To say Greg Rubin is an unconventional landscape designer is a bit of an understatement. He was into native landscapes before they were popular or even understood. He openly admits that part of training his employees involves “un-training” them in what they think they know about landscaping.
While his first career in aerospace was all about exploring the universe, he’s spent the last 30-plus years much closer to planet Earth, caring for plant species that grow right inside his home state of California. His creations, however, could most definitely be described as something “out of this world.”
Rubin developed a love for California native plants many years ago, after moving back into his parents’ San Fernando home while he attended California State University, Northridge to pursue a degree in engineering. “My penance for being able to move back home was I had to get the house ready to sell when I graduated. That included landscaping it. My brother’s best friend suggested I do it in California natives and I had no clue what he was talking about.”
Rubin’s first reaction was, “I don’t want those ugly plants in my backyard.” The friend just shook his head. Clearly Rubin did not understand the beauty that a native landscape could provide. So he took him to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, which Rubin describes as “this 86-acre wonder. Nothing but California native plants, in all different kinds of situations and styles and uses.”
He found himself in a state of disbelief. “I was absolutely blown away, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.” From that moment on, he was hooked.
That day changed Rubin’s life, and while he went on to have a successful career in aerospace, he never quite got past the way those native plants captivated him. As he moved up the ranks in the aerospace company, becoming a manager, he found himself with a most unhappy task.
It was the early 1990s, a time when the aerospace industry was changing, transitioning from full-time, salaried staff with benefits to using a lot of independent contractors. “I was having to lay off hundreds of really great people and it took a toll on me mentally.” He realized, “that’s not how I wanted to spend my life.”
It was time for some soul searching. He asked himself, “What can I do that would actually inspire me and make me want to get out of bed and go to work every morning?” He thought about his interests, and his mind went back to those beautiful native plants. He’d done some landscaping for friends and family and decided, “You know what? I’m going for it. I’m going to make my avocation my vocation.”
Solving the riddle
The decision turned out to be a good one. “Thankfully, I was successful at it,” says Rubin. The company he founded, California’s Own Native Landscape Design Inc., is based in Escondido, in San Diego County. To date, the company is responsible for creating over 750 native landscapes in the southern California area.
While Rubin now makes creating native landscapes look easy, it wasn’t always that way. “There was a real disconnect as to why native plants were dying in people’s backyards, but thriving on the hills behind their houses. That intrigued me from a logical standpoint,” he says of those early years.
Rubin’s scientific side took over as he sought to solve this puzzling equation. “When I combined that quest with my love of California’s identity and the beauty of our native landscapes, I really got hooked. Figuring out why that was happening really motivated me and kept me going.”
And keep going he did, although he knew he had a lot to learn. Fortunately, he found some incredible mentors along the way. One of his main teachers was the late Bert Wilson, who had owned Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita until he passed away in 2014.
“I just knew that if I could figure this riddle out, I could be successful,” recalls Rubin. “So, I worked really, really, really hard at it, and I kept my mouth shut for a lot of years, just wanting to learn my trade.”
He says, “The approach that really resonated with me was looking at the underlying ecosystem — seeing what the difference was between a native ecosystem and a backyard landscape — and realizing that we were doing everything wrong.”
His conclusion might surprise you. “Ornamental horticulture techniques seem expressly designed to kill native plants,” he says. “The approach to tending natives is almost the exact opposite.”
He says it’s all about emulating natural ecologies in a landscape as opposed to trying to apply ornamental horticulture principles to plants that evolved under very different sets of circumstances.
“Wilson’s whole approach was ecosystem emulation,” says Rubin. “That really resonated with me, because of my love of science, which is what fueled my desire to get into a technical field like engineering. I felt like I was going on an adventure with these plants, discovering new worlds by going into areas people had never gone before, trying to do landscaping in a completely new way.”
A different way Rubin says he’s fortunate he wasn’t a landscaper before he figured out that the conventional wisdom that’s applied in ornamental horticulture just does not work with natives. It’s part of the reason he’s done so well, he says. “I was lucky that I hadn’t already been influenced so much by ornamental horticulture. I was able to take a fresh view of this and use my technical background to help me absorb ecosystem science and soil science and soil biota and understand that and apply it.”
