Ornamental vs Native in Retail

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    Adam Trujillo

    This topic always seems to be a continuous debate/discussion in our office regarding the use of CA native plants and drought tolerant plants in our designs.  The principal of the firm is an old school horticulturist that has been reluctant to use natives/drought tolerant landscapes in our commerical/retail projects.  He seems to stick to the ornamental plants that he knows he can depend to be there in 10-15 years.  He is a little more accepting to incorporate native plants into the residential designs.  However, he debates about the longevity of using natives in a retail or commercial project.  He believes that the plants will need to be replaced in 5 years and that to him is “unsustainable”. To him it is much easier to maintain something like pittosporum or rhapiolepsis than salvia, penestemon etc.  It’s hard to make a case against his position because there doesn’t seem to be too many published articles regarding the success of natives in retail settings.  Also, it is pretty hard to find commercial projects that have really great drought tolerant designs. The drought tolerant plant designs that do look pretty good seem are usually xeriscape landscapes that don’t fit his aesthetic criteria.  This also may be due to the fact that many of the maintenance companies out there just don’t understand how to maintain native planting (a whole other topic all on its own).


    So if anyone could please share their experiences and projects that have utilized native and drought tolerant planting designs I would greatly appreciate it!


    Ami Saunders

    All plants are native to somewhere.

    Ignorance is bliss.  To hold onto this perspective you describe that is held by your boss, he/she really has to live, eat, work and shop with his/her eyes completely shut to all new landscape construction these days, especially in California.   Not to mention ignoring increasingly stringent new construction code requirements. 

    Try taking your boss to lunch with the office crew somewhere at a little restaurant with a cute outdoor patio in a new shopping center with bioswales, curbcuts in planting areas, perhaps some permeable asphalt or concrete, and tons of new water-saving/native plantings, and see if he/she can sit there with his/her eyes shut and still refuse to listen to him/herself pontificate about the past. 

    Old school is a dying breed, as evidenced from observation of recent construction.

    Ironically, the projects that have been leading the charge for the “green” perspective are those precise projects your boss claims to not be sustainable — which guarantees that he will (ironically) be overlooked by clients who are seeking solutions for the longest-term horizons of ownership, those projects that first went green such as civic centers, police and fire stations, libraries, hospitals and anyone else with (once again) the longest horizons of ownership.  This evidence flies in the face of the “old-school” perspective.  This type of perspective holding onto high-water, bomb-proof plants, overhead spray and nearly 100% untreated stormwater runoff, I have seen is most pervasive in the shorter-term, quick-profit, under-funded, or less informed owner, resulting in poor quality, cheap commercial projects such as strip malls, etc.  However even the newer malls these days have complete onsite stormwater design including bioswales with drought-tolerant plants such as juncus, that love wet feet once in a while and do a great job of treating and infiltrating the water the civil engineers send to them from the parking surfaces.   

    I find that if I look around, there are more and more plants that require less water and more and more natives appearing all around me.  It could be your area; if it is not near a major metropolis there may not be as many plants that are newer to the horticultural trade.  I find that if I look around there are drought-tolerant and native plants to be found in every type of recent project these days. These “dirty” projects are harder and harder to permit nowadays, as municipalities are letting fewer projects “slide”, and require stormwater codes and water budget requirements to be fulfilled. 

    Try looking for projects nearer a major metropolis.  Find out who the maintenance company is on the job and ask them about their experience.  You will start to see that there is strong evidence that supports the fact that “times are indeed a-changin’.” 

    Good luck. 

    Rob Halpern

    Adam, there is a bit of a disconnect in your posting.


    On the one hand, you want to counter the boss’ arguement that a native planting will need to be replaced in a few years.

    On the other, you acknowledge that there are few landscape maintenance firms than can properly maintain such a landscape.

    Until you can propose a workable solution to the maintenance issue your boss is, apparently, correct.


    Nevermind that he says Pittosporum and you say Penstemon as though you were discussing interchangeable design elements.

