Learning to Love California Gold, Part Two: Coping Mechanisms

As a self-professed plant geek, one of the most inspiring things to me is the abundance and diversity of life. Even after centuries of study, we continue to discover new and fascinating things about the workings of the natural world. In 1993, the first edition of the Jepson Manual estimated 5,862 species and subspecies of plants native to California. A 2001 study by the California Native Plant Society put that number closer to 6,500 species, and the current edition of the Jepson (now available as an online interchange) catalogues about 7,600 species, subspecies, and varieties native to California alone. Even a casual study of this diversity, and the many thousands more species that can be found across the globe, reveals patterns (some intuitive and some subtle) that provide insight into a plant’s origin. In looking at a plant’s form, its leaves and flowers, and its growth patterns, we can see evidence of its evolutionary history – the visual trademarks that distinguish it as uniquely able to survive in its native environment.


















1)Desert plants store water in succulent leaves or stems, and defend that precious water against herbivores with thorns. Cacti and other succulents growing in the Huntington Desert Garden by Pamla J. Eisenberg/CC BY-SA 2.0

2) Understory plants often have large dark leaves to maximize photosynthesis. Alocasia micholitziana ‘Frydek’ by James Steakley (Own work)/CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

3) Plants adapted to windy conditions (like near the shoreline) often have creeping forms, small leaves, or rosettes of leaves close to the ground to minimize wind resistance. Eriogonum latifolium (coast buckwheat) and Erigeron glaucus (seaside daisy)by oliveoligarchy/CC by 2.0

Using plants that adapted to thrive in our local climate makes sense as a simple way to reduce the amount of water, fertilizer, herbicide, and labor needed to maintain landscapes in the built environment. It also allows us to cultivate an aesthetic that is uniquely California and celebrates the natural diversity of our state. Many of our California native plants, as well as plants that originate from other dry-summer regions of the world such as the Mediterranean basin, Australia, South Africa, and central Chile, have adapted to go months without rainfall. Their coping mechanisms generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Drought avoidance – plants avoid drought stress altogether with deep roots to find water, leaf shapes to minimize water loss, or dormancy during the dry season. Drought-avoidant plants won’t stay green and growing in the face of severe drought stress.
  • Drought tolerance – thanks to slowed growth rates, altered photosynthesis, or other cellular changes, drought tolerant plants can still grow and thrive even after months without rain.
  • Low water use – unlike drought tolerant or drought avoidant plants, some plants use very little water on average, but will not survive a prolonged period of dryness. Many hybridized or horticultural varieties of our native plants fall into this category. They would not survive in a non-irrigated landscape, but will do beautifully if regularly irrigated, even in small amounts, in a cultivated landscape.


Many plants employ more than one water-saving strategy within these categories, and some that have the most impact on a plant’s use in the built environment include:

  • Slow growth – Many woody drought-tolerant species grow slowly, taking 5-10 years from the time of planting to reach a mature size. While the delayed gratification may frustrate those looking for instant impact, the tradeoff of a long life span means that they will look great for years to come. Examples include manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), and oaks (Quercus spp.).
  • Summer dormancy – The largest group of summer-dormant plants is perennial grasses, which grow in the winter and spring and slowly fade to gold during their dormant state in the summer. A few woody plants are summer-deciduous, including California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) which is one of the earliest plants to leaf out in spring but will drop its leaves early during a dry summer.

Short life cycle – Annual plants also exhibit a kind of summer dormancy, but because their life cycle is only one growing season, this dormancy occurs between generations after the plants flower, set seed, and die in the spring and summer. Seeds lay dormant during the dry season, springing to life with the winter rains.


  • Succulence – Like cacti and agaves, some plants store water in succulent stems and leaves, enabling them to survive long dry periods where water is unavailable.
  • Small fuzzy leaves – In hot sunny areas where more than enough light is available for photosynthesis, small fuzzy leaves can help keep plants cool and minimize water loss. Small hairs on the surface of the leaves create an insulating layer that minimizes air flow across the leaf’s surface and keeps leaf temperatures low. Plants with fuzzy leaves often look grey, silver, or dusty green and can infuse a variety of colors and textures into a plant palette. Examples include Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), lavender (Lavandula spp.), and sagebrush (Artemisia).


