Fabulous gardens

A quote of a place

August 11, 2011






One of the most compelling landscapes profiled in Tim Richardson’s 2008 book Avant Gardeners was Ron Lutsko’s “Sustainability Gardens” at Turtle Bay in Redding, California.

Perhaps – because I’m from the part of the world where this park is installed – there was a ring of familiarity in the landscape.   What I think most resonated was the concept behind it:  native plants paired with modern design to tell a story of seasons and ephemerality.

I have read accounts of John Muir walking from San Francisco through the grasslands of the great San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite.  I grew up in that great valley in California, but never walked through a native grass area.  Experiencing an ecosystem’s native flora is important to me — but nearly impossible these days due to the history of agriculture in this place.  This design herald’s the botanical history of the site.

It’s spring here: look at the vertical deer grass, the blossums, the flowers on the manzanita, and colours of fescue grass on the hill. It’s a quote of this area’s much larger narrative.

Understanding the metaphor within the design as well as its references to the ecology of the region has helped me feel confident in working with metaphors in private gardens.






The 10-acre site is a gateway to Exploration Park which includes the McConnell Arboretum, Sundial Bridge and Turtle Bay Museum.  All of these projects celebrate Redding’s unique regional setting. The design is rooted in regional context.  Situated at the top of the Sacramento Valley, it interprets the geology and hydrology of the surrounding mountains and Sacramento River watershed.

The site is organized around a central conical mound that descends to a wetland, capturing the drainage of the entire site.  Regional plant communities correspond to elevations of the site from the fescue-covered mound of Montane Chaparral, to the planes of Sacramento Valley Foothill Grasslands and the low-lying riparian communities.

The design interprets both the regional and site hydrology, revealing connection between high elevation water sources, riparian zones, and groundwater. While not running when we visited, water cascades down a conical mound that takes its shape from the volcanic form of Mount Shasta. Water flows from its “high water” source into lower lying pools, which Lutsko Associates created to be reminiscent of engineered forms of the Sacramento River.   The central water course meanders through a series of stone terraces — all a warm golden color reflecting the golden light and heat of this area.  All of the site’s surface drainage is captured in a constructed wetland before releasing into the existing wetland.

Elevated areas adjacent to the riparian corridor walls are planted with a species of nearly extinct valley and foothill grasses. Intended as architectural expression of future buildings, poplars border the native meadows of the site. Echoing distribution patterns of native riparian vegetation, native plantings also tell the story of seasonality and ephemerality …

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