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Peaceful serenity

Garden rooms, garden sculpture: Fran and Keith Bickford's private retreat

Like Rome, a garden of beauty and character can't be built in a day.

For more than three decades, Fran and Keith Bickford have dug and moved soil, laid bricks, razed walls, hauled stones and planted choice specimens - building and refining their Los Altos garden retreat.

It's a private world where frogs croak, hummingbirds hum and goldfish leap in sun and shadow. Roses blossom, bamboo bends and wisteria climbs. There's even a resident blue jay that perches on Keith's knee at teatime for his share of tasty crumbs.

"The garden's grown as my interests change," Keith said. This is a mature garden now, but as areas begin to displease me or bore me, I change them."

He traces some of those changes in his most recent gardening article, "The Curse of Sissinghurst Castle," in the summer 1999 issue of "Pacific Horticulture," the journal of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation. It is an amusing portrait of the surprising results when he tries to reproduce effects he's seen in the world's great gardens. Keith describes how "the great gardens do stimulate me, but it is the act of gardening on my own plot of land - the earth between my fingers, the curve of the border as I formed it, the plant that I nurtured, the fragrance planned for evening - that gives me pleasure and satisfaction."

"The curse of Sissinghurst" in the article turns out to be Japanese anemones, which Keith fell in love with in England, but which developed into nightmarish garden invaders in Los Altos.

A sculptor and longtime member and past president of the Western Horticultural Society, which meets at Loyola School in Los Altos, Keith is retired from a career in electronics. He has volunteered as a reader for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic in Palo Alto for 20 years and served on the board of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation. He is also the editor of "Successful Perennials for the Peninsula," published by the Western Horticultural Society in 1989.

Always interested in painting and printmaking, Keith started sculpting about 10 years ago and displays a number of his abstract metal designs in his own garden. His other works, both large and small, are exhibited and sold at the Sculpture House and Garden Gallery in Carmel Highlands.

"As a sculptor, I find myself more interested in garden shapes and forms," Keith said. He described an exquisitely pruned Japanese maple in one corner of the enclosed front garden or his elegant sweep of side lawn, terminating in a woodland pool with one perfect jet of water. His constant editing continues each season, as nature and time work their changes on trees and shrubs.

Fran Bickford's Cambridge, Mass., background perhaps explains why her area of the garden - on the opposite side of the house from Keith's - is slightly more traditional in design than the rest of the property. Large roses and hydrangeas are bordered by old-fashioned favorites like carnations and lavender. Neither spouse can explain why "her" roses always do better than "his," even though they all seem to receive plenty of sun and water.

"She's allowed to weed and deadhead in my garden anytime, but I'm not allowed to do things in her garden without permission," Keith laughed.

Director of the Altar Guild at All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Fran also volunteers in the church library. She is a dedicated flower arranger, a great way to spread her garden's bounty and beauty more widely.

When the Bickfords purchased their home nearly 40 years ago, they gained a great place to raise their four children, but an unlikely setting for a garden paradise.

"The original garden was mostly pyracantha, which is all gone, the remains of an apricot orchard and a paved sport court area in the back," Fran recalled.

"The placement of the house lengthwise on the lot was fortunate," Keith said. Eventually the couple added a second story to the home, but its footprint on the property remained unchanged, leaving a very wide yard on one side of the house and a respectable width on the other - and therefore distinctly different garden areas for each spouse.

Now garden rooms open, one after the other, completely around the house. In the front parking area, a gnarled and twisting wisteria, pruned into sculpture points to a hand-made wooden entry gate with teardrop-shaped cutouts. Inside the entry garden, a venerable pepper tree creates a focal point which suggests the ancient and the sacred. Keith's handmade stone pathways shelter creeping thyme and the outer world disappears as a visitor savors sights, sounds and fragrance. Completely enclosed by fences and wings of the house, this area is planted with a weeping crab apple, deep purple columbine, white pine and dwarf conifers, as well as unusual grasses, choice azaleas, delphiniums and foxgloves.

Here and in the adjoining long side garden are earth "mounds," natural-looking rises laced with paths, small trees, grasses and sculpture, designed and planted by Keith.

"I built the mounds because from visiting English gardens, I learned that elevation is so important," he said.

Between the entry garden and side garden is the couple's "outdoor pleasure dome," an arbored outdoor room with a built-in stone barbecue and bricked floor, where they enjoy lunches and dinners all summer. Beyond, all the way to the back of the property, stretches the curved side lawn framed on its sunny side with roses and on the shadier side with bamboo and choice tropical plants. An enormous Japanese gong, purchased at a flower show in Seattle is one focal point. Another is the planted mound on the left, accented with one of Keith's sculptures.

About two years ago, the Bickfords used Arizona flagstones to pave a hidden tea-drinking pavilion on the back side of the mound. After a large tree died, they realized they suddenly had a new garden area where they could relax and gaze toward the stone-edged woodland pool nearby. On the far side of the pool, a path reminiscent of Muir Woods begins. It winds through a grove of giant redwood trees and then leads around the back corner of the house, heading toward Fran's garden.

"This is one of the few places in the world where you can grow both citrus and apples. It just seems like a natural thing to me to make the most of what can be in our wonderful climate," Keith said.

Within half an acre, Keith and Fran enjoy almost every horticultural possibility available to Los Altos residents, yet their garden's overall ambiance is one of peaceful serenity and smooth integration from one garden room to the next.

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