A journey to transform a garden and find beauty, serenity and sustainability.
An East-Coast garden under a California sky; Soulless, uninviting, and thirsty.
Start with a blank slate.
Welcome with a lively tapestry of fascinating, region-appropriate plants that put nature back into the garden and help rediscover its soul.
At some time after purchasing this Southern California home, it occurred to the homeowner how unwelcoming its existing landscape was:
The East-Coast landscape with lawn and roses didn’t work for this Ranch-style house, nor did it respond well to the need for water conservation.
This home, whose architecture, materials, and siting have more of a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to them, invited a simpler and serene landscape that would thrive even with parsimonious amounts of water and would incorporate California landscape elements: Clear skies and brilliant light, rugged nature with canyons and arroyos, boulder-strewn mountains, deserts, and a host of interesting native plants that are known worldwide.
Designed by Ken Ronchetti, whose architecture has “a soft strength in its simplicity”, the homeowner was ready to explore how to make her garden more inviting and how to capture its soul: Could succulents, California natives and other water-wise plants, until then unknown to her, complement and hold up to this architecture?
The first priority was to integrate the existing Live Oak and Paperbark Trees; both have reached a beautiful maturity. The stone cladding of walls and pilasters create a strong element, and we knew that incorporating boulders would play up their strength and be part of the landscape.
Knowing the client’s love for plants, I subdivided the area into separate spaces to be discovered on a path. This path is important to put the visitor into the landscape, not just view it from the edges.
She’d be able to wander through individual garden rooms and planting scenes or stop at the bench under the Oak tree, inviting rest and discovery of a tapestry of perennials, woody California native shrubs, and succulents that are endlessly entertaining and consume very little supplemental water.
The courtyard is walled in, resulting in the need for the landscape to be open and allow a feeling of depth. Therefore the plant compositions stay mainly low so that the can eye can wander across the tapestry of interesting plants.
Visible here are Sundrops Calylophus drummondii, Agave ‘Blue Glow’, Blue Bedder (Beard Tongue) Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BoP’ , against the foliage of Velvet Elephant Ear Kalanchoe beharensis, and Golden Breath of Heaven Coleonema pulchellum ‘Sunset Gold’.
Many beautiful boulders now echo the rugged stone element used for walls, walkways, and pilasters. Among them a bubbling boulder is the focal point upon arrival. It is surrounded by plants that highlight its beauty and ruggedness.
The heavy downpour during a recent thunderstorm tricked a Mountain Lilac here into re-bloom several months after its first bloom this spring. It makes a lovely companion to other drought tolerant plants: Agaves, Sundrops Calylophus drummondii, Crassula coccinea ‘Campfire’, Echeveria Ruffles, and Blue Oatgrass Helictotrichon sempervirens, Silver Spurge Echeveria rigida, Aloe Little Gem Aloe rudikoppe.
It is a balancing act to create harmony and cohesion with a limited plant palette, but limiting it is important to avoid a hodgepodge and mere plant museum. Here, drought resistant ‘Pink Spice’ Geranium Pelargonium ionidiflorum mingle with Echeveria ‘Ruffles’, Verbena ‘Little One’ Verbena bonariensis ‘Little One’, and Sundrops Calylophus drummondii.
Always conscious of sustainability, the existing picket fence was kept; Although more befitting the previous Victorian landscape style rather than the new one, it was found useful to accentuate the feeling of intimacy and keep rabbits and raccoons out as much as possible.
This garden is very much an experimental site: It is growing, evolving and confirms our trust in the future as the plants mature. Some of these plants, such as Blue Sedge Carex flacca have shown to be the wrong choice for this garden (they never stopped sprawling).
Finding the right amount of supplemental water is a bit of a challenge as with varying sun exposure, tree canopies and roof overhang there are more individual watering zones than one might expect.
I’m passionate about juxtaposing different textures and forms to create tension and interest, so placing a wispy grass or delicate perennial next to a heavy boulder is a knee-jerk gesture.
Also appealing to me is placing a fleshy succulent next to the rugged mass of a boulder; I feel that both complement each other, and although the Sunset Jade Crassula argentea in this picture can’t hold up to the sturdiness of the rock, its equally robust and ‘weighty’, and both plants heighten up their individual qualities.
Evoking the mountains and their delicate windswept plant companions, Agave ‘Blue Glow’ and Foothill Penstemon Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’ nestle between these boulders.
Against the canopy of the Paperbark Tree Melaleuca quinquenervia the perennials,grasses and succulents, this feels like the relief of a sunny clearing in the forest.
I am very happy that the owner has asked me to keep an eye on this garden and help it mature with monthly maintenance. Looking at these photos and considering the time that has elapsed since the garden was first planted, I’m struck again at how exciting it is to care for all these plants.
What will the garden mature into? Will the plants keep their promise?
I’m delighted by the garden’s serenity, and the homeowner’s words give me great joy: “You couldn’t have captured my vision any better.”
Photography courtesy of Emma Almendarez.