By understanding the mechanisms that plants use to save water, we can design landscapes that meet both the aesthetic expectations of landscape users as well as today’s standards for resource-use reduction. Moreover, we have an opportunity to create landscapes that are dynamic and vibrant, changing not just with the seasons but over time as they mature and evolve. In a newly-planted landscape, masses of quick-growing grasses and perennials can provide texture, color, and movement while slower-growing shrubs are still small. As the woody backbone of the landscape fills in, colorful perennials and textural grasses can serve as accents against a mature evergreen backdrop. With all the stunning variety of the natural world around us, it seems a shame to design a landscape that is static and unchanging, especially if we can achieve longevity and durability while still allowing for change over time. A rush of green followed by an explosion of color with winter rains and warm spring temperatures, the dappled shade of oaks in the summer, and golden grasses nodding in the autumn breeze. As landscape architects, we embrace the opportunity to create places that inspire, delight, and help us connect to the beautiful place we call home!

Brenna Castro is a Job Captain in our Sacramento Office and is also one of our resident Plant Experts!

Learning to Love California Gold, Part One


Ask any Californian why they love the golden state and you’ll get a different answer every time – beaches, mountains, redwood forests, rolling hills, pleasant weather, fresh fruit and vegetables year-round, friendly people, good culture…it’s a place unlike any other. And as many Californians know, dry summers are a fact of life around here thanks to our Mediterranean climate. Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta (all of which average 3.5-4 inches of rain per month in summer) and so many other places around the country, California gets most of its rain during winter and hardly any at all during summer. Sacramento gets an average of just 0.1 inches of rainfall per month in June, July, and August. So whether or not this year’s predicted El Nino brings relief to our parched state, water conservation will always be an important goal in California, especially as we continue to strive to tread more lightly on the earth. As landscape architects, we are stewards of the environment and are uniquely skilled to improve our relationship with our great state’s natural resources.

If there’s a silver lining to this historic drought, it may be that it has brought our relationship with water to the forefront of our minds. Turf has received a particularly bad rap, especially as estimates show that at least half of the water used outdoors in California is used to irrigate lawns. But it seems that turf is here to stay; there’s little argument that it’s a great surface for picnicking, running, playing, and recreation. Instead of denouncing turf altogether, we should take a more nuanced approach and reexamine our relationship with the lawn – why is it so important and so ubiquitous?

Henry Coe Panorama by Bryce Edwards/CC by 2.0

Many of our early public parks were built with pastoral or picturesque landscape aesthetics in mind, bringing nature to the urban masses as a source of physical and spiritual renewal. America’s earliest parks (e.g. Boston Commons or Central Park in New York City) were based on a vision of nature as green rolling hills dotted with trees, and maybe some sheep – in other words, the local landscapes of England and New England, from which the pastoral and picturesque landscape aesthetics were derived. These were landscapes where turf grows and stays green year round with little effort, and parks soon became synonymous with open lawn, shade trees, and winding paths. In many places around the country, large expanses of lawn are beautiful, cost effective, and easy to maintain, sometimes even without supplemental irrigation.

But if you look around California in the summer, chances are that you’ll see a lot more gold than green – turf just doesn’t thrive in our hot dry summers. That’s true these past couple summers in particular, as many Californians and public agencies have let their lawns go dry as a way to save water. But that’s not a bad thing – in fact, it looks a lot more like our own native landscape. With the huge and beautiful array of drought tolerant or low water use plants available to us, we can create landscapes that are colorful, textural, sculptural, sublime, dramatic, and captivating in ways that a rectangle of green could never be. If a lawn isn’t going to be used for picnicking or playing (no one is going to play soccer in a median or picnic between the sidewalk and the street), let’s make it into something beautiful and resource-efficient. Now, as we Californians are forced to ask ourselves, “Why do I have this patch of grass?”, we can capitalize on what makes our great state unique and figure out for ourselves what makes a great California landscape. It won’t look like the green rolling hills of England, the verdant mountains of Appalachia, or the lush prairies of the Midwest, but that’s OK – let’s embrace what makes us Californians and learn to love our California gold.

Brenna Castro is a Job Captain in our Sacramento Office and is also one of our resident Plant Experts!

Align Your Passion!

Have you ever stepped back away from your day to day work life to think about what you are most passionate about in your profession?  Are you doing enough of that in your current job? If you could do more of it, would you then become more engaged in what you are doing?

As we all progress in our career we learn that there are going to be certain aspects about our job that we absolutely love and then there are other aspects that feel more like “work”.


