a little northeast of San Bruno Mountain is McLaren Park at 313 acres, and to the east of McLaren park you can see Bayview Hill and the dirt lot that was once Candlestick Park where the Forty-Niners played football.



North – you can see the forested hills at the tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the Presidio.  And a little to the left of that is a stretch of trees that comprise Golden Gate Park.  Marin Headlands  is in the distance.

Well the ecologists call em dominants in a vegetation community, some designers like to call them the bones of a design, or the structure.  Oftentimes these plants are evergreen and persistent.  They are plants that course throughout the landscape and give definition to the garden as a whole.  On San Bruno Mountain, in this coastal sage scrub community, the dominants are coyote Bush, California sage bush, monkey flower, lizard tail, and coffee berry. 

This is coyote bush and some lichen friends:



This is the sticky monkey flower in orange singing along with the lizard tail in whitish green, with a pinch of the coffee berry behind both of them:


Another neat way to fill the garden with plants is thinking about the space in various heights.  In ecology we would be talking about canopies and understories.  In permaculture design they are always going on about layers and probably stacking functions.  Designers will chime in about how the highs and lows make a garden dynamic and interesting.  So do not forget about the groundcovers that enjoy a little bit of shade from the shrubs above.  A neat plant on the summit trail sneaking underneath the coyote bush is yerba buena – a tidy little crawling mint.  It makes one great tea:


Hummingbird sage with its sweet leaf aroma and pink two lipped blossoms are a treat for any garden.  It also likes to wander under other plants on a north north/east facing slope.  This time of the year it is looking real real dry…


Sometimes, here and there will be a plant of a little larger stature that sticks out.  A designer might call it a focal point or an architectural specimen.  For reasons of space or water or light or all of the above, they are less frequent than the shrubs.  On the summit trail two plants seem to fit this description.  One is California wild lilac Ceanothus thrysiflorus that flowers in nice purple blue.  Thats it in the back there, without its famous blue blossoms.  In the foreground is one nice drift of the sword fern.  What lines!!!


Another focal point is the tree/large shrub that is always in the wet drainage along where two hills meet.  There you will find stands of red elderberry Sambucus callicarpa which was good for making flutes and clapper sticks and cigarettes and bows and all sorts of other things back in Ohlone days.  Thats them in a line with twiggy looking stick branches along a ravine where the water gathers. 



As always it is good to be attentive to small details and diversity.  We came across four species of ferns on the summit trail.  The clumpy sword fern.  The popping up here and there somewhat solitary feeling bracken fern.  A California Polypodium fern on the slopes gripping with furry feet into the dirt.  And around the corner up the road the Polypodium with stiffer leaves the one known as the leather fern.  Yes, in general, ferns like moisture.

There are two succulents that are easy to spot on the trail if you are paying attention.  Yup, succulent like euphorbias and cacti and jade plants and the like.  But these two have been on the mountain for oh say a few hundred or a few thousand years or so.  One is named stonecrop and is a host plant for the San Bruno Elfin butterfly.  It is here posing with the seaside daisy – a low drought tolerant groundcover with nice purple yellow flowers. 




The other succulent is named live forever.  It is really choice. Dudleya farinosa.  Farinosa like farina like white like flour.


The one plant that you must know if you hike in California is the poison oak plant.  This time of the year it is starting to turn red the leaves.  Leaves of three let them be.  If its shiny watch your hiny.  You are not likely to plant this in the garden because it gives most people rashes.  Plus it is not commonly available at the local nursery.

P.jpgAs a designer and gardener,  you want to make memorable plant scenes – combinations of plants that sit well with each other as they drink the fog and twirl in the rocks below.  Some verticals and motion coupled with a rugged yet delicate harmony.  This the the goal.  Try to mix and match woody shrubs with herbaceous evergreen perennials.  Repeating in a curved chorus.  These are a few samples from one of the most epic and ancient places in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Nutka reed grass and manzanita.  Down low is California blackberry and good ol yerba buena.

Q.jpgLichen and douglas irs.  This one is a wild garden special.  Gonna be hard to replicate this one in a home garden.  Takes time. Time. And more time.

R.jpgThis here is one of my favorites.  Huckleberry and manzanita.  Tucked behind the rocks there is a nice fat clump of live forevers.  Hey this is why we go hiking!

S.jpgOkay.  Nature is the master designer.  Be attentive and all the principles of design can be understood in the crystal filled canyons and fog drenched forms.  Enjoy San Bruno Mountain!!!


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