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Designer | Contractor
Julie Swift

SF Peninsula, CA

Site | Size
+3 acres

Start | Completion

High End
Project Data

Landscape Case Study

Project Name

Native Transition

Bay Area Landscape Organization

Wild Natives

Situation + Site Condition

Julie Swift, owner + lead designer of Wild Natives, and her team had been working with a thoughtful and environmentally aware client for several years at a mature property located on the SF Peninsula.

Many conversations with them explored how to transition their existing landscape and ecology to enhance and better support native wildlife and reduce water use. This aligned with the customer’s desire for sustainability and fostering an environment that respects and supports nature.

The site featured a mature landscape designed with a formal English garden aesthetic. Any disruption of the site and the significant heritage planting within it necessitated a very considered approach to change.

As the residents considered the future and how to address many aspirational goals, they turned to Wild Natives for help, guidance, and an aggressive timetable to transform their landscape.

Project Objectives

Julie worked with her client to define and clarify a set of objectives for this project including:

  • Create a sustainable ecosystem for native flora + fauna
  • Transition landscape to primarily CA natives
  • Retain formal aesthetic with minimal disruption
  • Sustain residence privacy with 3-layer hedge structure
  • Enhance soil health
  • Expand composting + green waste recycling
  • Avoid compromising mature tree health
  • Create a vegetable garden for daily use
  • Tailor garden production to match the seasons
  • Reduce site water use
  • Eliminate water wasting lawns
  • Address drainage + water capture
  • Tune + improve irrigation
  • Retain existing wasp nests for natural predation
  • Implement integrated pest management
Drought + Water Challenges
A long and stubborn drought in California made transforming this landscape quite challenging. The local water district had recently enacted severe water restrictions for all residents as the pervasive dry conditions appeared to be the new normal for this part of the Bay Area. Any landscape change would have to address how to reduce water use and improve hydration efficiency.

Wild Natives Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Ordinary nurseries could not provide the high volume of CA native plants that were required.
Plant Selection Challenges
Effective and aesthetic selection of CA native plants that would thrive in a variety of locations throughout the site was essential. Substituting Buxus sempervirens | Boxwood with Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’ | Coyote Bush for example would require skillful and experienced plant selection to eliminate dramatic visual change in the landscape and ensure long-term plant health. Replacing plants typically used in English-style gardens with CA natives could also require some individual pruning, training, or other techniques to minimize aesthetic changes in the foliage.

Wild Natives Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Over 62 species of CA native plants were sourced for the transition.
Drainage Challenges
The existing site had drainage issues on a hillside that was laden with heavy clay subsurface soil. A solution was required to enhance the speed of water drainage and mitigate clogging of designated water disbursement areas. Site-wide irrigation also needed adjustments to reflect existing soil conditions’ impact and reduce water use.

Wild Natives Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Hillside drainage and bioswale management needed to be addressed.
Plant Sourcing Challenges
Due to the size of the site, diverse planting requirement, and the compressed project schedule, acquiring the range and quantity of native plants needed was challenging. Wild Natives planned on integrating dozens of different species of native plants in a variety of sizes and forms. This high volume of CA native plants could easily overwhelm a conventional nursery.

Wild Natives Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Ordinary nurseries could not provide the high volume of CA native plants + sizes that were required.

Plan + Solution

Wild Natives provides experienced, knowledgeable landscape maintenance services using proven organic practices to ensure that a Bay Area garden thrives. Their services promote long-term garden health and sustainability which improves over time. As Julie Swift describes “We don’t just install a garden and leave.”

Julie and her team had hands-on experience at the Native Transition site for over a decade. This intimate familiarity and understanding of many dimensions of the landscape made planning this significant transformation less uncertain and provided confidence in their approach.

The result made the transition less disruptive for her clients and enabled them to better understand how Julie and her team would meet all of the project objectives.

Julie’s solution to this very large-scale project was to address all areas of the available landscape and provide every opportunity to produce food, shelter, and habitat for both residents and native creatures.

The Wild Natives team took a 6-month approach to implement the transition and relied on the cooler and wetter months of the year to replace and add new planting.
Heritage plants including existing native Oak | Quercus agrifolia and Toyon | Heteromeles arbutifolia were used to unify and frame key areas of the site while anchoring uninterrupted grass areas.

Concerns about compromising the health of native oaks were addressed by avoiding digging around these mature trees.

