Robert Littlepage is a friend of MyGardenSchool from California, U.S. He’s a landscape architect and designer who’s created many gardens throughout the Sacramento region, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Salt Lake City, Utah and the San Francisco Bay area. He also teaches landscape and irrigation design.
He studied garden design in England in 1994. He is a licensed landscape architect in both California and Louisiana, is a certified designer with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, a licensed landscape contractor (Calif., inactive) and an EPA WaterSense Partner – a designation by the Environmental Protection Agency. I’m always keen to catch up with other horticulturists and designers in different parts of the world. We all think we have unique challenges wherever we garden. Perhaps the soil is not right, maybe the weather is too unkind? Well, believe me that’s the same everywhere.
I’ve never visited his part of the US, so I’m really keen to find out about their growing season and specific areas of interest in that part of the world. How does garden design in California differ from garden design in the UK?
It will also be great to get a professional landscapers perspective on gardening. Does Robert garden as a hobby? Does he like growing things as well as designing gardens? Does he see landscape design and construction as a form of gardening?
I’ve invited Robert to share his thoughts with My Garden School followers. I’m really delighted to welcome him as a guest to the My Garden School blog
How did you get into landscape design in the first place Robert and why did you study in England?
Thanks Andy. Like a lot of us I’ve gardened since I was a kid in Southern California. When we moved to Northern California I found I really enjoyed hiking in the forests, seeking out old gold mining sites and doing a little prospecting in the rivers and streams within the Mother Lode. As I hiked I would come across unique areas where carnivorous plants – mainly Darlingtonia – thrived. This piqued my interest in botany. Eventually I got my degree in Forestry and found myself doing rare plant searches on the Tahoe National Forest to map their locations.
Long story, but I eventually left the forest service and went to work on a landscape construction crew – this was in the early 1980’s. After 4 years I sat for the State landscape contractor exam, passed and started my own design/build business. The only thing was that I had no design experience or background, everything I did was basically copying the work of others. It got to the point where all my work started looking the same…boring. So, after 9 years of this my wife, Wendy, convinced me to visit England and Scotland. That’s the trip when I decided I needed to get some design education and Britain seemed to be a natural destination. Plus, it was a business write-off.
After a lot of research I selected the Oxford College of Garden Design and their 4-week Summer Course in 1994. I wanted a program that looked at design as an art form more than as a horticultural pursuit.
Since that short course my design skills have continued to develop and improve. I’ve long since stopped building the gardens I design, but I love the process of creating landscapes that compliment the site and the architecture of the home. I think that answers your question.
What would you are the main differences in the approach to landscape design in California compared to the UK?
That’s a good question. I can’t speak fully for designers in Britain, but I do feel there’s still a lot of designers and design/build companies in my area that design without really taking advantage of the importance of elevations and how different levels can influence one’s perception of the space they are in. The “squiggly” line approach is still much too prevalent (in my opinion).
Is the landscape design industry attracting young people to train as landscape designers?
Landscape design in the United States is very different (legally) than it is in the UK. In some States, unless you are a licensed landscape contractor, nurseryperson or landscape architect, you are not allowed to practice landscape design.
With the increasing power of the landscape architects, designers are fighting for their right to work. I’m an LA, but I came up through the ranks as contractor and designer and I know there are a lot of people who are “designers” that are as competent if not more so, than many landscape architects.
Did I go off on a tangent? Maybe. The landscape industry is not attracting as many young people as a few years back. Even for those who go to university and get their degree in landscape architecture work is hard to find. With the downturn in our economy and housing the job opportunities are not as available any longer and I question how long it will take to see the industry really make a strong comeback.
What are the main challenges facing gardeners in your part of the world?
Water. In California a huge part of our summer water comes from snow melt out of the Sierra Nevada Mtns. It’s July, 2013 and we’ve had a very dry year. Snow pack had the lowest water content in years and most, maybe all, of the snow is melted. The water from the Colorado River is being claimed by Colorado, Nevada and Arizona – Calif. is not getting the allotments it once did and this impacts Los Angeles and Southern Calif. Another year like this and we’re going to be in a serious drought. California has developed a water efficient landscape ordinance (MWELO) to reduce water use and waste, but many communities and counties do not have the funding to enforce this ordinance so there’s still a lot of water waste – primarily from the landscape.
I believe you specialize in irrigation. I assume that’s high on the list of priorities of anyone creating a garden in California?
Yes, it is and should be. There’s a big movement to design using native and low water-use plants. I think this just comes down to common sense. Using plants that will survive, even thrive, in our climate. I use the argument that Gertrude Jekyll would have designed beautiful gardens here in California because she understood what plants need. She designed gardens with plants that survived mostly on their own in England – why can’t we do more of that here in California?
Do you garden as a hobby? Do you like growing things or is your focus always design?
I do. I do have my vegetable garden – organic – and I like starting many of my own plants from seed I’ve saved. Wendy and I have also worked to eliminate most of the lawn we had when we first purchased this property 20 years ago. We simply do not need it and so what was lawn has turned into more vegetable beds and native plant gardens.
I’m very keen on having plants that act as host plants for butterfly larvae as well as food sources for the adults. I also like using locally sourced, natural stone rather than fake, manufactured block that you see everywhere these days.
Apart from your spell in the UK have you always lived and worked in California? What makes that area of the US unique?
When I was in the forest service I lived and worked throughout the West, but since I started doing design I’ve pretty much stayed put here in Applegate where I have my practice and also teach classes – both on-line and in studio.
What makes this area unique? Hmmm…
You know, every place is unique. We have the challenge of water and heat (98 degrees F. today). Our soils are low in phosphorus and nitrogen, but these are things that we, as gardeners, all face. I know that in the UK you’ve been having loads of rain while we are in our typical, seasonal summer drought. We should get rain again in Oct. or Nov.
That’s one reason irrigation is so critical for us – no natural rainfall in this part of the State for up to 6 months each year.
If I you had to choose your three “Desert Island Plants” what would they be, and why?
Tomatoes - Hey, if I’m stuck on a desert island I want some good, home-grown tomatoes.
Potatoes – see a pattern here? I want something to eat. I doubt that I’d have Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island baking banana crème pies for me!
Beans – need some protein.
And I want peaches. Ok, very temperate desert island with plenty of chill days for setting fruit. I see no problem with this.
What are your other guilty pleasures in life?
I play the banjo and chess. I have a hard time saying no to Alden’s chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream. I love my dogs and my wife and a cocktail at the end of the day.
All in all – things are good.
Follow Robert Littlepage on Twitter: @GardenNotes
Visit the California School of Garden Design website:
Get FREE Gardening tips and ideas from our experts in your inbox.