However, that concept isn’t so easy for others to grasp. “When I hire people who’ve been in the landscape industry a while, I know that I’m going to have to spend a lot of time deprogramming them. They’ll want to do things the tried-and-true way, the way that works for ornamentals, but just won’t work for natives.”
Rubin says that even to this day, landscape architects may specify natives, but when they end up failing, they’ll blame the plants. “But if you do it right, they’re stable and gorgeous and look good all year ’round, and are full of birds and butterflies. You can use much less water and do far less maintenance, and still build a private preserve around your house and keep it beautiful.”
Rubin’s approach to native landscapes is different on a number of levels, but one technique that evokes the most controversy is that, unlike other native landscapers who use drip irrigation on upland drought-tolerant native plants, he sticks to sprinklers.
He explains why. “There’s a whole environment that’s created when you’re watering overhead with general distribution that pretty much evenly covers the whole landscape,” he says. “Wetland plants and exotics do fine with drip, but when drip irrigation hypersaturates an area, those plants that are naturally used to a drier environment and the ecosystem that goes with it won’t thrive.”
Rubin says, “We’ve had the most success by getting as close to the native ecology of the plants we’re using, at least as much as we know how to.”
This is a difficult premise for some to accept because it’s not what they’ve learned or what’s currently being taught in schools. However, Rubin contends that the concept isn’t that difficult. It’s not rocket science — and I’ve done rocket science.”
His landscapes are not without irrigation. He does use sprinkler systems for several reasons. For one, many of the plants that are used in California native landscapes are from northern and central parts of California, where they are used to more rainfall. Even with local species, however, Rubin will still irrigate a little bit in summer. It’s a minimal amount, about 20 to 30 percent of the water that would be applied to a conventional landscape, but that little bit does a lot.
“The amount of supplemental irrigation we do is well within tolerance limits. It’s somewhere around three summer thunderstorms a month, but it makes all the difference in the appearance of the plants, keeping them dusted off and hydrated for fire prevention,” he says.
According to Rubin, a native landscape, lightly hydrated, might be as fire resistant as another type of landscape, if not more so. “It takes so little water to hydrate a native plant, it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too,” he remarks. In low-rainfall years he might also do a little winter irrigation.
Though about 75 percent of the landscapes he creates will include plants that are native to San Diego County, there are still some aspects of certain projects where he hasn’t been able to find natives to fulfill specific needs. For instance, he has yet to find any species of low-growing evergreen plants that are indigenous to southern California.
“This is a bit of a problem, and I want to address it, because I want to discover more local plants,” he says. “When we start to get those discovered then they become really, really viable [to be 100 percent indigenous].”
While definitions may vary, Rubin defines a California native plant as any plant that existed within California’s borders prior to European colonization. “It’s a pretty simple, easy definition. I realize the geographic borders of the state are pretty arbitrary in the human construct, but if I am going to limit myself and my palette, that is what I am going to use.”
He also will use desert plants from the southwest and from northern Baja California from time to time in landscapes. “In San Diego, we probably have more in common with northern Baja than we do with central or northern California, so I do expand my palette in that direction. It’s a very similar ecology that ties in nicely with our truly local ecology, and those plants work fine. We’re still preserving the character and the regional identity of the area.”
Rubin says regional identity is an important aspect of native landscaping. “We’re forgetting what California used to look like because we’re so busy turning it into South Florida,” he comments. “It’s nice to understand and recapture the California of our youth.”
He says people see the brown hillsides and think that’s what a southern California native landscape is going to look like in summertime. But what they’re looking at is actually a burned-out shell of its former beauty, caused by development, agriculture and waytoo-frequent fires.
“All the evergreen, luscious plants have been long burned away, and we’ve been left with non-native weeds, grasses and fire-adapted species that go dormant in the summertime. The California of 500 years ago was actually a lot greener than it is now,” Rubin notes.
That younger California included manzanita, mahogany, wild cherry and oak trees and wild lilacs. “There are little remnants of it here and there, but most of it is pretty well gone,” he says. He points out that people don’t go to Yosemite or Big Sur to look at the palm trees and red apple, neither of which are native to the area.
