One of the observations made by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, on his nineteenth-century exploratory trip to America, was that a democratic ideal underpins the fabric of American life. Classes in European aristocracies, Tocqueville pointed out in a vocabulary borrowed from landscape architecture, are “vast enclosures which one can neither leave nor enter . . . men are separated by high, immovable barriers.”1 In the real landscape, stone walls, tall fences or thick, impenetrable hedges, perhaps of yew, hornbeam or beech, well fortified the landowner and set him apart from his neighbors. Democracies, as modeled on American soil, where “there is nothing to separate men from one another or to keep them in their place,” he observed in counterpoint, possess negligible social lines. Citizens are “so close to each other that men of different classes are continually meeting,” so that “every day they mix and exchange ideas . . . conceptions, and desires, which they never would have . . . if distinctions of rank had been fixed and society static.”2 Our gardens, particularly the front gardens, offer a field of social exchange and neighborliness exemplifying the openness of the American way of life.
If the democratic garden lies open, invites and creates neighborliness, and so embraces the values set forth at this country’s founding, can this openness, as expressed in individual front gardens where residents cultivate their own particular view of beauty on lots that abut one another like postage stamps, allow for a sense of cohesion within the neighborhood? What elements might allow for this, and are there any communities which show us that it can be done?
Palo Alto: A Case Study
Palo Alto, California, takes its name from a giant coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) growing on the banks of San Francisquito Creek and can be translated as “the big stick” or “tall tree.” At 1,059 years old, 110 feet tall, a trunk diameter measured at ninety inches, and a crown spread of forty feet,3 “El Palo Alto,” the tree, lives up to its name. That the city’s name derives from one of its towering inhabitants hints at this town’s marked dedication propto its trees. That the tree and others of its vintage have survived testifies to the care this community gives its urban landscape. A carefully considered urban plan plays a major part, but the true key to the puzzle lies in the community-wide commitment to its trees.
“El Palo Alto” set in motion a protectionism that continues to this day, not only towards the original tree but throughout the city’s tree culture. The historic tree is nestled in a secluded corner of El Palo Alto Park, a small grove of redwoods along the creek. Concerted efforts have been made to protect the grove’s habitat. The San Francisquito Creek Watershed Council evolved in 2001 as a collaborative effort between various local, state, and federal agencies, along with citizen groups, to safeguard the creek. This sets the stage for generations of Palo Altans, who, as stewards of their rich urban forest, take the matter seriously now, and will continue to do so.
In response to a surge of development in the 1970s and 1980s by speculators who held no stake in the fabric of the community and mindlessly cut down big, historic trees that inconvenienced their construction projects, citizens mobilized in 1981 to form the Palo Alto Tree Advisory Task Force, which has been responsible for planning, preservation, and management guidelines and programs that are now copied across the country. Canopy, a vigilant non-profit advocate for Palo Alto’s community trees, picked up where the Task Force ended, caring for, protecting, and renewing the urban forest through education programs, plantings, surveys, and workshops.
Palo Alto is a town of particular beauty. The backbone for this beauty has long been its trees. Trees offer many benefits: their physical beauty and pleasing structure add to a landscape, provide a sense of shelter and stability, and enhance and protect real estate values. The town’s managing arborist, Dave Dockter, notes other less obvious benefits: cordial relationships between neighbors; lower levels of fear, meanness, and violence; and reduced symptoms of ADHD in children can be attributed to an abundance of trees. Subtly embedded in this community’s zeitgeist lies a moral entreaty to protect their trees to “promote the health, safety, welfare, and quality of life for the residents.” This all-embracing celebration of trees— and most plant life for that matter—as essential elements of a life well-lived makes Palo Alto a particularly desirable town.
To see the interplay of the treescape with the individual gardens and homes it binds together, one only need walk down almost any Palo Alto street. Trees thread their way down city blocks, stitching together a neighborhood, no matter the style of the gardens. Be it Crescent Drive with its lush canopy of southern mag-nolias (Magnolia grandiflora) forming a green tunnel to draw in passersby, or Green-wood Avenue’s majestic maidenhair trees (Ginkgo biloba) in their golden autumn glory, trees knit together each neighborhood.
The Craig Garden
Along San Francisquito Creek due east of “El Palo Alto” lies University Park, a neighbor-hood that claims barley and wheat fields as its distant rural past. In this area, considered by some to be the original Palo Alto, stands a cheery yellow wood frame house, built in 1898, and onetime home to George Hood Sr, “the first arborist” of Palo Alto and a nurseryman who raised street trees for the city. The house’s front garden preserves remnants of its prior owners’ handiwork and the garden history of Palo Alto.