    Ami Saunders



    I agree about the comment regarding native plants.  In that direction, my one thought was that if you compare shorter-lived native perennial plantings to longer-lived non-native “ornamentals” then, yes, you will have to replace plants that have shorter life expectancies sooner.  What if you compared longer-lived native shrubs with the longer-lived hardwood shrubs you mentioned?  That would be a fairer comparison horticulturally and a better start to establishing a counter in the debate.


    As for maintenance, in theory, it would be nice if there were an ample supply of a highly skilled landscape maintenance workforce.  However, you only need to find one maintenance company to handle the project, no matter how many others there may be available who are capable of handling native plant maintenance.  In my area, there are several large maintenance companies specializing in commercial and institutional maintenance, who invest in employee training, and are adept with managing changing trends and technologies, and taking care of newer landscapes with newer codes and, yes, native plants.  Since these are larger companies, they are much easier to find, and you might be surprised that in talking with them they have wonderful people with various degrees in the industry, and with expertise that complements and (maybe even) rivals that of a landscape architect’s.  But I would leave it up to you to explore.  (Hint:  companies that come to mind are Kachina, ValleyCrest, etc. etc.) 


    Also I would recommend Bob Perry’s (FASLA), recent book as a resource.  This book is based upon (only a few) decades of research, hopefully enough to satisfy your boss’ skepticism, and is chock full of native and low-water use plants.  This book is worth it’s weight in gold, in my opinion, for plant design. 


    I love all plants, and feel that as designers we can be open to many different planting possibilities based upon the site, its users, and its caretakers.  





    Drought tolerant species can have some very ornamental properties, even some natives, depending on where you are.  The other thing is, how many ornamental plants are hardy enough not to get trampled.  The majority of end cap islands that are between the parking and store are void of shrubs and groundcover because of people too lazy to walk around. 


    I had a landscape plan checker that would red-line the plans if I used Rhaphiolepis or Pittosporum.  He thought they were over used.


    Have you tried introducing Cistus, Leucophyllum, or Carex?

    Adam Trujillo

    Rob, the disconnect is exactly my point.  I haven’t been able to find great examples to show him.  So that is why I am reaching out to this community for successful projects.  Have you seen any or designed any?

    Adam Trujillo

    I completely agree with you on this Ami.  I stress this point to the principal that we will get left behind in this economy if we don’t make a fundamental shift in our philosophy.  However, he takes the position that, he doesn’t want to take the responsibility 5 years down the road when the landscape is in dire shape, which I can’t really blame him for.  One of the problem lies with the lack of experience he has with using natives and drought tolerant to feel comfortable designing with them.  So obviously it would require some self-exploration and research on his part.  However, I would just love to see some case studies and find professionals out there who can share success stories for use of natives in retail environments.  Cause as of now its all just philosophy which my boss is way too practical to leave himself liable for millions of dollars worth of landscape based on a philosophy.

    Rob Halpern

    Well my work is too specialized to be pertinent (does an African Savanna at the Dallas Zoo using mostly Texas natives count? – and since they are West Texas natives I can’t even see it as a native landscape in Dallas)… but the California Academy of Sciences’ native landscape is a more appropriate local example.

    Perhaps not local enough for you, though, since you appear focused on drought tolerance.

    Rob Halpern

    Although this looks pretty promising: “Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center”

    Adam Trujillo

    Yes, we did do that.  The project, surprisingly is going on its 15th year and still looks great.  Thank you. : )

    Steve Mercer

    I suspect that there is room for both native and non-native plants in the landscape.  People get tired of the same old thing over and over again.  So mix it up -why limit yourself to one camp or the other?  Just remember the plants that have stood the test of Father Time in your area are the natives. 



    Craig A Raines

    I think you can acheive your goals using natives….and especially drought tolerant plant species. I mean it is really a matter of educating your clients to the importance of using both natives and drought tolerant material. I gotta believe that the retail design/look will come around to a look that will require natives/drought tolerant…..

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