This is the story of one couple’s journey to remake their garden into one they love to spend time in – a garden that truly expresses their particular style.
Nancy and James are natives of Canada who have lived in Chicago, Spain and Venezuela. They now live in Walnut Creek, with their teenage son, a daughter in her first year of college and two large, delightfully charming Bouvier des Flandres canines.
Their suburban neighborhood is like many Bay Area tract developments – houses all look pretty much the same: large expanses of lawn, overgrown hedges, nothing that proclaims “different” or “unique.”
Nancy described their garden as formal, with stagnant chi.
“The way it is now (before the redesign) is someone else’s yard – it’s not mine,” she said.
The inside of their home clearly makes a statement about what appeals to them – a modern aesthetic with clean lines punctuated by dramatic color. There is a calming simplicity – a zenlike quality to the interior that was not matched by their exterior space in the garden.
They knew they wanted something different but weren’t yet sure what that looked like. Their homework began with spending time at the Ruth Bancroft Garden, where James fell in love with succulents and the fabulous native tree, the Western Redbud. They then started attending local native-garden tours, where I met them a year ago.
I’m a Bay Area garden designer and agreed to be a docent to meet other plant enthusiasts and share my gardening knowledge. James, Nancy and I started a conversation about Redbuds and have been working together since to design their garden.
We began our conversation by talking about what was working – they have a large lot with Redwoods, Purple Plums and Japanese Maples in the backyard; the front boasts a Maple, a Chinese Tallow, a Saucer Magnolia, an ailing Pine, a Photinia hedge and a ghastly Sycamore that had been pollarded in a way that it never should have been. Of course, it was the first thing you saw as you approached the house. Ouch! It had to go.
We began by removing everything they didn’t like, was well past its prime or just didn’t make sense anymore.
The next step was to craft a plan that incorporated the remaining large trees and shrubs, combining them with plants with similar water requirements, to create the kind of garden that looked like it belonged.
James and Nancy wanted to do some of the work, mostly irrigation and planting. They hired an irrigation consultant who advised James on the best irrigation plan for the garden we’d designed. They also had a contractor do most of the heavy demolition and major pruning. We then started doing the planting, one area at a time.
The front garden has morphed from an eyesore into a very young “meadow,” one based on a photo Nancy pointed to one day and said, “If I could have a front garden that looked like that, I’d be thrilled.”
The Redbuds James fell in love with are center stage as replacements for the Sycamore. It’s a mix of natives interwoven with succulents and plants that thrive in the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate that work with the existing trees. There’s space for a bench to sit among the tall grasses, and a mix of shorter grasses where the dogs can take their afternoon naps.
When we were planting the main meadow, James said, “I’d like this garden to be on the native garden tour.” And it will be in two years, as a great example of how one couple decided they wanted a garden that truly spoke to them – a new garden for their old house.