Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In The Garden with Alice

Last week I visited garden travel writer Alice Joyce (Bay Area Tendrils), and spent a delightful few hours in her charming garden, located just 20 minutes north of San Francisco. I knew I was meeting a kindred spirit as soon as I saw her Red Umbrella! We drank iced lemon verbena tea, and she shared the story of her garden, including the provenance of her impressive collection of plants. Alice's garden is a rich tableau (built one compact-car load of materials at a time) which will continue to evolve as the plants mature under her guidance.
Alice is an artist first, and this shows everywhere in her garden; from the clever use of applied color and found objects to the artful combination of foliage textures. It made me think about how different a hand-built garden is from a landscape that is designed and built all at once. Alice's sketchbook (above) filled with notes, lists, clippings, sketches and ideas, collected over the life of her garden, is quite different from the neat CAD plans and Excel plant lists that describe the design projects I do.
Few of my clients are serious gardeners; you will not find them pointing out the stunning combination of purple Corylus leaves and the vining tendrils of variegated Ampelopsis, as Alice does here. The gardens I design are valued and appreciated for their combined beauty and durability, and not so much for the special attributes and personalities of the plants I use.
So it is always a treat for me to visit a hand-built garden. I can appreciate the gorgeous plant combinations: some of them intentional, some happy accidents.

Here the fine purple leaves of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' are the perfect foil for the coarser green leaves of Lemon Verbena (the source of our tea, and easily the best lemon scented plant I know, including lemons!) Each of these plants needs some training to remain in bounds and attractive, especially in a small garden. Therefore, I might hesitate to use them front and center in a 'designed' garden, unless a skilled gardener is also on hand to guide them through the seasons.

One of the most challenging tasks for me as a landscape designer is choosing all the plants for a garden at once. This certainly is not the nature of a gardener, who acquires plants from a variety of sources over the years, tucking them in as they are acquired, and perhaps moving them about as they mature and their habits are discovered. Garden writers like Alice also regularly receive trial plants from growers, so many of her favorites came to her by chance. For me, that is a great way to build a garden, around a collection of plants.
Consider the beautiful combination Alice has created above...a bed of Gold Heart Ivy, through which Begonias and Lysimachia 'Outback Sunset' emerge and blend. This has taken years to achieve; my attempts to recreate would no doubt look pretty small for quite some time. The imperative to create landscapes that are lovely in infancy as well as in maturity might lead me to safer choices. But my personal preference is for these thoughtful, elegant constructions any day!

I particularly love how Alice used two accent colors, a rich Moroccan blue and a creamy yellow, consistently throughout the garden. Here sections of trellis emerge from the gold like gems, and the combination glows all year round.

Another lovely detail. Look at this beautiful piece, tucked into a shady corner. A simple wrought iron plant stand, topped with a lacy openwork sphere, both painted that rich yellow. So simple, so effective, the work of an artist. Such details cannot be contrived for a client out of thin air, unless they have the makings of them already.

An avid gardener, living in their garden day to day, year to year, knows the little touches that make their space unique. Knows the splashes of color that need to be added. My best hope is to inspire my clients to such details over time. To add these personal touches for them feels rather like presuming to name their children!

The other thing I pay attention to when choosing plants for client projects is their susceptibility to disease. Melianthus, for instance, which Alice is showing below is notorious in these parts for attracting whitefly. I might hesitate to invite an infestation into a client's yard, particularly if I'm encouraging them not to spray. But I'm willing to accept responsibility for whatever I plant for myself, and know that there will be wins and losses.
The other huge difference between a hand-built vs. a contractor built garden is, of course, the hardscape. How would I specify this gorgeous outcrop planter Alice created out of field stones and cobbles? Such a delicious little confection can only be created on the spot, really.
Containers are the other 'old friends' in a hand-built garden. I use containers all the time in my designs, and they are usually purchased all at once and coordinate beautifully. But my own courtyard is a wonderful hodge-podge of pottery purchased over the last 10 years or so, and therefore, like Alice's beautiful grouping below, much more interesting. It's nice when a client has a bit of a collection to start with. And containers don't have to have plants in them to work...One shallow vessel in Alice's garden below is filled with green glass; another year-round easy pop of color.
When I design for non-gardeners, I have to assume that the plants I choose will only receive minimal attention. They need to get along by themselves, and play nicely with their neighbors. For this reason, I pay particular attention and obey the rules regarding plant size and spacing.

