A New Garden for an Old House

This is the story of one couple’s journey to re-make their garden into one that they love to be in – a new garden that truly expresses their particular style.

Nancy and James are natives of Toronto, Canada who’ve lived in Chicago, Madrid, and Caracas, Venezuela. They now live in Walnut Creek, with their teen-age son, a daughter who’s in her first year of college, and two large, delightfully charming Bouvier des Flanders canines. Their suburban neighborhood is like many Bay Area tract developments – they all look pretty much the same. Large expanses of lawn, overgrown hedges, in need of a landscape renovation. They wanted a new garden that says ‘this is different or unique.’

Nancy describes their garden as formal with stagnant chi.

“The way it is now is someone else’s yard – it’s not mine.”

The inside of their home clearly makes a statement about what appeals to them – a modern aesthetic with clean lines punctuated with dramatic color. There is a calming simplicity – a zen-like quality to the interior not matched by their exterior space in the garden.

They knew they wanted something different, they wanted a landscape renovation, 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 our fabulous native tree, the Western Redbud. They then started attending local native garden tours, where I met them a year ago. I had 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 then to design their new garden over the last year.

We began our conversation about the landscape renovation by talking about what was working – they have a large lot with Redwoods, Purple Plums and Japanese Maples in the backyard; the front has a Maple, Chinese Tallow, Saucer Magnolia, an ailing Pine, a Photinia hedge and a ghastly Sycamore that had been pollarded in way that it never should have been.  Of course it was the first thing you saw as you drove up to the house.  Ouch!  It had to go. We began by taking out everything that either they did not like or that was well past it’s prime or that just didn’t make sense anymore.

The next step was to craft a landscape renovation plan that incorporated the remaining, large trees and shrubs, and combine them with plants with similar water requirements that would 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 brought in an irrigation consultant who advised James about 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’ that was based on a photo that Nancy pointed to one day and said,

“If I could have a front garden that looked like that I’d be thrilled.”

The Redbuds that James fell in love with are center stage as replacements for the Sycamore. It’s a mix of native plants interwoven with succulents and plants that thrive in our 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 Mona and Jack can take their afternoon dog 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.

This article, in a shorter form, originally appeared June 29, 2010, in the Los Altos Town Crier: A New Garden for an Old House.

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