With that basic premise we set a goal in 2015 of identifying individual passions and aligning groups of like-minded people into “action groups”.  We are beginning with five different groups aligned with our five work categories: Recreate, Educate, Live + Work, Connect and Sustain. The idea is simple, support employee’s’ efforts in advancing their own personal knowledge and expertise and the by-product of their efforts will lead to firm growth, innovation, and leadership.

We are hoping that each group will meet at least once a month.  The groups will provide the opportunities to share lessons learned, discuss what is on the drawing boards or under construction, share projects the have visited, and discuss outside opportunities that are directly related to those employees passions. Group members will be encouraged to attend conferences, seek out educational opportunities/classes, read literature, and visit projects.  In addition, these groups will be a core component within formulating marketing strategies and developing content.

To be honest, we are still early in the process and have only had one action group meeting to date. However, we are encouraged by the enthusiasm of this first group and the potential this program represents for personal, professional and firm growth!  Because let’s face it…a truly great design is driven by passion, plus who wouldn’t want their day to feel a little less like “work”!

Brian Fletcher, President – Connect/Live + Work Action Group Mentor

From the Eyes of an Intern

My first experience at Callander Associates was a two and a half week internship during my winter break in which I learned more than I could have ever hoped for. I was able to dive in right away and get my hands dirty doing everything from hand and computer renderings, to drafting, to visiting project sites. Though a short stint, I was able to obtain an enormous amount of knowledge about working in a firm, office culture and what landscape architecture is like outside of the classroom.

A few months later I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in a summer internship. This included working in both the San Mateo and Rancho Cordova offices where the same amount of camaraderie and laughter were present. I worked on a range of projects and was able to expand the type of work I was doing from my time I had spent there in December, while learning something new everyday in the process.

As a Cal Poly student I have grown to love landscape architecture for its emphasis on the environment and the integration of the environment into smart design. Working at Callander allowed me to utilize the skills that I have learned in school and apply them to real life situations and truly understand smart design. I enjoyed the challenges, fun and laughter that come with working in a professional firm and feel that I gained knowledge and experience with each project that I worked on. I couldn’t have asked for a better firm or better people to work with during my first official internship experience with a landscape architecture firm.


written by the extremely talented Katie Barsanti, who is currently studying abroad during her 4th year at Cal Poly in the Landscape Architecture program! We know she is having a blast and look forward to her return!  

1990 All Over Again?

Funny how much our focus shifts with our immediate circumstances.   Who remembers 1988-1990?  Those were some dry years here in California.  Water rationing was in effect.  Measures put in place by the EBMUD were thought to be positively draconian.  There just wasn’t enough water to go around.


Shasta Lake 1991
photo from Department of Water Resources

All the talk in the field was about drip irrigation and drought tolerant plantings.  And legislation went on the books to enforce it.  AB 325 (AB 1881’s predecessor) became law in 1990.   For a while there, everyone was on board with water efficient landscape design.  Classes were taken and plans were prepared in compliance with the new guidelines.  Documentation packages were submitted and carefully reviewed by the local agencies charged with AB 325’s enforcement.  There was even talk of requiring a license of irrigation designers.

But then a funny thing happened; it started to rain again.

With an abundance of water it was hard to maintain the level of heightened vigilance about water use that characterized landscape design in those years.  And the explosion in growth of the drip irrigation industry exposed its problems to a broader audience.  People learned that drip is fragile, and sometimes the first indication that the system isn’t working is dead plants.  These traits didn’t compare favorably with more robust conventional irrigation systems.

And so the pendulum swung back.

Have we gotten it right yet?  Was it appropriate to go back to conventional spray systems in situations where a drip system could have been used?  In some instances, the answer may well be ‘yes’.  We’ve learned a lot about the limitation of the technology.  What has worked beautifully in agriculture for decades hasn’t translated to commercial landscapes quite so easily.  The farmer’s field doesn’t suffer from ‘desire lines’ through the landscape.  The farmers’ field is her livelihood.  She is NOT going to let it fail.  The commercial landscape is an amenity where the emphasis is on minimal maintenance cost.  The diligence applied to these two landscapes couldn’t be more different.


Shasta Lake 2014
photo from

But I would venture that we’ve forgotten a lot too.  We’ve forgotten that droughts are a natural, regularly occurring phenomenon in California, and according to historical records (as written in tree rings pre-dating our move west) we haven’t seen nearly the worst of them.  But, up to now, it’s been raining and there’s been more attention paid to rain gardens than water conservation.  Leave it to an ‘old guy’ (me!) to give you another perspective.  Take our recent lack of rainfall as a reminder about the natural inconsistency of the weather here.  Whether it rains tomorrow, and rains for 3 weeks straight, is largely irrelevant.  We will have droughts, they will be back, and we need to ALWAYS be thinking about water conservation, wet year or dry.  It’s time to dust off those drip irrigation catalogs and xeriscape plant lists…but this time let’s keep them out even when the rain returns!

