Thursday, July 7, 2011

Two Redwood Grove Landscapes, Part I

The best thing about a rare June rainstorm in Northern California is the opportunity to experience our summer gardens in a new light. I revisited two of my favorites last week for a weather-induced impromptu photo session. I was thinking a lot about my cohorts at the Garden Designer's Roundtable who were posting articles about designing for shade that very day, as I consider these to be some of my shadiest work!

Hakonechloa macra aureola
As I remembered these projects, I was reminded again about how great designer-contractor-client communication and synergy are so important. Some of the best ideas I've ever been a part of came during animated, focused, in-the-moment, on-site discussions. I can plan and design beautifully on paper (both of these gardens were drawn out in great detail) but the real art comes in the doing, the details, and how the space evolves over time. 

Both of these landscapes were built by Sam Whitney of Samscaping, Inc., a truly outstanding contractor who I would recommend to anyone. (Check out their virtual tours, pretty impressive.) They were also, for the most part, a clean sweep, with only mature trees retained (so necessary when you must significantly alter the grade). We incorporated the displaced right back into the new design wherever possible.

Speaking of mature trees, I should mention that these gardens (just a couple doors from each other) are located at the edge of an historic redwood grove; the magnificent trees in and around them set the scene. Our goal was to fit right in, while making the most of this classic California biome. The owners of these gardens have done a beautiful job with maintenance as well (see my previous post). These visits were unannounced and unstaged on a Tuesday morning...

This is where it all started; my client wanted a rose garden in this narrow, south-facing  strip between the house and a shared private drive. That's all. We were challenged by soil, drainage, and public utilities (a very large EMPTY power company vault is strategically hidden in the area where you see the path widen in the middle. It's a looong story.)

Here's what it looked like in 2003...a brand new fence, a tree in the wrong place and some of the many (very nice) granite pavers used around the property as stepping stones. Just not in a very interesting way. The soil was a rather nasty example of construction scrape; I don't even know how many yards of new soil and amendments were brought in to make it right. The three huge redwood trees in the front (seen in the background) were stressed from lack of water. I knew immediately that this whole landscape was a diamond in the rough. Needless to say, we made more than a rose garden that year.

This is how we made a grander path out of those granite pavers. They were about 12" x 16" x 3" thick, and we had dozens of them! Turned sideways instead of longways, bordered with matching ledger stone and them surrounded by pebbles they make a durable and striking walkway.

The story behind the gate is a classic example of the kind of 3-way synergy I mentioned before. Sam showed us a picture of this lovely wood and copper structure he had purchased at the SF Flower & Garden Show years before, and not yet used. Our client immediately said YES and I immediately said THERE, pointing to the spot that marks the precise transition between the shady front garden and the sunny rose garden. And there it stands; I can't imagine this space without it.

One of the best and most necessary additions to this corner (besides the gate, of course) was the beautiful specimen of Arbutus 'Marina' (my favorite small evergreen garden tree). You can see how exposed the front garden was (seen here from the front walk). Gentle berms and mossy field stone boulders were used to reshape the entire front garden, enclosing it in really subtle ways. And that tree is a striking focal point from both sides of the fence.

Here it is again, from the opposite side of the garden. Without it the large house opposite would be the view; not really the look that we were going for!

A limited palette of greens, creams, and purples dominate the plantings (including the Japanese maples, Pittosporum 'Cream de Mint' Acorus and Heuchera seen here).

Asparagus meyerii,  Heuchera 'Amethyst Mist,' Helichrysum 'Limelight,' Campanula and Oxalis groundcover surround a shady boulder.

Bold variegated Holly contrasts beautifully with Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum).

A beautiful combination of Oxalis and Campanula; both ideally suited for this shady woodland garden.
A couple of years after finishing the front garden, it was time to do the back, which consisted of a small, damp lawn sloping away from a tall, imposing terrace. We created a secondary terrace and surrounded it with gardens; this path down one side is accented by three more Arbutus 'Marina' (this time in standard form). Love those red trunks!

At the back of the garden a stone wall set a couple of feet in front of the fence provided a level space for a private patio. Trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials planted on both levels make for some interesting layers.

Sitting on the bench you can contemplate the copper-glazed fountain that burbles here all day. The pot was hand-picked at Pottery Planet, and overflows into a generous underground basin. Mondo grass is great low-litter groundcover near water features, which need much less maintenance if the recirculating water is kept very clean.

Circling around we come to the new terrace. The old lawn started at the bottom step of the right staircase and sloped to the lower right corner of the garden, leaving it pretty unusable, and very boring. There were some nice maples at the fenceline and a planting bed against the terrace wall, that was it.

The new lower terrace, two steps up from grade, activated hundreds of square feet of unused space. Adding a second staircase from the upper terrace was a late addition to the design (and not an inexpensive one) but it made a  huge difference.  It created a natural corner for the outdoor kitchen and greatly improved traffic flow

We were required by the neighborhood CC&Rs to provide parking space for one car within the fenceline, so that limited how far the terrace could extend. We used more of those granite pavers, set in decomposed granite and pebbles, to mark the "parking spot." The same pavers with groundcover transition to the terrace area. The custom metal gates (here and on the right entrance to the lower terrace) keep the family dog in bounds.

It was a great relief for my client to move her outdoor dining area to the spacious lower terrace. We actually enlarged it twice; first by about two feet to make sure we could comfortably fit their new larger dining table, and a second time to pop out the fireplace section, as that side was not affected by the parking area setback. These layout changes were another example of how projects like these evolve, with everyone agreeing (thankfully) that knocking down a few cinder blocks to get it right was not something to worry about.

The beautiful travertine pavers are by Olympic Stone and Marble, and are a marvelous product. Beautiful colors, easy to work with, nice variety of sizes. I normally specify a square grid on a 45-degree angle, but we got a really good deal on these 16x20 pavers, so we used them in a diagonal running bond pattern, which works great for a larger spaces. We also refaced the existing terrace and steps, which were plain cast concrete and screaming for an upgrade!

This is one of my favorite outdoor fireplace installations. The simple, elegant pre-cast unit is from Designs by Garry Inc. It was easy to install, and five years later still works well and looks wonderful. The top of the seat wall is a lovely green granite, which was also used for the kitchen countertop. The frame inset in the wall is an outdoor speaker. The brown bonsai-style pots were also from Pottery Planet (love the little feet that made installing the drip irrigation a breeze!)

This garden has won CLCA awards at both the state and local levels. Sam and I are very proud of it, and our client's obvious pride, enjoyment and appreciation are gratifying.

Stay tuned for my next post, which explores a nearby home tucked even deeper into the redwoods. Thanks for joining me today!


  1. Just magnificent! I couldn't get one of those plants to perform in Austin, TX. I really tried when I got here from up north! Even the natives are pooping out this summer. I think I need a Bobcat and just start over. :)


  2. Nice to see you a'-bloggin' ... now, who is that contractor? Has grown in rather nicely, has it not? When you get a chance and if you have interest, come see the "shade garden" up at the Villa sometime ... also lookin' pert good. Have a nice Chat Presentation down at Robin's, by the by.

  3. Awesome designe, inspiring place

  4. Gorgeous. Has always impressed me with your talent!

  5. Beautiful! The dining tables combination and gate are my two favorite elements. Great job.