My story with California's native landscapes began back in the 1960’s in the eastern foothills
of San Diego
County. Being a fourth–generation California native, I was raised hearing stories from my grandfather about
his dad and older brother, Bert. My great–uncle
Bert was a prominent civil
engineer, and was known for sowing seeds of our state flower, the California Poppy, at roadside stops as he
traveled the US Highways, up and down the state.
My grandfather also shared the tale of their
father’s harrowing trips by horse and buckboard; from the downtown area of San Diego to the Imperial Valley where
my great–grandfather Edmund Moore had a ranch procured by government grant.
His story would begin as his big brother and
father would leave the family home located at Fifth and A streets in the downtown area of San Diego. The home was
his grandfather's, renowned California pioneer and builder Colonel Garrett Garreon
Before daybreak, they would load the buckboard
with supplies and head east making it all the way to Lakeside by the first night. Tired and road weary, they would overnight at
the famous Lakeside Hotel.
In order to beat the heat, they would get an
early start, continuing east as far as Pine Valley by the second night. Finally, they would arrive at the eastern
edge of the Jacumba Mountains by the third afternoon where they would brave the Devil’s Slide before descending to
the desert floor and finally arriving at their 100 acre parcel.
The Jacumba Mountains were of particular interest
to me as a child because this was the location of the Desert Lookout
Tower. It was surrounded with giant boulders
and featured fascinating rock carvings as well as a little shop/museum where artifacts, souvenirs and
refreshments were offered.
The tower was constructed in the 1920's and was
staffed by a friendly gentleman who sold admission tickets and offered up historical information printed on a
pamphlet. After ascending a few flights of stairs to the top of the tower we would be rewarded by an amazing 360
degree view of an ‘other-worldly’ landscape with segments of the old auto trail road winding down the steep
incline. I found the varying terrain and native flora fascinating, and I loved experiencing it by way of regular
road trips with my grandparents, my grandpa narrating all the while.
As a young child I always enjoyed these road
trips to the back–country. We would drive up old Hwy 80, bouncing along to the rhythm of what seemed like an endless succession
of expansion joints; stop a mile or so south of the Los Terrinitos/Descanso junction and eat lunch under the
Coast Live Oaks. This shady destination featured a natural roadside spring and was known as Ellis Wayside rest
stop, named for Charles Ellis who was Station Master of the Coyote Wells Stage Stop circa
I was fascinated with the history of the
meandering old concrete highway and the circuitous path it wound through giant boulders that jutted out of the
chaparral. Manzanita covered the hillsides and I remember being intrigued by their smooth red bark and how green
the country side was at the height of the summer. All the while, I was being drawn in by stories of the old stage
coach road that my grandpa's older brother and father traveled back and forth from the Imperial Valley to San Diego
at the turn of the century.
When I was ten, my mom re–married and we moved
from Lakeside east to an unincorporated area near Alpine known as Flinn Springs. This exciting new place I was lucky enough to call home, was a vast,
wide-open plant community, known in California native plant circles as interior sage scrub. I spent countless
hours wandering the hills, exploring, and familiarizing myself with the native flora and
The ubiquitous aroma of Black Sage and Artemisia
filled the air as I wandered the seemingly endless trails and pushed through the Chamise, always careful to avoid
the sharp spines of the Yucca whipplei. I scrambled over huge granite boulders hunting for snakes, lizards and
horny toads. During the hot inland afternoons I would find respite in the cool shade of a grove of Coast Live Oak
in a nearby canyon, an area we simply referred to as ‘The Oaks’.
I got to know the critters that called this
community home, as well. Jack rabbits would appear out of nowhere, bolt across my path and disappear into the brush
a few seconds later. Flocks of our state bird, the California Quail, with their signature three-tone call
exemplified the ‘sound’ of the chaparral.
Occasionally, I would see a greater roadrunner
with an unfortunate reptile dangling from her beak. I heard that seeing one of these birds was good luck, so I was
always excited when a sighting occurred, hopefully optimistic that something good was going to happen to me in the
near future! Of course, I was always on the lookout for rattlesnakes and ever aware of the red-tailed hawk circling
high above in search of his next meal. With so many new discoveries and experiences, this was a truly magical time
of my life!
Unfortunately, this magical time was to be
short–lived. As I was enjoying a care–free life in the sage scrub, a large developer was meticulously plotting to
implement a much different vision for my beloved open space. With final approval from the County, his bulldozers
began the process of systematically destroying this paradise I had grown so fond of. We had heard rumors but that
didn’t soften the shock that fateful day I came home from school only to see acre upon acre of scrapped hillside,
literally stripped of all vegetation.
The vernal pools left over from winter rains
where I caught frogs and pollywogs in the spring, the great granite boulder that had been precariously embedded in
the side of the hill for thousands of years—a place where I built a make–shift Indian enclosure under a Laurel
Sumac which grew from its base, even the bike trail and dry creek bed that my brother and I would race through,
flying up and out of the other side—in a matter of days…gone forever!
My family and I moved shortly after construction
began, but I never got over the sadness I felt from losing this place. I carried it with me for many years longing
to return to the wild place where I felt so at home.
That experience was indelibly imprinted in my
malleable young mind. Throughout my adulthood I would notice feelings of sadness and frustration rising whenever I
saw native land being cleared for a new housing project or shopping center. I always wished that there was
something I could do to rectify what I saw as an on–going wrong, being perpetrated on our natural
As fate would have it, many years later, as I was
finishing up my education in ornamental landscape design, I happened across an advertisement for a course in
designing landscapes utilizing California native plants. It was offered at the Theodore Payne
Foundation located in Sun Valley. I was
intrigued and, even though it was a long drive from my home in Orange County, I decided to
At some point over the course of the four
weekends I spent there, while walking through their nursery, the realization struck me. I realized that the plants
I had loved so much in my childhood, were not only available for purchase, but could be grown in suburban gardens,
and that as a Landscape Designer, there was something I could do about the on-going destruction of our native open spaces. Like the
proverbial apple falling on my head, I was overcome with a feeling of joy, one that I had known as a child growing
up in the wild places in the back–country of San Diego County, the feeling of coming full-circle, of coming
At that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt
that I had discovered my calling: California native landscape design. Today, with every garden I design, assist
others to create through consultation, lecture, blog, or writing, I am recreating that lost paradise from my childhood. I am
restoring California’s native landscape, one design at a time!