A Sun-Drenched Garden in Upland

By: Ellen Hoffs

Ellen Hoffs, for most of her life, was a journalist who gardened. She competed a horticulture program and became a…

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The front entry garden with Acacia cognata overhead, Cotinus ‘Grace’ on the right, and shaped boxwood flanking the door. Photographs by Jeff Cameron

The front entry garden with Acacia cognata overhead, Cotinus ‘Grace’ on the right, and shaped boxwood flanking the door. Photographs by Jeff Cameron

It is mid-afternoon in Upland, California, and the breeze sweeping along the San Gabriel Mountains is rustling the leaves in Jan Smithen’s extraordinary mediterranean garden. Looking out her front window at the sanctuary she fought to build, Smithen will never take for granted the shiny clipped hedge of strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’) or her dry-loving, street-side garden. The creation of her rear garden was, by comparison, an easy task. Smithen longed for an Italian garden like those she’d written about in her groundbreaking book, Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style (see Pacific Horticulture, July ’02), and she accomplished just that in less than 1,200 square feet.

On a good traffic day, Upland is a half-hour from the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden where, for eighteen years, Smithen taught a popular weekly class, “The Fanatic Gardeners.” Until she retired, only a few years ago, her legendary humor and encyclopedic knowledge of gardening attracted a waiting list of students from as far as fifty miles away, mostly from more moderate climates. Many of the plants that she had tested in Upland’s “summer sizzles” and later brought to class now live on in her students’ gardens.

A view from the main garden into the “orto” or kitchen garden; a standard pomegranate (Punica granatum) in a terracotta pot marks the terminus of the path

A view from the main garden into the “orto” or kitchen garden; a standard pomegranate (Punica granatum) in a terracotta pot marks the terminus of the path

Upland in Summer

Last summer, temperatures hung at 104° F for more than two weeks. The heat left its mark on Smithen’s garden. Leaves of ‘Altissimo’ rose and Aloe elgonica burned, as well as those on the tough and reliable Indian mock hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica ‘Clara’). Lavandula 5 intermedia ‘Grosso’ died, and a wild lilac (Ceanothus ‘Centennial’), planted in the spring, faded away as Smithen vowed that, henceforth, she would stick to her rule of only planting in the fall.

Despite the hot spell, Smithen kept faithful to her year-round watering schedule, which only varies when it rains: soaking the front garden by hand and the rear with manually controlled sprinklers. Using the old gardening trick of thrice, she waters and allows it to soak in before watering again, and then a third time. She douses the vegetables and citrus every two to three days, plants within the front hedge and beds off of her patio every five to seven days, and her dry beds every other week.

Saving money was not on Smithen’s mind when she planted a mediterranean garden. However, it turned out to be an added benefit. Neighbors with green lawns continue to complain about their water bills; hers are not even worth mentioning.

Smithen has made a major investment of time and energy in improving her soil. The housing development was built in the mid-1980s over an old riverbed. The rocky soil was thin yet well draining, an unusual natural resource for Southern California, where gardeners often make do with clay soil. Twice a year, she top dresses the beds with composted mulch combined with horse manure. The amendment has transformed her soil into a rich, rocky, well-draining loam.

Pyrus ‘Kieffer’ espaliered in the rear garden; the pears need little winter chill and are blight resistant

Pyrus ‘Kieffer’ espaliered in the rear garden; the pears need little winter chill and are blight resistant

Neighborhood Challenges

In 1996, when Smithen moved into her home, she had greater obstacles to overcome than thin soil. Her woes began as she wielded a pickax in the front yard. She remembers a passerby, who turned out to be a board member of the homeowner’s association, shouting, “I want grass.” Even after Smithen explained to the woman that the architectural board had given her permission to plant a drought-resistant garden, she snapped back, “Don’t you know the drought is over? I don’t care if you have architectural permission. I have the power to make you rip all this out.”