(funny footnote: as I was writing this I received an e-mail from Hunter touting their ‘New Point Source Drip Emitters’.  What do you suppose they are anticipating?)

Mark Slichter, Principal

My First Year at Callander

Over the past year, Callander Associates has had several new employees join our team! Two of our newest team members, Amy McNamara, and Zach Katz were asked to give us their perspective about what it has been like during their first year of working for our firm. Amy brings several years of experience and an east-coast background to our team, while Zach has jumped right in to his first year in the Landscape Architecture profession.


Amy McNamara, Project Manager

“With five years of education and five years of professional practice under my belt, it’s hard to believe I’ve been involved in landscape architecture for almost a decade. In this short time, I’ve been privileged to work on a diverse list of project types in a variety of geographic locations, designing landscapes on both coasts.

I did my undergraduate studies at Penn State University, and began my professional career at a very small firm in the Philadelphia area. The transition from being a student to a practicing landscape architecture was very exciting, but also challenging–education can provide a landscape architect the requisite theoretical background, but many of the practical skills needed to succeed professionally–such as how to deliver good work product on budget–come only with time. Adaptability and versatility are key for young professionals and I spent most of my first two years just soaking up as much information as I possibly could.

The second half of my career has been influenced by my move to California. While not starting from scratch, it has been a challenge adapting to some West Coast design practices. On the flip side, it has also been a great pleasure as the Bay Area offers a number of advantages not present in landscape architectural practices on the East Coast. In general, the climate of the Bay Area lends itself to a greater emphasis on outdoor space. The accessibility of year-round open space in both private and public settings presents an abundance of opportunity for innovation, and the ability to utilize an incredible plant palette, with many distinctive plants (I’m looking at you, succulents!) that are not available on the East Coast. It has also been a great relief to disregard the design requirements for snow removal and the omnipresent safety issues of ice!

I am happy to say I have found a professional home on the West Coast with Callander Associates! One of the characteristics that initially drew me to Callander was the variety of project types that I would have a hand in. True to form, in my short time here, I’ve worked on projects ranging from corporate courtyards to green streets to public parks. Furthermore, it is amazing to me that I could literally walk a mile in any direction and stumble upon a Callander project. Working for a Bay Area leader, it is rewarding to see our built work directly influencing the local community to such a great degree.  Finally, it is 100% true that positive work relationships influence career happiness–in addition to feeling professional fulfilled, my coworkers are such a great group of people to work with and play with. They have truly made my cross-country move more manageable and enjoyable. I look forward to developing my personal and professional relationships and expanding my knowledge at Callander Associates. I am excited to see what the future holds!


Zach Katz, Project Assistant

“As I’ve hit my one year mark at Callander Associates, I think about how my transition from a student to professional has been much smoother than I expected it to be.

I loved the landscape architecture program at University of Oregon and the guidance it provided to help me find my way through the broad spectrum of the profession. Throughout my time at Oregon, I developed a passion and appreciation for the type of work landscape architect’s do and became aware of the positive effect they have on people and the environment. I was so eager to get started in the profession and was excited Callander gave me the opportunity to join the team.

My biggest fear coming into the profession was that I would spend long hours at my computer, working on cad and not really interacting with people. But this hasn’t been the case! I still do CAD work, but it’s mixed in with drawings, renderings, designing and site visits. One of my favorite aspects of working here is the office environment. I was so accustomed to my studio environment in school, where we were always helping each other, and adding a little fun into our work regime. Working at Callander has felt like a perfect extension of that studio environment!  At Callander, we genuinely enjoy spending time together and crack jokes about each other (although, being the rookie, I’m usually at the end of them). After only a few months of being at Callander I felt like I was part of a new supportive community where I could express myself and feel confident that I would be able grow as a landscape architect.

I’ve enjoyed the challenges of working in a professional firm. It took some time to adjust to the fast pace, as I am constantly working on more than one project at a time. However, I’m becoming accustomed to it, and appreciate the project diversity, and the continued learning that I gain with each different project I work on.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start to my career. I’m at a great firm with great people who push me to be my best, not only as a designer, but as a person. I’m confident that they will help me continue on my path of professional growth as a landscape architect.”