Carefully matching the right tree with growing conditions, the trees that anchor this particular home stand tribute to their appropriateness and to George Sr’s good sense. He planted the site’s grandfather tree, a maidenhair, in the early 1900s within the garden proper, but its majestic presence is decidedly a part of the streetscape. An imposing red horsechestnut (Aesculus 5 carnea), also George Sr’s legacy, stood sentry for one hundred years on the Palo Alto Avenue side of the house, until street improvements took their toll; a newly planted specimen will eventually take its place. Beside it stands a robust giant dracaena (Cordyline australis); its rich silvery bark and palm-like presence dramatically punctuates a row of leafy street trees. Around the corner, on Waverley Street, sweetgums (Liquidamber styraciflua) predominate, and run down the block. Well-established specimen trees surround this property, tying it in to Timothy Hopkins Park, the creek (directly across the street), and to this older part of Palo Alto. George Hood Jr, as superintendent of parks maintenance for thirty-eight years, continued his father’s work and added to the com-munity’s “sense of refinement” through the 50,000 trees he planted.
Landscape designer Kathleen Craig gardens on the foundations laid by George Hood Sr and by her parents-in-law, from whom she and husband Roger obtained the property in 1982. The garden she has created suits her home’s turn-of-the-century architecture. Strong specimen trees, arching “house-eating” old roses, clematis, masses of perennials such as campanulas, clumps of Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), iris, and spring bulbs are among the plantings she has assembled. While she primarily uses an old-fashioned plant palette and aims to keep the garden appropriate to the house, she doesn’t restrict herself. As a corner lot, her property provides ample space to garden. A compact hedge of Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’) flanks the path to her front door; its dark green, toothed leaves and red fruit are a perfect foil for the old brick of the path. In a prominent spot next to the front door grows a creamy white, semi-double, fragrant ‘Silver Moon’ rose, a cutting from the Williams House and Garden and memento of Kathleen’s preservation work at that nearby living museum.
Many of the plants Kathleen grows have come from cuttings people gave her, including the santolina hedge bordering her front garden and the old roses (‘Seagull’, ‘Francoise Juranville’, and ‘Cecile Brunner’) and Clematis armandii that make up the dense bird thicket she has constructed to provide a refuge safe from neighborhood cats and to hide a chain link fence on Waverly Street. ‘Crimson King’ irises, planted by Kathleen’s mother-in-law and clearly a part of Palo Alto’s plant history pop up throughout her garden, as they do throughout her community. A beguiling hedge of maidenhair vine (Muehlenbeckia complexa), grown on the Palo Alto Avenue fence, offers ample cushion for the ‘Constance Spry’ rose and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata) that clamber over it. The pale pinl flowers of Bergenia crassifolia drift beneath a neighboring hydrangea, echoing its purplish pink flowers.
She earmarked her front corner garden to prove wrong those critics who fault the San Francisco Bay Area for its apparent lack of fall color. A dawn redwood (Metasequoia glypto-stroboides) anchors the corner, where its vibrant display of gold to reddish brown fall foliage defiantly proclaims the region’s seasonality. A crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), the newest addition, continues the theme. Bright fiery red color comes from a sour gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) to the left of her entry. Of the two inherited sweetgums, one on Waverley turns bright red, and one on Palo Alto a deep orange gold.
The Ford Garden
To the south of the Craig garden, metal sculptor Rochelle Ford and husband Henry take immense pleasure in sharing their brightly painted Waverley Street home with the neighborhood. The Spanish-style stucco home sits back on the lot and opens to a substantial front garden where both public and private spaces merge. A stately tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) grows at the street and joins their garden to a streetscape of similar trees. Their home, in the Professorville district, was painted white originally, but, as Rochelle’s life changed and her metal sculpture business grew, so did the house and garden, beginning with vibrant colors on the house: Hemerocallis Orange on one wall, Gaillardia Red on another, and Statice Mauve on a third soon hid the white.