And so, the classic David and Goliath standoff began. Anyone who had seen fellow gardener Patrick Anderson offer Smithen a cutting from a rare Aloe cameronii and overheard her response, “I’d rather have this aloe than a diamond ring,” could have predicted who would win this battle. Today, the association’s rules have relaxed, albeit with little effect. The more than one hundred homes in the development are still fronted by well-groomed— and watered—lawns. Smithen’s remains the only property in the neighborhood sporting a nonconformist front garden.

At 6,650 square feet, the lot is relatively small by most standards. Smithen had to reach deep into her store of garden experience to make the south-facing front garden meet her needs. She yearned for privacy from the street, shade from the glaring sun, and a view that did not include red-painted curbs. The bylaws forbade walls, and hedges were limited to three feet in height. Raising the ground plane in the front yard solved most of her problems. She added a precious foot of soil to the garden, giving it flat yard. She planted the strawberry tree hedge on the raised terrace level, placing it at the required five feet from the street, thus leaving a wide sloping bed for the street-side garden. The clipped hedge enclosed a private garden, its architectural form adding dramatic tension to the informal plantings within.

Hoping to block out the street on the west, next to her front window, Smithen placed a single plant of Banksia ashbyi, with large cone-like orange flowers in winter and spring. It has grown into a small shrub from the four-inch pot that she bought from Jo O’Connell’s Australian Native Plants Nursery in Ojai. Then, she chose a graceful Acacia cognata and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), with sweetly scented purple flowers, to further differentiate the garden from the street. Each year, the trees are pruned, both to keep them in scale with the garden and to open the brittle acacia so that the fury of the Santa Ana winds can blow through without breaking limbs.

Terracotta pots and garden furniture take advantage of the shade produced by the arbor

Terracotta pots and garden furniture take advantage of the shade produced by the arbor

Street-side Plantings

The richly textured, drought-tolerant, street-side garden winds around the western corner to a decomposed granite (DG) path. Among the heat-loving plants that thrive in this bed, which receives only twice-a-month watering, are: red-leafed Aloe dorotheae, A. cameronii, and the chalky, gray-leafed Dudleya brittonii and D. hassei, along with a few other succulents. Salvias are well represented here with Salvia thymoides, S. lanceolata, S. greggii ‘Raspberry Royale’, and S. semiatrata. Other survivors are: Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), Ceanothus ‘Concha’, Agave victoriae-reginae, and Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. The false dittany (Ballota pseudodictamnus) is one of Smithen’s favorites; she first saw it while leading a tour of British gardener Beth Chatto’s dry garden. Dry beds are seldom thought of as a source for cut flowers, but, in her home, Smithen enjoys the fragrance of the tiny, purple flowers of desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi). The silver leaves of horned poppies (Glaucium flavum) provide a bright foil even when the plants are not in bloom.

As much as Smithen would like to have large architectural plants, such as agaves, she is always aware of the scale of her garden and never buys plants so large that they would dwarf the rest of the garden. Instead, she follows the lead of European gardeners and clips evergreens into ornamental shapes that provide the focus and drama of big bold plants. Unlike many California gardeners, who prefer curving paths and informal plantings, Smithen appreciates formality and enjoys the frequent shearing that locals might think of as “too much work.” She explains, I like simple clipped evergreens to set off informal loose forms. I clipped myrtle (Myrtus communis) to a cone and box (Buxus japonica ‘Winter Gem’) to a ball in front of the vining queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis). I also use severe structural forms next to free-flowing forms, such as aloes next to grasses.

Smithen believes that every garden should be made up of memories. Like imagination, memories make gardens unique. The smooth dramatic shapes of clipped greens bring back memories of southern France and of the Italian gardens that helped her to realize she could create her own mediterranean garden in Upland. Today, when she walks out her back door, she is transported back to Italy. At night, the amber lights, swagged rhythmically under the pergola, remind her of Italian villages along the coast. The sound of water gurgles quietly from an inconspicuous fountain adding the “precious water” that Smithen describes in her book as “a defining element of the mediterranean garden.” Wisteria sinensis, also a staple in Italian gardens, weaves through the wooden beams of her pergola much as it did in the large arbor of her family’s garden in nearby Pomona, where Smithen grew up. She cherishes that memory and has since grown  wisteria in all of her gardens.

