Shrubs and plants of different sizes cover the sloping lot. Among them wind paths of gray aggregate gravel. The cycle of nature is evident as Buchanan leads me up and down the paths. Some plants are in full leaf and blooming. Others are just budding leaves now in mid-February. Some shrubs are at full maturity, ten feet tall, shading tiny seedlings, some planted by Buchanan, others growing from seeds dropped by birds. The plants are loosely grouped in "communities."
Buchanan explains, "There's a school of thought in native-plant landscaping that says you should use plants specific to plant communities. You should figure out what plants are from the site and plant them together. Or if the site is amenable to another plant system, say a forest, if you have the proper microclimate, plant your pines and manzanitas and things that go together. The plant community in the hills around here is a coastal sage scrub. Chaparral is a little bit higher elevation. Then you move into forest. I like to put in hints of all those communities. I might think about a hike I took through Torrey Pines where I saw certain plants together -- boom, boom, boom -- I'll assemble them. I went for a camping trip down in Baja and noticed these plants growing in association so I'll plant them together."
At the low end of the lot, Buchanan and I sit on a bench, hidden from the house above and behind us by a ten- by ten-foot lemonade berry bush covered with clusters of pale pink flowers. We spend a few moments watching a hummingbird with a bright red patch on its breast hover around the flowering bushes. Buchanan is pointing out a Mexican elderberry bush in front of us when his voice drops to a whisper. "Look... right over here... over here. That's a California gnatcatcher."
My eyes follow his finger to a bush he will identify later as a monkey flower where a minuscule, spherical-bodied brown bird sits on a branch.
"Look at that little guy," Buchanan whispers, pleased at the sight of the bird. "A developer's nightmare. It's an endangered species so if a site is shown to have a nesting pair, or any pair of those, the developer can't touch it. They are native to the area and they are in this yard because it has plants that they are familiar with, plants they might use for shelter and nesting material, plants that attract the insects they eat."