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Case Study: Acorn Naturalists, Tustin CA

Jennifer and Martin Rigby, owners of Acorn Naturalists, are visionaries indeed. Over ten years ago they began a small business providing much-needed outdoor educational supplies for teachers. Their initial 32-page catalog for items available through mail order has grown to over 200 pages and is filled with ‘resources for the trail and classroom’. In addition, Jennifer also provides consulting services for interpretive master planning in parks, aquariums, and museums through the distinguished consulting division of The Acorn Group.

After creating these unique organizations, and due to an increasing demand for space to accommodate their rapid growth, Jennifer and Martin chose to create an Orange County landmark for their warehouse and headquarters: the Acorn Naturalists’ Center for Science and Environmental Education. Designed in the classic Greene & Greene American Craftsman style of the early 1900’s and opened in November 2003 this 10,000+ square foot complex is located in the historic Old Town district of Tustin, in the heart of southern California. Acorn Naturalists selected the American Craftsman style and urban location to demonstrate that nature, wildlife, and “human scale” environments can be created in the heart of a city.

The grounds of this outstanding structure are landscaped entirely with beautiful natives, including oaks, sycamores, redwoods, and over one hundred other species including seasonal wildflowers. Tree of Life Nursery was pleased to provide the plants for the project and Guy Stivers & Associates created the original master plan. Complete with habitat themes, the parking lot is an attraction for countless butterflies, hummingbirds and songbirds, illustrating that ‘nature’ can happen right outside your door in something as common and small as parking lot planters.

Planted primarily in one- and five-gallon container sizes the plants have filled in nicely in just over three years. In the Redwood-themed woodland area, (the only specimen-size box trees planted), Martin and Jennifer have chosen to provide an additional attraction for wildlife by providing a goldfinch feeder within the shade and protection of the tree branches. The area is alive with singing and fluttering from these delightful birds.

To keep the garden looking attractive year-round, Martin and Jennifer have irrigation systems and maintenance schedules in place. Simply turning off the water and walking away isn’t feasible, but in this commercial display setting, the native plants require less frequent irrigation and less “tending” – fertilizing, mowing, and constant hedge trimming – than is required by an exotic landscape. The lower level of maintenance allows the owners to leave the landscape largely undisturbed, much to the delight of the small critters. In fact, on a rock at the entrance of the store, nestled among attractive natives chosen for flower, heat tolerance and compatibility with rock garden design, two lizards were seen enjoying some early spring sunshine together, oblivious to the busy main street of El Camino Real nearby.

The Acorn Naturalists landscape not only provides habitat, but the native plants provide seasonal interest. For instance, the California Grape (Vitis californica) on the arbor is dormant in the winter. The loss of leaves in the winter efficiently provides more sunlight to heat the wall and the room inside. The grape will leaf out creating a thick mat of green leaves, which will provide needed cooling and shading in summer, along with edible fruit, which attract songbirds (and people!). Additionally, the selection they have chosen, ‘Roger’s Red’, turns brilliantly red in autumn, just before it loses its leaves and the cycle repeats.

No one plant is consistently neat, green and tidy here, what is consistent in the Acorn Naturalist landscape is that at anytime of year, something will be blooming. Jennifer states, “The thing I have learned the most is to sit back and let the constantly changing palette run its course. It’s always a treat to discover a hidden wildflower in bloom and realize all you really needed to do to see it was slow down long enough to look.” With careful planning and plant selection, this landscape shines with year-round flowers. It is a relaxing, enjoyable southern California garden that becomes an experience reflecting our wild heritage and providing continual interest and drama.

A unique example of what could be done in commercial and urban spaces, Acorn Naturalists have set quite a precedent for others to follow. Working with Acorn Naturalists to create this unique place has been a delight for all of us at Tree of Life Nursery. For more information about the center, please see the Acorn Naturalists website, where they have even more pictures of their lovely landscape and the wildlife that has visited it.uring the past year Tree of Life Nursery has been supplying plants to, and following the progress of a very successful revegetation project in the Whispering Hills development. This 75 acre site straddles a ridge on the edge of San Juan Capistrano, just a few miles down the Ortega Highway from our nursery.

Featured Photo Credit: Tree of Life Nursery ©