A Rare North Coast Tour
The Sea Ranch, perched on the edge of the continent, is a ten mile long sliver of coast along Highway One that is physically and metaphorically separating itself from California. Headed out to sea at a glacial rate of 5 cm per year on the Pacific tectonic plate, the stark character of place is markedly different from any piece of developed California. Spend any length of time there, and you’ll feel as if you are already on an island.
Born in the late 1960s by a group of visionary designers and developers, including the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, The Sea Ranch is an unincorporated community at the northern end of Sonoma County that visibly demonstrates how large scale development can be done in a beautiful and sensitive manner.
Driven by the unique geographical, climactic, and cultural characteristics of the site, 5,200 acres of dunes, beaches, ocean bluffs, coastal prairie, hedgerows, creeks, streams, and forests are deftly preserved as “The Commons” while buildings are “clustered” in groups to honor the natural setting of the site. The closely regulated architecture draws inspiration from the angular, windswept hedgerows and the muted colors of the landscape. But here, the architecture is secondary to the preservation of open space, views, and the quality of the landscape.
It is in this setting, where each property owner is motivated to protect the natural character of the site, that Scott Graf, founder and owner of Floriferous Landscape, creates unique and sustainable landscapes.
During a heavy drizzle in mid-winter, we caught up with Graf at the Ohlson House Community Native Garden to speak about his practice, discuss some of the challenges and opportunities of working in The Sea Ranch, and to visit a number of landscapes he had recently designed and installed.
LR: How did you first learn about The Sea Ranch?
SG: We bought our place ten years ago, but before that my folks had occasionally rented a place here for years and my family would come up and sort of dream the dream of living here. Then about 5 years ago we moved up here full time from the East Bay.
LR: And here you are now, living the dream!
SG: Yes, it is great. I do love it. It is an amazing community. That is originally what drew us up here full time. We have more of a social, community network here than we did in the East Bay after living there for many, many years.
LR: Like you said, The Sea Ranch is very much a community. As a prominent landscape figure, how are you involved?
SG: I am a founding member of the official Sea Ranch Native plant Committee, and help to organize and over see the development and maintenance of the Native Demonstration Garden, developed at an educational tool for the community to help to understand the plant material indigenous to the Sea Ranch, and how them may be used around their homes. And in my role on the Native plant committee I write the "Ask Scott" column for the TSR Bulletin and co-host, most of the seasonal native plant work shops.
LR: Let’s talk about some of the challenges of working as a landscape designer and contractor in The Sea Ranch. More specifically, what type of plant-related challenges do you encounter.
SG: Not only do we have strict Sea Ranch design requirements, we have all these other “Mother Nature” requirements, then all of the client requirements. A few of living constraints are deer, gophers, and wild turkeys that will find and eat any seed. Then there are the weather and climate considerations such as salt-spray, severe wind and drastic water availability swings that further limit our usable plant palette.
Another challenge is the development of "fire safe" landscapes, which also requires a commitment by the property owner for on going maintenance of a landscape to help maintain the fire safety of their property. The issue of wild fire being a big one here.
LR: So what are the rules and restrictions governing landscaping in The Sea Ranch?
SG: Basically anything anything that is out side a protected courtyard must be indigenous plant material from the approved list of plants for the particular zone of the property, within The Sea Ranch, and must be approved prior to planting by the Sea Ranch Design Committee.
LR: Then in areas that are not visible to the public, walled courtyards for example, are the rules more flexible?
SG: There you can do pretty much anything you want except for planting things that will overgrow the height of the protection and look foreign, for example red bougainvillea. That’s what I do here; natives on the outside, embedding the house in the landscape, then a stylized landscape within the courtyard.
LR: I see many of the same plants used throughout your designs. Would you say you have around 20-30 plants you use exclusively for the public landscape?
SG: That is a fairly good estimate. This is a product of years of culling the list to those plants that perform. You’ll often see the workhorse (pointing to Wax Myrtle), Silktassel, Ceanothus ‘Emily Brown’, Baccharis ‘Pigeon Point’, and Pacific Reed Grass in my designs.
LR: With such a limited palette, do you ever find the limitations to be frustrating or do you feel these restrictions force you to be more creative?
SG: I do have a lot of fun with the courtyards, because I can be more expressive. And I do have fun with natives, namely trying to excite and inform people about their use.
LR: I suppose one thing that never changes but adds a new dynamic to each project are the unique views of open space on each property. It forces you to get creative and focus on framing views and accenting vistas. Even though you have a fairly static plant palette and many design restrictions, you encounter wonderful opportunities with each project.
SG: That’s right, and it is not lost on me either. And I try to direct people to those opportunities with the landscape design. I am actually drawing on traditional ideas of landscape design of “borrowing” the landscape beyond. You may have a small garden but we are borrowing the area well beyond and incorporating it into the scene.
LR: I see a good number of plants that go in the ground are caged for deer-proofing. About how long are these required?
SG: We have certain plant material we routinely cage for protection for an initial period of a couple of years, depending on performance of the plant and evidence of deer activity in the area. We find certain plants need protection until they reach a certain critical mass to with stand some grazing. The issue of deer grazing further reduces our plant possibilities as we don't/can't protect everything out in the open. So we draw from a tried and true list of some very reliably resistant plants.
LR: Getting a little into the nitty gritty, what type of irrigation systems do you use most often?
SG: Almost entirely drip, but we use spray occasionally when we install native meadows. We use multiple zones of irrigation, planned and installed to allow for managing the water most effectively according to plant requirements and soil conditions and micro climates of the particular property.
Also, an easy to use, multi-programmable controller is essential. I’ll soon be experimenting with a smart controller that picks up satellite data and sends me notices if anything is outside of set parameters. This is especially useful in homes that are not occupied all the time so we can prevent water waste and large water bills if a break or leak occurs that would otherwise go some time without being noticed.
LR: It looks as if many of the designs you implement are fairly low-maintenance.
SG: Yes, although it also depends on the aesthetic of the client. Some clients require quarterly visits while others require every other week. Right now we are in “reset” season where we whack back all grasses and hard prune other plants. October/November and May/June are the “reset” seasons.
LR: How do you manage weeds in this environment?
SG: We try to do it mostly manually. We really try to use very little chemicals at all. We’ll use a little herbicide on occasion. We don’t fertilize at all and that also keeps weeds at bay.
LR: And how do you amend the soil? Is it necessary?
SG: Typically no. Post-construction I say we need to spend a little money amending the soil only to combat compaction. So we manually break it up and re-grade. But I don’t want to amend much. We put plant fertilizer tabs in the planting holes on occasion, but that is about all. We try not to give the plant anything they aren’t going to get used to. If something doesn’t work, yank it and try something else.
LR: That is a much better approach than trying to play doctor to an ailing plant with fertilizers and other chemicals. It is really all about “Right Plant, Right Place”.
SG: That’s what I believe, and that is mainly why my plant palette is so small, too.
LR: And lastly, your native plant designs are so well designed and implemented that uncultivated landscape blends seamlessly into the cultivated landscape. Care to share your trick?
SG: Take cues from the natural landscaping around a particular site; group plants similarly and minimize eye-catching or lonely specimens. Also avoid any kind of linear or geometric arrangements.
As The Sea Ranch’s past and future success rests solely on the oversight and commitment of the community, it is reassuring to know that skilled professionals such as Scott Graf and Floriferous Landscaping are working diligently to protect, preserve, and enhance the quality of place. Click here to see more of Scott Graf and Floriferous Landscape’s exceptional and sustainable gardens. Also, check out their current Featured Landscape.
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