All these non-natives give a false impression of the actual ecosystem, says Rubin. Despite what people think, he says, San Diego is neither a tropical paradise nor a desert, but instead, a chaparraldominated Mediterranean ecosystem. “There are only five areas of the world that have this same ecosystem. It’s very different from a desert and not tropical at all,” he explains.
The business side
Most of the projects California’s Own Native Landscape Design undertakes are done completely inhouse. All 14 employees are cross-trained and know how to use equipment, and many of them have been with the company over the long haul. This includes Rubin’s foreman, who has been with him from the beginning, starting at age 17. That was 23 years ago.
“I am very lucky in that I don’t think I have an employee who has worked less than five years for me,” says Rubin. “But then, I’ve actually ruined these guys for any other landscape jobs,” he jokes. “That’s probably why they stick around.”
While the company is best known for the native landscapes it creates, some of its other work is also noteworthy. “We work with some very serious boulders, and we do a good job of making them look like they’re in their natural settings.”
The company is also known for its dry streams and bioswales and “for being able to utilize native palettes in a wide range of landscape styles,” Rubin notes. “We’re known for the inherent aspects of these landscapes being wonderful habitat gardens. You get the neatest birds, butterflies and the weirdest bugs, ones you’ve never seen before, in these landscapes.”
Rubin says he tends to be selective about the clients he takes on because he doesn’t want to be part of a “bad match.” After an initial consultation, he’ll put together a ballpark proposal for the client.
A lot of times that’s good enough to get going. However, he says he’s moving away from doing highly detailed drawings. “We find that they’re expensive and require a lot of lead time. Once we actually start implementing, things start changing all over the place, anyway.”
The reality is, says Rubin, working in 3-D is very different from working on paper. Once the ball gets rolling, the client will come up with different ideas, or Rubin and his team will want to make changes “so that initial drawing that was so expensive and time-consuming starts to lose relevance anyway.”
Rubin instead uses a very detailed written proposal/estimate. The work is performed within those parameters, in real time, with the client on-site. He says many landscape companies have begun taking this route, controlling a project’s budget with a detailed written proposal that still allows for creative freedom.
Beyond the botany
Rubin wishes native plants would be more embraced and become mainstream. He even wrote an article titled, “Why Should Something Native Be So Exotic?” It boggles his mind that natives are considered specialty plants. “The plants that grow where we live are considered specialty plants in our industry, because they’ve killed every native they’ve ever planted, and they look awful along the way.”
As Rubin’s approach has gained popularity, so have opportunities to share his knowledge and experience. He’s co-authored two books on California native landscapes with horticulture writer Lucy Warren, gives talks and has won awards for his work.
One of the biggest highlights of his career was tinged with a bit of irony. One day, he found himself onstage at the Theodore von Karman Auditorium at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California — something that, as an aerospace engineer, he could only have dreamed about. Yet there he was, on the same stage where his hero Carl Sagan once stood, addressing a group of JPL employees on the benefits of native plants. It was a proud moment for him. “It was incredible,” Rubin reminisces.
Rubin was recently named 2018 Horticulturalist of the Year by the San Diego Horticulture Society, an honor that he was thrilled to receive, particularly since his approach hasn’t always been embraced by the traditional landscaping community.
“I was stunned,” he says. “It was very humbling. I’ve worked so hard to perfect my craft, realizing that it ran counter to so much of the conventional wisdom in landscaping and to have received so much pushback and controversy surrounding it — to then have an organization like the Horticulture Society recognize me and award me this honor just blew me away. It is such a point of pride for me. I was dumbfounded, and it was great.”
Being approached by Timber Press to write his two books (and the third one, in progress) is something else Rubin can’t quite believe happened sometimes. “I have to pinch myself — it’s like this moonshot. I feel so lucky. Fortunately, I think what propels me and what sustains people’s interest in what I have to say, is that I have a real passion. I love what I do.”
For Rubin, now 56, it’s been an astounding adventure. While not exactly a trip to the moon, his career has seemed almost otherworldly to him at times. His sheer appreciation for the beauty of California native landscapes and the ability he’s acquired to create them has given him all the satisfaction he needs in life.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at email@example.com.