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Right Program, Right Time

Author: Kate Frey
January, 2010 Issue

Launched in January 2008, Sonoma State University’s Sustainable Landscape Professional Certificate program is a natural outgrowth of the popular Green Building Professional program that began in 2003. Originally conceived by Armando Navarro, then associate director of SSU’s Environmental Technology Center, the program’s curriculum emerged from planning meetings involving faculty from the Environmental Studies and Planning department, instructors from the Green Building program and sustainable landscape professionals from throughout the North Bay. Planners recognized that, to create a truly green project, both a building and its outdoor environment must be considered.

The program is divided into a cycle of six classes, held one Saturday each month beginning in January and July: Ecological Principles; Site Assessment and Development; Soil Resources; Water Resources; Plants and Plant Communities; and Operation and Management Practices. A certificate is awarded to students who complete the six classes and a self-chosen project, which can focus on topics such as design/build, public policy or education, return on investment analysis, research or school/community gardens. Individual classes are also open to those with specific interests.

The program is geared toward working professionals, but also draws many people with strong interests in creating sustainable landscapes and gardens in a variety of community and public settings. Students include city and county planners, water agency and public works employees, landscape designers, contractors and architects—as well as homeowners, teachers and those seeking new careers. Qualified participants may receive tuition funding through the Workforce Investment Board or Sonoma County JobLink.

Focusing on sustainable principles, the program seeks to provide conceptual and practical information to create sustainable landscapes—from initial design to restoration of existing projects. It emphasizes creation of environmentally friendly spaces that use a minimum of resources, enhance soil quality for efficient water percolation and minimum storm water runoff, create habitats for insects and birds and don’t generate waste or debris that needs to be removed from the site.

The program seeks to show students how landscapes must be designed within the parameters of a site’s specific soils, climate, slope, exposure and resources; and contain plants that are correct for these circumstances. Sustainable landscaping seeks to design a project to its site, rather than imposing a design on the landscape. Conventional landscapes often lead to poor plant selection and health, use of chemicals, poor quality soils and overuse of water. The goal of the curriculum is to create landscapes that function as systems—persisting and thriving with minimum effort and resources over the long term, using principles based on nature.

Several students have found that teamwork leads to rewarding results on the final project. At Analy High School in Sebastopol, a two-person team shared its expertise to incorporate sustainability principles and practices to the school’s Jeremiah Chass Memorial Garden. The garden is a hub of activity for a number of classes at Analy, including nutrition, art and math. At Holy Family Episcopal Church in Rohnert Park, a six-member team helped develop an overall plan for landscape renovation that was broken into phases so funds and resources could be implemented as they became available. The first phase is complete—the roadside berms have been mulched and plantings have begun. The second phase is a community garden.

Other projects include garden design and installation (using volunteer labor) for a local alternative medical center; improvement of water runoff and planting of native plants for a homeowner’s association; a major office park landscape renovation design using drought-tolerant plantings and recycled, local materials; and a “return on investment” evaluation for a technology park, comparing the current traditional landscape and its water overuse penalties with a plan to create water conserving landscape upgrades.

The response from students has been outstanding. Recently, a land manager described how, with the concepts he’d learned in the program, he was able to persuade a client to greatly reduce a huge area of lawn and replace it with environmentally friendly plantings. One landscape contractor took the course to gain a competitive advantage—he was able to convince his boss to convert his approaches, initially based on cost savings, to those based on longevity and health of the landscapes.

Program faculty members are well-known sustainable landscape professionals and consultants, including biologist and integrated pest management specialist Frederique Lavoipierre, landscape designer and contractor Geoff Hall, landscape architect Josiah Cain, and landscape designer and contractor Rick Taylor.

Future plans at SSU include development of a companion program in sustainable community development in partnership with the Center for Sustainable Communities (formerly the Environmental Technology Center) on campus. We’re currently investigating opportunities to partner and coordinate with other programs and certifications, such as Bay Friendly Landscaping and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

We’re all confronted by the reality of limited water resources, the effects of climate change, diminished wildlife habitats and other environmental problems, often feeling powerless under the enormity of these issues. SSU’s Sustainable Landscape program is exciting because it offers a positive, practical approach to many existing issues and a system of solutions that apply to many different situations. With these tools in place, we can easily be part of the solution.
Kate Frey is a consultant, designer and freelance writer specializing in sustainable gardens that encourage biodiversity. In July 2009, she became director of Sonoma State University’s Sustainable Landscape program. For program information or to register, contact SSU Extended Education at (707) 664-2394 or visit

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