When they moved from the East to California, “the lawn owned us, we didn’t own our lawn,” Rochelle lamented. With help from landscape architect Richard William Wogisch, they redid the front garden, reducing the maintenance while creating a backdrop for her sculpture. Out went the turf, and in went a sculpture garden surfaced in gravel with tough drought-tolerant plants. Low, orange-painted stucco walls and seats break up the space; salvaged terracotta roofing tiles outline the beds. A restrained color palette from evergreens, succulents, dependable perennials, and ornamental grasses recedes into the background. Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), juniper, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, lavender, Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa), New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax ‘Atropurpureum’) and sago palm (Cycas revoluta) relate beautifully to Rochelle’s whimsical sculptures. A collector of old car parts, metal scraps, cookie tins and stoves since her youth, Rochelle melds these elements into sculptures. A brown-painted girl, her body fashioned from an old muffler, a cookie tin for a face, and a lamp finial for a nose, stands next to a planter, her fireplace spade in hand. Could this be Rochelle tending her garden? An old Universal Electric four-burner stove, used for years in the kitchen, now resides in the back part of their garden, where it serves as a whimsical plant stand for tender potted plants. Henry helps Rochelle maintain the garden. Together they provide a lively open gallery in their front garden where people can gather— a focal point for the neighborhood. Letters of appreciation from neighbors and visitors alike reflect how the Fords have gladdened their Professorville community. The Gifford Garden Cowper is an elegant street flanked for blocks by southern magnolias, which provide an apt setting for the Spanish Colonial Revival home of Betsy Gifford, an avid gardener, longtime volunteer, and volunteer coordinator at the nearby Elizabeth F Gamble Garden Center. Built in 1932 by wellknown local architect Birge Clark for Levi Strauss heiress Lucie Stern, no one enjoyed its architecture more than Betsy’s late husband, Jonathan, who worked as an architect in Clark’s offices, later inheriting the practice. This low, elongated stucco home in the Seale Tract portion of old Palo Alto, is a twin of its neighbor. Along with a third home by the same architect on this block, they establish a distinctive neighborhood character that captures the gracious elan of a by-gone era. The dramatic, yet simple front plantings capture the same feel, and satisfy the owners’ desire for low maintenance. A great sweep of dwarf fescue lawn provides an open buffer between the sidewalk and the Gifford house, which sits comfortably back on the site, with no hint of the rich gardens that lie privately behind. The Giffords reduced the lawn, although still a significant element to this front garden, to enlarge the planting space that skirts the house. Large stands of yuccas (Yucca recurvifolia, among others) boldly anchor the house to its landscape, their leathery, lance-like, blue green leaves adding a robust architectural gravitas. Giant dracaenas, exclamation marks next to the house, draw you to the front door; they are matched in drama by several clumps of New Zealand flax. A California live oak (Quercus agrifolia), which Betsy proudly calls “the happiest oak in town,” graces the garden. Parking strips are intentionally left bare for the knobby roots of the well-established magnolias that hush the neighborhood.
The Fryberger Garden
In a sylvan oasis just off busy Middlefield Road sits a gray stucco house, shielded from the road by a stand of birches (Betula pendula), Japanese maples (Acer palmatum var. dissectum), and a lone pepper tree (Schinus molle), whose slender, pendulous branches soften the driveway over which it hangs. The front garden is a rich repository of the family’s personal history. An incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), brought back as a six-inch seedling from a family trip to the Sierras “to show our little son how trees grow,” now towers over the garden; pale rambler roses, ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ and ‘Albertine’, clamber through its branches. A California buckeye (Aesculus californica) arrived in similar fashion. Rooted cuttings, from friends and colleagues, or through volunteer work at the Gamble Garden, fill this garden. Exuberant Rosa ‘Kew Rambler’, a white ‘Lady Banks’ (R. banksiae var. alba), R. ‘Francis E Lester’, and R. ‘Mutabilis’ (R. x odorata ‘Mutabilis’) arch over trees and fences, and, together with the rich tapestry of bulbs that lies beneath these trees, knit together this landscape. Variegated pittosporum, large clumps of rosemary, and ferns stand ground on a low berm and enhance this woodland garden. At a still moment, a tinkle sounds from a nineteenth-century fountain in the inner courtyard, or a bush-tit might fly to its nest in the violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides) by the house, screened from the street noise by the green buffer of quiet beauty.
This is home to Betsy and David Fryberger, both associated with nearby Stanford University. A long involvement with the Gamble Garden grew from Betsy’s passion for gardening. Her other community work, notably as a member of the Palo Alto Tree Advisory Task Force, has resulted in alterations to her home’s landscape as well as that of her neighbors.
