Monday, June 20, 2011

A Hot Color and NO LAWN Garden in Los Altos

One of the things one has to give up as a garden designer is an attachment to the way a garden develops after the crew leaves. When the wrong gardener is chosen, whether it's a maintenance man with a hedge trimmer or a do-it-myself home gardener who doesn't do it themselves, the results can be disappointing. But with the right team in place a new landscape has a fighting chance to be fabulous!

I've written about this charming home in Los Altos before; I consider it one of my best efforts at transforming a traditional lawn-centric suburban garden into something really different and interesting. Here's a report from its third spring, as seen on an unseasonably rainy day in late May.

This is where we began; the house was getting a total remodel, and the garden would too. Thick Pittosporum hedges were crammed against traditional white picket fence. An uneven flagstone path bisected a scruffy lawn, and there were some random planting beds. Dreadful as it was, the owner liked the privacy and the cottage garden feel of it, and wanted to try to get that feeling in the new design, but in a fresh, colorful, picket-less way.

It's easier to see what we did in this picture taken during planting (December, 2008). The garden was divided into quadrants, with a mortared flagstone path from the street to the house, and large flagstone step stones from the driveway to the side gate. Three of the quadrants were planted with Arbutus 'Marina' trees that in combination, from different angles, provide most of the privacy the house needs.

Soft shrubs like Dodonea purpurea, Leptospermum 'Apple Blossom' and Rhamnus alaternus variegata form a soft curving buffer at the right of the garden. The largest arbutus was placed squarely in front of the porch window, to protect it from the strong western sun in the summer, and curious passers-by on the street! A strong edging of ledger stone separates the garden from the gravel parking strip (no sidewalks on this side of the street).

Design note; if I had "played it safe" with color and used lots of purples, blues and silvers to cool down the strong color of the house, the effect would have been rather drab, kind of like the picture above. Consider instead where we chose to go:

 Gold, purple and coral? Oh yes, let's.

Cooling touches of blue? Of course! But we love this purple sage even more for its wonderful two-tone leaves. These have lasted longer than typical, and will probably need to be replaced next spring. No problem; they achieve mature size the first season!

Let's all just have a moment of silence at the sheer loveliness of this combination. From the top: Coleonema 'Sunset Gold' Loropetalum 'Plum Delight' Pittosporum 'Creme de Mint' Heuchera 'Marmalade' and Pinus 'Mugo.' The Loropetalum and Pine will slowly get taller over time; we're shaping them as we go. The Pittosporum and Heuchera will stay low, the Coleonema will stay broad and softly spreading. This is a zoomed shot, so there is actually room for all this to happen. I like the light touch of Blue Fescue at the top...

I'm a sucker for a palette that takes the same colors and shuffles them around in different textures and combinations. Here the Coleonema and Pittosporum are joined by Phormium 'Gold Wave.'

The backdrop for this shot of Pine and Heuchera is Lonicera 'Lemon Swirl' a delicious, arching delight with tiny variegated leaves along every stem. It captures the light and makes a perfect filler/spreader in this kind of planting, where the other players are more or less stationary. Avoid too many of this type in a landscape; they tend to dominate the conversation!

One plant that I knew I must put in this landscape is Coprosma 'Evening Glow' whose shiny, evergreen leaves were the same colors as the house, and go great with the Pittosporum and the coral carpet roses.

[Insert mini rant here] Too often I see this shrub looking dreadful...awkward and sprawling. This is not the plant's fault; it's just lack of early training. So designers, listen up and help your clients give their Coprosma the tough love they require, or be prepared to do it yourself!

On the care and training of Coprosma:
This is a plant that you need to be firm with during its youth. It wants to send up exuberant, luxurious plumes of gorgeous leaves in random directions; and these MUST be cut back hard to help you form the basis of a neater mature shrub. Once or twice a year should do it (and I'm talking about being a MAN and taking your clippers and cutting it back to a nice pair of shoots or buds at your desired shrub-level. I'm NOT talking about shearing; don't be lazy!) Use them in a flower arrangement, if that makes you feel better!