But in my own garden, those rules are flexible, and I regularly bend nature to make my plants do as I wish. I think this is true for many gardeners. Alice described training her Cotinus to have the upright, graceful posture of a dancer. A gardener can decide exactly what effect they wish to create, and will deliberately choose plants that need guidance over the years to achieve their objective.
When I see a beautiful combination like this (Crocosmia, Cuphea and Teuchrium) my gardener's soul is satisfied. I realize how I have come full circle, from gardener to designer back to gardener again. Perhaps the two need not be so different after all, and that the true mark of my success as a designer will be in their synthesis.


  1. Thanks for the tour and for the commentary which gave me a lot to think about. But those personal details can be made for clients, can't they? I mean, take a look at how interior designers do it for people inside the house all the time. Picture frames, accent pieces and stuff like that are usually faked by a designer to give the client a lived-in look.

    I think you outdoor pros can do the same and have it look natural.

  2. TWO artists in that garden--Alice the creator and Laura the appreciative observer. Thanks to you both for an aesthetic delight.

  3. Laura,What a wonderful garden review. Interesting to hear your thoughts on an artist's garden vs. one created by a designer for a client. I feel the same, but never really captured this difference in words before. Now I'm doubly jealous I couldn't join you!

  4. @Mr. Brown Thumb...good point, and I think my answer is in your question...artful decor and fun "personal" details all chosen at once by a decorator ring a little false with me. I remember commenting on a friend's collection of antique figurines once, only to discover that he didn't collect figurines; they were 'designer props.' I might take a client shopping, or encourage them to look for a particular kind of objet on their travels, but in general I prefer to let those personal details emerge over time. My own idiosyncrasy I suppose!

    @DP Thank you! An appreciative observer I was indeed; Alice is talented and gracious lady!

    @Susan, Thanks! This is something I've been pondering, the differences between hand-crafted and design-built, as I worked on my own front landscape this spring; I think the real art is in blurring those differences a bit!

  5. What wonderful observances! Loved your descriptions of Alice's garden. It made me want to be there to see for myself. (I told you that you Cali's have all the fun!)So now I know for sure you have two talents.

    And now I also know why my own little garden is such a hodgepodged kaleidoscope of plants.

  6. What a GREAT post Laura! I wish I could have flown in and shared the verbena tea! DAMN!

    I love the way you've written about the dilemma of the garden designer - you are SO right! It is a delicate balance to strike - to make sure that the garden you design for a client is appropriate and that you are choosing and installing your materials in a responsible way.

    I wish I could say that I am as on point as you are in this respect - alas ... I am one of the 'bad' professionals. I have to admit it. I go mad with plant lust and give people what I want them to have, to hell with the consequences. I overplant. I drive plant brokers crazy trying to find the oddities I HAVE to have. I encourage their maintenance people to leave the plants alone and let them get overgrown.
    When young landscapers ask me for advice, I have to be honest and tell them to do as I say and NOT as I do!
    You are an example for me, dear Laura!
    Thanks for the lovely peak into Tendril's garden!
    (and a lovely Tendril she is, right?)

  7. I was going to say something about balance too, except a bit differently -- as a lifelong gardener who also happens to be a designer, and who's just starting out designing gardens for other people, one of my priorities is to find ways to integrate that gardener's sensibility into my design work. I find that drives more formally trained designers crazy and worry it makes me seem less professional, but the thing is that even if Alice's garden isn't necessarily appropriate for our clients in terms of maintenance and such, gardens like Alice's are still what most clients dream of. And who wouldn't? That's where that artistry and that gardener's eye comes in.

