Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Collector's Garden in San Francisco

Many of you may know Kay Hamilton Estey as the producer of the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. What you may NOT know is that she is a marvelous gardener and avid plant collector. I took advantage of a planning meeting yesterday to visit her small urban garden for the first time, and this is what I saw.

Kay has lived here for more than 20 years. Her garden began as slanted sea of concrete that almost filled the triangular space; needless to say, not a very hospitable place for a garden. She worked with a designer to create the bones of the meandering space you see today, tucked into her hilly Glen Park neighborhood.

I spend so much time in 'new' gardens (including my own) that I really appreciate one that has grown into maturity under a knowledgeable hand. Tucked into the corner between her house and her neighbor is this lush bed of Phormium, Leucadendron, Euphorbia, Alstroemeria and Hakonechloa, planted between a mature Purple Hopseed (Dodonea viscosa purpurea) and a Lady Banks Rose (Rosa Banksia) against the wall. I love her theme of varied greens punctuated by reds and dark pinks.

Wood and stone steps curve down to a small upper patio. The flowering cherry (Prunus yedoensis) perfectly placed near the center of the garden (NOT tucked in a border near the fence) is an anchor around which the garden swirls. I particularly appreciated the placement of the up-ended brown pot as a strong but low-key focal point.

Since the garden is also viewed from above, both from Kay's house and her neighbor's, the wide-spreading cherry provides both privacy and the ideal spot for a quiet, shady garden. Geranium cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' is a wonderful groundcover; here it provides a restful sweep of green that keeps the center of the garden open. Who needs a lawn?

The stone path continues to wander down the garden; you really can't tell how far it goes. It was designed well; wide enough to allow for plenty of plant spill without restricting access. The different textures and shades of green guide you along.

This was a particularly charming corner: Aeonium, Dicentra, Iris, Heuchera, Euphorbia and assorted grasses and sedges blend beautifully as the path steps down to...

...surprise! This is as far you go! I was not kidding that Kay's garden is triangular; she is considering a cozy chair in this spot, maybe blue...

Moving back up to the upper terrace, which gets a little more sun and hosts an amazing variety of plants. I loved this Abutilon 'Sunset' which Kay has had for many years. The purple Persicaria microcephala 'Red Dragon' is an aggressive resident that tends to overstep its bounds; you'll see it lurking in most of my remaining pictures.

A closeup of 'Sunset.' Oh, by the way, did I mention it was raining?

Another nice vignette: a charming Fuchsia flanked by larger-leafed Cestrum 'Newellii.' This must be a popular spot for hummingbirds!

Kay introduced me to Ixia, a South African bulb I've not grown; nice to meet you!

Another striking Abutilon; in this climate they bloom nearly year-round.

Looking back up the steps toward the house. Kay described her garden as 'rather overgrown' but I didn't see neglect, I saw harmony (except, perhaps, for that Persicaria, who is intent on engulfing that chair!)

A closer look at the blue pot at the top of the steps. I love the combination of Aeonium, Senecio mandraliscae, and Hakonechloa macra aureola, which glows in the partial shade.

Holy Giant Asparagus, Batman! Actually, it's a mature Agave parryi that is getting ready to bloom...and die. Sorry Persicaria, you'll need to find someone else to climb on!

Clematis 'Niobe' is a reliable performer in Kay's garden (and so presumably can hold its own against encroaching Persicaria!)

There are lots of reseeders in Kay's garden, including Centranthus ruber and Euphorbia characias 'Wulfenii.' Lurking Persicaria doesn't frighten them one bit!

A beautiful foliage combination centered around Pelargonium 'Vancouver Centennial.'

And one last combination; soft blue Borage and the luminous new growth of Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria).

And in case you forget this garden is in the middle of a big city, here's the view from the back stairs, looking towards India Basin and Hunter's Point on the San Francisco Bay. Thanks for joining me on this garden visit, and thanks to Kay for the tour!


  1. Now THAT is my kinda garden, dense and wonderful and jungle-like. Thanks for sharing. Tweet tweet. =)

  2. *Swoon* That's absolutely amazing. I'd never want to leave. Gorgeous. Thanks so much for blogging about this garden.

  3. I love San Francisco gardens - they're always so green and lush (must be that fantastic fog!).. thanks for the tour - very inspiring indeed!

  4. Just lovely...lush and overgrown (in a VERY good way) and that agave bloom is amazing! I wish we could go back and check in on it weekly.

  5. Beautiful garden. We lived in Glen Park for 3 glorious years. Lovely neighborhood. I love the shot of the "asparagus" agave spike and those crazy succulents dripping off the deck.

  6. The Kiwi GardenerMay 18, 2010 at 8:57 PM

    I love old gardens! Can't wait for mine to get old!

  7. I love all the wine-colored foliage in her garden. And I agree about the cherry tree's placement--perfect! That 'Sunset' abutilon looks so like 'Candy Corn' (I have a trailing variety) that I Googled them to see what the difference is. They look like twins. I still don't know. Do you?

  8. Oh this is one I'd love to see! Thanks so much for sharing it - I'm going to put it on my list for next time I'm in the Bay area.

  9. Thanks for the lovely comments! I really enjoyed visiting Kay's garden; I knew it had been on Garden Conservancy Open Days before, so the odds were good that it would be special!

    @Pam, different growers sometimes give different names to the same hybrid; to my eye 'Candy Corn' and 'Sunset' are identical!

  10. Hakenochloa in the picture seems to me to be 'All Gold'.

  11. Oh my god. It looks like Kay must have spent some time in Australia. What a wonderful garden. Years of time and effort. Maybe she should be designing other peoples garden's.

  12. Anon 1: Thanks, you may be right: the Hakonechloa and I were not formally introduced!

    Anon 2: Not sure if you're having a little fun, as Kay is from Australia and used to design gardens before joining the SF Garden Show! Her talents are indeed vast.

  13. Love the lushness and over grown feeling. How fun to see Kay's garden! Sunset Abutilon is one of my favorites.