By integrating large volumes of California native plants, pollinator attraction could be enhanced, water use would be reduced, and soil ecosystems could naturally improve. Reliance on the low maintenance qualities of CA native plants would also reduce seasonal care.

Intentional, limited use of flower color in the garden within the range of violets, blues and whites minimized visual complexity and enhanced color continuity. This palette preferred by the resident owners became more flexible in the vegetable garden and other discrete areas that allowed for more color diversity.

Together, all of these components would create a seamless transition to a CA native landscape that supports the environment and sustains native wildlife.

Project Gallery

Selected Project Plants

Julie used thoughtful considerations to guide her plant selection and locations for use. CA Native plants with summer-dry tolerance and low-maintenance characteristics were used wherever possible.
Each selection helped to highlight the plant in the overall landscape while sustaining the refined aesthetic of the mature garden. The gallery above features some of the many plants + trees provided by Pacific Nurseries that were used in the project.

Results | Outcome

Outcomes of the CA native transition included measurable improvement in soil health. Through implementation of sheet mulching throughout the site, water was conserved, weeds were smothered, and an optimal planting medium was established.

Extensive use of compost was also integrated throughout the landscape which kept green waste on-site, enhanced soil nutrients, improved water retention, and minimized introduction of foreign pathogens or industrial chemicals. Compost tea was also added to soil in a concentrated form providing microbes that balance pathogenic activity. This also increased summer-dry tolerance and boosted every plant’s natural ability to survive and thrive.

Implementation of an Integrated Pest Management | IPM program eliminated the use of pesticides and fertilizers while providing natural support for native species.

The extensive transition to CA native plants did not disrupt the existing garden aesthetics. Strategic selection of native plants provided a similar visual appearance and served similar design functions such as screening, hedging, or ground covering.

Removal and replacement of traditional lawn turf with CA native Agrostis pallens | Thingrass required 50% less water and minimal mowing or feeding. The deep roots of this native grass also prevented water runoff and significantly improved carbon sequestration.

Hydrozoning, extensive mapping, and fine-tuning of irrigation controllers + systems resulted in significant, site-wide water savings. Water allotments to both flowering and formal gardens along with outlying areas featuring more wild plantings were tailored to eliminate water waste.

Experienced and informed plant selection under and around native oaks improved the integrated relationship between these anchor trees and the surrounding landscape. Seasonally fallen oak leaves are now used as natural mulch helping to reduce maintenance.

Extensive use of CA native plants continues to promote and sustain the welfare of a wide variety of native insects and animals—from butterflies to bobcats. Once established, these CA native plants now require less water long term, they are summer-dry tolerant, and susceptibility to pests and disease is reduced.

The result of all of these outcomes has created a natural sense of place in this garden that has improved the environmental ecosystem while providing calming psychological benefits to all visitors.

Services Delivered


Pesticide + Fertilizer Use

Zero use of chemical supplements with IPM + improved soil health


Decreased Water Use

Site-wide landscape water use decreased by over 40% with CA Native plants


Native Habitat Support

Significant increase in native food sources and wildlife presence.

“We are appreciative that Wild Natives has taken on the challenge of gardening on our property without synthetic chemicals or other practices that may be harmful to birds, insects, animals and humans. The addition of many native plants has attracted interesting birds and other wildlife to the property. We enjoy the diversity and health Julie’s work has brought to our yard!”

Native Transition Residents

Lessons Learned

  1. Spend time getting to know your client and their garden so that they can share their wisdom.
  2. Be mindful and empathic to foster an atmosphere of trust.
  3. Allow your learning from them to grow over time + don’t force changes before they’re ready.
  4. Aim for flexibility and compromise in your approach.
  5. Communicate often, and set expectations to improve understanding to address key client needs.
  6. Always provide timely progress reports.
  7. Get agreement and authorization before implementing anything.
  8. A garden is always evolving and never stops changing.
  9. Make the most of the opportunity and face challenges that lead to learning.
  10. Fine gardening ultimately comes down to the skills of your team.
  11. Gardeners need to grow as much as the plants they tend.
  12. Foster an environment of growth and sustainability for all.
  13. If something fails, come back and fix it.
  14. Rely on trusted + proven partners to help you succeed.

Wild Natives

Julie Swift and her team at Wild Natives is a conscientious group of like-minded gardeners working to make the world a better place, one Bay Area garden at a time. Their passion for CA native plants leads to water-efficient and reduced maintenance environments where natural habitats thrive. They design organic compositions with a sense of place that highlights the elements that make where we live so wonderful.