    Thanks for this post! It was nice to say hi in non-140-character format. :-)

  8. Marvelous and thoughtful. Plus, now I want a red umbrella, too.

  9. That sounds like such a fun visit. I agree, one has to be careful about which plants to recommend, for some people I know, raked gravel might have the best chance at survival ;-> Maybe adding a red umbrella will work, though.

  10. Everyone, thanks for the wonderful comments! Andrew & Germi, I think that what I'm feeling is a shift toward putting more of myself in my gardens than I did when I had 20 projects going at a time. Slowing down a bit has literally allowed me to smell the roses and breathe a little space around what I do. A satisfying, if not sustainable state.

    Pamela and Mouse, I think every woman deserves a red umbrella...

  11. As a non-garden designer, I would say the "personal" touches should be left to the homeowner. Obviously I could use assistance on finding locations for items I have collected, but for me going to someone else's garden, and hearing the stories behind how they collected "stuff" is a lot more enjoyable than knowing someone else bought and placed everything. A beautiful, planned out garden is nice to look at, but I prefer my hodge podge of plants and knick-knacks- from the stepping stone that my husband made as a kid for his grandparents, to the bird house that my daughter made, and the little cement puppy statue that hubby's aunt & uncle got us when we got our first dog as a family.

  12. I finally had a few moments to read about your visit with Alice. Thank you both for the inspiration and the reminder that great gardens are always personal statements. I think, after reading your post that our greatest challenge as designers is to create opportunities for our clients to celebrate that concept in their own spaces.

  13. Almost as much fun as being there! Thanks, Laura for this little trip to Alice's (Tendrils) garden. How funny that you both have red umbrellas! I think I may be buying one myself soon, so I can join the red umbrella club.

    Love this commentary on the differences between professionally arranged gardens and those of plant lovers, who slowly orchestrate their garden spaces. I know when I go on garden tours the gardens that always inspire me the most (and are the most memorable) are the ones like Alice's that are created over time and with touches of idiosyncratic inspirations. The ones of the true Plant Lovers.

    While the gardens that have been obviously managed and professionally designed can also be swoonworthy, it's when homeowners take these gardens and run with them by adding their own stamp that they become truly living and breathing garden spaces.

    Thanks! Now must get recipe for Lemon Verbena tea!

  14. Looks like all our Twitter pals are weighing in. Great stuff, Laura. I met Alice briefly at this year's SF Flower & Garden Show but didn't have time to really connect. This article is the next best thing. Great garden.

    There's a fine balance between a truly personal statement executed by a talented, patient team, and the garden show instant personality that usually looks more like a magazine shoot than somewhere a person would actually live.

  15. Yes, another Twitter person here. One from CT. It was a bit sad to read about the differences between "professionally" designed/managed gardens and ones which have been "artfully" worked and reworked. Ideally, the combination of the two will give one the WOW. (I come from the "art" side, and have been reworking the same piece of property for 30 years.)

  16. Don't be too sad Kari; as I mentioned, most of my clients are not gardeners, at least not avid ones. Not everyone aspires to work and develop a garden, but I think everyone appreciates a beautiful outdoor space. That some gardens need to be a little more bulletproof than others is part and parcel of the reason I'm hired in the first place! My clients love their gardens, whether they get their hands dirty in them or not. In the best cases, though, an avid gardener is born, and what I give them are the strong bones on which to build.

  17. Love the little artistic touches which makes a garden into a treasure hunt, never know what baubble is around the next corner.

  18. Lemon Verbena is absolutely my favorite herb. This is the first year that I wasn't able to find it. I have visited this post twice... I was in a hurry the first time and I has a cup of tea the second time... felt almost (not quite) like being there!

  19. Love the yellow plant stand sculpture -- a garden I'd love to see more of. Will be thinking about my response to the built/collected notion. Thanks.