By Lucy Warren.
Greg Rubin is 2018 Horticulturist of the Year
Greg Rubin is a big man, but even greater is his passion, enthusiasm, and promotion of natural ecologies and landscaping with California native plants.
Many of us have come to horticulture as a side passion or second career. Likewise, Greg began his professional life as an aerospace engineer. Those who only know his love of native plants may not realize that the discipline and science of his first career has deeply carried through into his current business.
An Unexpected Start of a New Career
Growing up in the hills of Chatsworth, Greg certainly played in the chaparral. But it wasn’t until 1985—when his parents asked him and his brother, Ed, to re-landscape the family home—that a good friend, Bill Entz, said they should do it in native plants, and he really started paying attention to them. In the process, Greg developed an interest in the local ecology. He soon became involved with others of like mind, in particular, Bert Wilson, owner and founder of Las Pilitas Nursery.
Greg was excited to learn about the unique climate and plant palette of Southern California. The plants were a world apart from the popular thirsty grass lawns, palm trees, tropical plants, and European staples which dominated the landscapes of his neighborhood. The natives had their own beauty and were part of an intriguing and complex ecology which captivated his scientific and aesthetic mind.
The general reaction to native plants in landscaping and horticulture at that time was to either denigrate or ignore them. Native landscapes were thought to become dry and ugly in the summer, be difficult to grow and maintain, and to promote the spread of fire.
Flying in the face of popular perception, Greg continued to create beautiful native landscapes for neighbors through word of mouth. These gardens were beautiful year-round, incorporated appealing texture and color, and used far less water.
In 1993, Greg transitioned out of his aerospace career and devoted his full-time efforts to his successful and unusual landscaping business. To date, California’s Own Native Landscape Design has designed and installed over seven hundred native landscapes throughout Southern California, including residential, commercial, and institutional projects.
Pushing Paradigms With Zen Natives
Greg has a great sense of humor and likes to push people’s paradigms when he faces resistances to natives. As native landscapes developed their own niche, some people railed that “all native landscapes look the same.” To that end, in 2013, he joined with San Diego Botanic Garden to create a Japanese garden for the San Diego County Fair—about the farthest conceptual style from a typical California native garden that anyone could consider.
With a magnificent tea house and Zen rock garden, Greg proved, without any doubt, that garden style is in the features. The tea house even featured a beautiful native lemonade berry bonsai created by bonsai master Phil Tacktill. The garden won multiple awards and was the hit of the garden show at the Fair. Greg claims that he actually had to pare down his plant list because so many natives were appropriate for a Japanese style garden. (And, yes, he has been commissioned to do several Japanese style native landscapes since then.)
More Than a Native Landscape Designer: Educator, Author, and Researcher
Greg promotes planting natives wherever he goes and is always looking for ways to spread the word. In addition to broadcast media appearances, he has been featured in such prestigious publications as: the Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, Kiplinger’s, San Diego Home/Garden, and California Garden magazine. He has served on many boards, including: Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, California Native Plant Society, Lux Art Institute, and California Native Garden Foundation. He gives presentations and workshops to conferences, garden clubs, and other organizations throughout Southern California and is in high demand as a public speaker and instructor.
In 2011, to broaden his audience and further his reach, he broached the idea of writing a book on native plants to Lucy Warren, garden writer and former editor of California Garden magazine. They had previously collaborated on numerous articles and worked well together. He wanted an accurate, leading-edge text about native plants and their ecology which would educate people to the nuances which he had learned over the prior decades. Not just a plant guide, but a book which would help people to create successful native landscapes, covering everything from ecology, design, plant communities, maintenance, fire resistance, and more. The result was their first book, The California Native Landscape: The Homeowner’s Design Guide to Restoring its Beauty and Balance, published by Timber Press in the spring of 2013. It is now in its fourth printing. In 2015, Timber requested that Greg and Lucy create another book as a plant guide to help homeowners get started quickly; hence, The Drought Defying California Landscape: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape.
Greg continues to do research and is on his fourth year of a contract with the United States Navy testing the fire resistance of natives. They are investigating whether a properly installed and maintained native landscape can actually help protect a home from fire. Greg has also discovered a major source for the failure of urban native landscapes—Argentine ants—and continues to investigate safe and effective ways to combat them.