Plantings, both sheared and natural, enclose the rear garden; an empty urn and a willow chair mark the path junction and terminus

Plantings, both sheared and natural, enclose the rear garden; an empty urn and a willow chair mark the path junction and terminus

Persian Inspiration

Smithen was lecturing at Hortus, in Pasadena, when she asked Mark Bartos, then the nursery’s principal designer, to plan a Moorish-style garden for her rear yard. His geometric, quadripartite design, inspired by the gardens of ancient Persia, is based on a simple cross that divides the space into four equal parts. In that tradition, the main path originates at the door.

Working from his design, Smithen created a garden that is a microcosm of an Italian estate garden. The visitor walks under the Bartosdesigned, sage-green-stained pergola, which melts into the environment and serves as a marvelous background for Smithen’s plantings. In the mediterranean style, each post is flanked with an Italianate carved corbel. Under the pergola, where the DG path begins, lies a stone sculpture of a woman’s head, by sculptor Marcia Donahue, which her Fanatic Gardener’s class presented to Smithen upon her retirement. Continuing north, an unglazed terracotta container from Crete—the color of pale beach sand—sits at the intersection of the two paths, serving as a focal point, much like the giant urns in Italian estate gardens.

Turning right at the Cretan pot, the visitor follows the path between two square flower-beds in front of a sage green arbor that forms the spine of the garden. Cestrum elegans partially covers the east wall of the arbor and blooms through spring and summer with panicles of red flowers, followed by red berries in the fall. The beds abound with colorful plants. Red, coppery orange, and purple show up well in the bright, clear, California light, and Smithen uses them generously in both front and rear gardens. Colorful foliage sustains interest throughout the summer, even when flowers are few. Red-leafed annual shiso (Perilla frutescens) self-sows all year and is at its best in the summer heat. Smithen values Haloragus erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’ for its bronze-red foliage, though it reseeds so prodigiously that she has to keep after the seedlings.

Food from the Garden

Opening a handsome wrought iron gate, the visitor enters the vegetable garden or “orto,” as Smithen fondly calls it. She was so moved by Italian country gardens that she knew, someday, she would make room for food production in her own garden. Four rectangular beds, two on each side of the path, hold vegetables and herbs. On the north, two wood-framed, raised beds are filled with seasonal vegetables. On the south, low-clipped hedges of African box (Myrsine africana) frame two beds of herbs.

Fruit is everywhere. On the north, a row of citrus, pruned into shapely rounds, hover over the garden in a raised bed, providing separation from her neighbor. There is whimsy here as well. Cobalt blue bottles dangle among the citrus and sparkle when the sun hits them. On either side of the arbor, ‘Kieffer’ pears have been trained into three-tiered, flat espaliers that reach eight feet tall and form a green wall on the arbor; Smithen planted these low-chill, fire-blightresistant pears from three-foot-tall, bare-root trees only three years ago. Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’, the smallest of the edible figs, is similarly espaliered against the east fence.

Giving this small garden a feeling of endlessness are the various objects placed at the terminus of each path. A willow chair marks the end of the walk to the north, and provides a sunny spot to sit and enjoy the garden in winter; next to the chair, an Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) points to the San Gabriel mountains soaring over the garden. A wooden door nestles in an Arbutus hedge to the west. A large ceramic container holds a pomegranate (Punica granatum), trained into a small tree, at the end of the path in the center of the garden’s east circle. Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) climbs up the wall behind it, highlighting the shiny fruits and echoing their color in its red autumn leaves.

Gardening will always be Smithen’s life. Teaching has enriched her garden, since much of her exploration into the design and the plantings resulted from research she did for her class. Like the teacher she remains, she offers some advice:
We, in California, have such a long time to enjoy our gardens, and our summer dormant period is relatively short. When it gets hot and dry, mediterranean-climate plants often go into a kind of dormancy called aestivation. That’s a good time for gardeners to do a little aestivating themselves.