As the side shoots start growing, pinch their tips. The more pinching, the denser the shrub. The one above gets pruned/pinched a few times a year, so it's rather free form. If you think that sounds like too much maintenance, would you rather mow/edge/weed a lawn or give your fingernails a little workout?

Be brave. I know, it's hard. I'm much more daring with my client's plants than with my own, I KNOW the "it's still got one flower on it" syndrome. Get over it. Sometimes good horticultural practice is to prune; for balance and to stimulate growth where you want it. It's an art. Think of it that way; plants as the medium, shaped by your touch. Good plantsmanship is one of the best skills a designer can bring to the table.

In the photo album I linked to above, I explore the choices I had for pottery. I loved the way this particular combination turned out: rustic Mexican pots planted with an unusual gold-tipped variety of Crassula ovata flank the front window, and get by with occasional hand watering. Notice the classic Craftsman pattern I chose for the porch stonework. The same stone in natural form was used for the front walkway as well.

Bold color continues in the back, with this stunning Cercis 'Forest Pansy' as the main focal point between the two patios. One of my top ten favorite trees...

The back is shadier, and has some lovely combinations like Polystichum polyblepharum and Begonia richmondiensis. This fern looks best if you trim away all of the previous year's fronds before the new ones start to unfurl in spring; this keeps it looking fresh and tidy all summer.

Another interesting tone-on-tone color combination; Nandina filamentosa has the same tints as the Coprosma next to it, but with any airy, delicate texture. It is a slow grower, but I appreciate that in a plant; it's good when plants work well in the place they are given AND play nicely together.

Part of the reason this garden looks so good is because I personally visit it several times a year (at the owner's request) to clean up; shape, train and evaluate. We include his arborist and landscape contractor in our discussions to take care of the heavier tasks. It doesn't take long, and it's nice when the client joins me to clean up the daylilies and give everything else a once-over.

Even after three years there are still many plants in this garden that I've never had to touch. That, to me, is a landscape that's working, and my client agrees. As I left that day, he said "You done good."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Late Spring on the Los Gatos Creek Trail

A couple of months ago I posted about what it was like on the Los Gatos Creek Trail in early spring. Time for a followup! I took advantage of a dramatic clouds-and-blue-sky day to capture some mid-spring loveliness.

The Buckeyes (Aesculus californica) have quickly gone from tufts of leaves to large, fragrant racemes of flowers on long, leafy stems. So beautiful planted next to Redbud (Cercis occidentalis). In another two months they will start to fade into enjoy them now, darlings!
The Fennel (Foenicululm vulgare) is moving right along, and moves so gracefully with the surrounding grasses. I was surprised to see that the annual grasses had already gone to seed; I figured with the cool spring we're having that they might still be showing green. But this is a classic California palette, wouldn't you agree?

 The glossy, red seedpods on the Redbuds are particularly striking now...

Not a weed here...

Oak buds...
 An unexpected little meadow of statice...I wonder who planted it?

The Sycamore leaves are well on their way to enormity...beautiful texture.

Oak ball!

Yellow daisies...Helianthums?

Another dainty little thing...maybe an Eriogonum?

Back into familiar territory...did you ever wonder how Western Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) got its name? Wonder no more...this is one hot mess this time of year!

I mean, wow...

Not included last time was this gorgeous native, Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata) that my Facebook friends helped me identify. According to Cheryl Renshaw "The fruit is covered with a tart goop that you can suck on and then drink some water to sort of kind of have lemonade (hence the common name of the closely related Rhus integrifolia or Lemonade Berry). Cool!

Another view of Cottonwood...

Hawthorn flowers are so dainty compared to the dramatic and rather severe aspect of their bright red berries in winter. Love that leaf shape...

Eucalyptus flowers; this whole tree is aromatic.

Remember Squirrel Nutkin? (Totally dating myself, aren't I!)

One, last luminous Cistus blossom along the path leading home...thanks for joining me! Things will look quite different soon...