It’s not often that I work with a garden design client who asks, ”Don’t you think this should all be natives?” Standing at the entrance to her property in Portola Valley, looking out at the spectacular view, my answer was a resounding yes. At that point, to actually see the hills beyond, you had to look past a huge wall of oleanders and bottlebrush. Our goals were to frame the view and create a waterwise garden with year-round interest that looked and felt as if it fit seamlessly into the valley beyond.
We started by taking cues from what existed naturally – oaks, toyons and manzanita surrounded the site. Many non-native specimen plants dotting the property were incorporated in the overall design where they made sense and partnered well with natives both culturally and aesthetically. Agaves were relocated and now frame the entry gates softened by native grasses and edged by buckwheats that turn a wonderful rusty pink – and match the color of the slate entry pillars.
As one enters the gates and heads up the drive, the view commands center stage. Native evergreen shrubs and grasses now provide structure (coffeeberry, toyon, manzanita, ceanothus and deer grass) and mimic the same dark greens and beiges that adorn the surrounding hillsides. With the existing oaks, these plants function as a subtle yet elegant picture frame around the glorious views west into the hills.
Most everything is planted so that it has room to grow into its mature size. Because the garden is only six months old, it had plenty of open space. The homeowner loves to see richly planted, colorful spaces, so we tucked in big swaths of white, yellow, mauve and blue annuals and perennials that knit all the plants together – native iris, California poppy, tarweed, foothill penstemon, tidy tips, matilija poppy, sages and blue-eyed grass.
Toward the house, we added plants that work well with natives and complement the architecture. Arbutus ‘Marina,’ with its spectacular rust-colored bark and rich, dark-green leaves, frames the front door. The tree is partnered with natives that include coffeeberry, grasses, lilac verbena and dudleya (a succulent that mimics the icy-gray color of the fountain), as well as non-native cape rush for its rust-colored seed heads. The homeowner prefers succulents, so they’ve been tucked in throughout.
Now, the garden is not quite all natives – but it’s mostly natives – and it looks and feels like it belongs in the space.