LANDSCAPE architect Karin Kaufman designed the yard in front of her Nevada City home with California native plants. "This used to be lawn," Kaufman said. Photo by Tripp Mikich


Native by Design

By From page B2 | May 23, 2014

Karin Kaufman loves her work. Whether it’s talking about her early social work with migrant communities or her graduate certificate in landscape architecture from University of California, Los Angeles, or her recent Nevada City downtown seating area project, or even a simple native penstemon, Kaufman radiates real love for what she does.

Landscape architecture is not just a job for her, but a real passion for the place in California she calls home.

Kaufman was recently available at her small and spare office on the second floor of a historical Gold Rush building in the heart of Nevada City’s downtown. Deeply tanned with close-cropped and stylishly gelled blonde hair, jeans and a white tank top, she radiates the landscape she lives and works in.

Smiling often, laughing easily and immediately comfortable, she juggles a family of two young children, Kyla and Jane, with her landscape architecture business, works with the Nevada City Sustainability Team and deals with recent health issues that have done little to slow her down or dampen her enthusiasm.

Kaufman visited two of her recent projects just down the street from her office. One is an outdoor sitting area that she helped the city and the all-volunteer Nevada City Sustainability Team transform from a troubled section of a downtown street into an inviting outdoor eating/sitting area surrounded by planters of beautifully blooming native flowers and plants.

In parking-challenged Nevada City, they even got the city to give up three parking spots to do the project.

“By making the space inviting for other people to sit there, relax, enjoy lunch or the shade, it made it less inviting as a ‘hangout’ for those who had been causing some of the problems. Some people still use it as their living room but that’s OK. We need to make room for everyone, right? And look, there’s no one sitting on the sidewalk,” she said.

The next stop was up the street at her small cottage home on the edge of one of Nevada City’s many steep hills. Covering a small area next to the street in front of her home and shaded by a tall cedar tree, there is a magical garden of a dozen or so types of local native plants, including big native heuchera or coral bells in full bloom along one edge, complemented by a number of long stemmed blossoming penstemons, Penstemon heterophylus Margarita BOP, a cultivar of the very same beautiful blue penstemons seen on the road cuts along Highway 49 on the way to Coloma.

With the noonday sun lighting up the flowering border, the impression is of the walkway to the house being literally “lit up” by the flowering plants.


Lawn be gone

“This used to be a lawn,” she remarked with pride, “and one of my passions is removing lawns.”

It turns out that with drought and water use on everyone’s mind, Kaufman’s thoughts about lawns have suddenly found welcoming ears.

“My crusade to remove lawns has suddenly become a lot easier. People are far more open to that idea than they were five years ago. I think lawns are fine if it’s a usable space you’re going to be playing or picnicking on. But if it’s a front lawn that’s never used, that’s wrong. Even if you do decide to have a lawn, there are options that use less water and less fertilizer and less mowing,” said Kaufman.

Pointing across the street through her office window, she made her point.

“I always see these two Adirondack chairs on that lawn and the only time I’ve ever seen someone on that lawn is when they were mowing it,” she said.

Her concerns about lawns are not only functional, they’re aesthetic and environmental as well.


Other options

“Native plants are much more interesting than lawns. They attract native wildlife; they do well in the soil here so they don’t require a lot of additional amendments; and if you choose ones that are correct for your conditions, they don’t require a lot of additional water.

“If we can use less water and still have beautiful landscapes, I’d say that’s an imperative. This is our third year of a drought and who knows how long it’s going to last,” she questioned.

Looking at photographs of the projects that Kaufman has designed, one quickly realizes that using native plants is no trade off between being politically correct and having a beautiful garden or home landscape. One can have a native landscape and make it stunningly beautiful, too. To see photographs of her projects visit


It’s in the design

“Designing with natives is exactly the same as designing with any other kind of plants. You figure out if you need a privacy screen, do you need some shade or are you just looking for some color, some interest, a focal point?

“You figure out why you want the plants and then how big of a space you have, what the soil is like, is it sun or shadow and how much water is available. Then you find a plant that fits the description so that it fulfills all of those needs or wants,” she said.

It’s obvious after a few minutes with Kaufman that her love of native plants and their landscape possibilities is deeply connected to the California landscape she grew up and lives in, primarily coastal Southern California, Santa Barbara, and for the past 10 years, Nevada City.


Depicts California

“Native plants evoke California. We’re choosing to live in California, not in Hawaii. It honors this place, gives you a sense of place. I think that’s why we’re all here. We love California and the foothills,” said Kaufman.

For Kaufman, it requires a different mindset to use native plants than just a trip to some warehouse nursery with all the fast-growing, already blooming and commercially exotic plants and colors.

“There is a different mind set (in using natives). Like I said earlier, you may not get the exact same plant as you’re used to thinking about, but if you’re asking, ‘What can I plant instead of a rose?’ or ‘What can I plant instead of bamboo?,’ you could also ask yourself ‘Why am I planting bamboo?’ And the answer is likely to be, ‘Because it’s a good screen.’ Then one could say, ‘Well there are a lot of native plants that are good screens and here are some options.’ They may not be as fast growing, they may not look like bamboo at all, but that’s where you have to have a deeper relationship with where you live and be in a different mindset and be willing to accept and enjoy what the native plants have to offer,” she said.



Today, many of Kaufman’s projects are hand-in-hand with local and regional efforts to promote sustainability, less water use and preserve habitat, like redesigning a planned park to improve water quality run-off into a nearby creek and to reflect the beauty of Nevada City. Or her recent landscape architecture design for a Vancouver, BC co-housing project. Many of her projects are projects, like the downtown seating area or park, involve real citizen participation and input.

After some thought, Kaufman offered some of her favorite native plants to work with, the holy grail of native plant gardening: native to California, drought tolerant and deer tolerant.

“Iris douglasiana is a ‘go to’ native. It’s evergreen and it looks good all year. The flowers are kind of an extra bonus, but I love the form of the iris and deer leave it alone. And native heuchera (coral bells) I have found to be quite deer resistant. Not all heuchera, but the pink flowering ones, like the hybrid Heuchera Rosada. I find I’m putting those into a lot of designs. Penstemon Margarita BOP is another favorite. And I love manzanita of all forms and ceanothus. Some of the ceanothus the deer will leave alone but you have to know which ones,” she said.

What percentage of natives does she like to use in her landscape designs?

“If it were my garden and what I like to do for people, I like to do probably 80 percent natives but 100 percent drought tolerant.”

As a final thought she said, “I’m inspired by wilderness. Looking at what plants grow together. It’s always beautiful, the colors and textures all mixed together. Making water features, I take my inspiration from creeks, the little trickling creeks that are so beautiful. So much of my work is trying to emulate nature. I hope I’m doing a good job of it!”

To hear more about Kaufman’s native design and landscape architecture tips attend the El Dorado Chapter of the California Native Plant Society’s program “Landscaping with California Native Plants” on Tuesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the El Dorado Library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville. The program is free and open to the public.

For more information see or or call 530-748-9365.

Tripp Mikich

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