Task Force members, like Betsy, employ wit along with much good will, to encourage residents to become “tree caretakers” and assume responsibility for new street trees in the neighborhood. To win over her neighbors, Betsy thriftily saves seeds, makes divisions, and takes cuttings from her garden to plant in neighborhood parking strips. She reasons that, if there are plants to water, residents will also water the trees. These strips, now bursting with masses of gay cottage flowers—roses, perennials, and bulbs—soften the concrete and asphalt pavements. Rosa ‘Happenstance’, a pale yellow sport of R. ‘Mermaid’, flowers well into fall, alongside hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) in clear shades of bright pink, yellow and white, grown from seed collected on a family pilgrimage to Monet’s garden at Giverny. Betsy is mindful of foot traffic on her sidewalk; shorter plants appear in the parking strips to maintain visibility so that cars and bicyclists can be easily seen.
Because Betsy gardens with a light hand, she welcomes surprise seedlings planted by birds or the wind. Pale blue, star-shaped Italian bellflowers (Campanula isophylla) migrated to her strip from elsewhere in the garden. They happily grow with a tangle of white gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), both red and white valerian (Centranthus ruber), agapanthus, fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), several geraniums (Geranium x cantabrigiense, G. dalmaticum, and G. macrorrhizum), and fragrant white jasmine. Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum), fragrant wild freesia (Freesia lactea), and clumps of iris naturalize amidst groups of sages (Salvia clevelandii, S. leucantha, and S. officinalis). When traffic on Middlefield Road lightens on Sundays, Betsy has been known to drag her hose across the street to water neighbors’ strips. Friends sing her praise.
Past decades saw an overuse of sweetgum as street trees in Palo Alto, which led to losses due to problems with the Peninsula climate and their need for ample water. To avoid such monocultures, the Fryberger’s block alone contains a mixture of nine kinds of trees, including sweetgums, littleleaf lindens (Tilia cordata), London planes (Platanus acerifolia), a Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum), and an Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). This mixed planting underscores the importance of Betsy’s parking strips in unifying their neighborhood. As her cottage plantings spill out to more neighbors, they add welcome color and weave together the neighborhood. Betsy gives generously to her community.
The Jones-Clark Garden
Greer Park, in a newer part of town, is home to Glenda Jones and Dick Clark. In response to the post-WWII need for cost-efficient housing, John Mackay developed this neighborhood with midcentury modern wood-frame and glass houses. None boasts a garden like Glenda’s. Though surrounded by green lawns, evergreen shrubs, and hedges, Glenda’s clear vision is a call to preserve California native plants, and to save water by planting responsibly. Her garden steers clear of the neat and tidy lawn, which she removed “to show you could have a beautiful garden without using a lot of water.” Not only is “the maintenance of a lawn . . . abhorrent” to Glenda, but there were so many plants she wanted to grow in that space.
Having gardened professionally for the past fifteen years, Glenda came well equipped for the task of salvaging the “severe” garden tended by “mow and blow” gardeners. Out went the original garden mainstays – including diseased firethorn (Pyracantha) and Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis)—except for two trees, a bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) and a saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana). Their corner lot on a cul-de-sac of Moreno Avenue provides room for a densely planted border that skirts the fence enclosing their private, inner garden. The streetside garden is a lovely, highly schooled panorama of California native and other drought-tolerant plants, which, as friend and fellow gardener Pria Graves points out “doesn’t argue with her neighbors’ more traditional gardens.” Pria is right.
Personal notes run through the garden. Dick embellished the wooden front gate with Craftsman-style strips of lath. Eliza, a family friend, made a colorful stained-glass image of California poppies incorporated into the gate’s upper frame. To the right of this inviting entry stands one of the few relative waterguzzlers, a beautiful ‘Yuletide’ Sasanqua camellia, with bright orange red blossoms and yellow stamens. The stained glass perfectly complements it and brings in the bright flowers of the nearby bottlebrush. The deep rust seed heads of red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens), Catherine’s lace (E. giganteum), and the scarlet tubular flowers of California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) enhance each other. In winter’s softer light, deep russet tones prevail.
Three Modesto ash (Fraxinus velutina ‘Modesto’) street trees, a California buckeye, and a few large shrubs establish the bones of the front garden. Weaving their inimitable beauty through the beds are blue-flowered wild lilacs (Ceanothus ‘Concha’, C. thyrsiflorus var. griseus and ‘Yankee Point’, and C. ‘Dark Star’) plus Mahonia ‘Golden Abundance’, with clusters of yellow flowers followed by purple berries. The shrubs drift through clumps of native sage, including Salvia clevelandii ‘Betsy Clebsch’, S. spathacea, and S. apiana. Glenda’s use of native grasses is more in the context of a border, rather than an attempt to recreate the sweep of a conventional lawn. Various sedges and grasses, such as Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis ‘Siskyou Blue’), and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), knit together the rest of the plantings. All are drought tolerant and offer tones of green to gray, providing quiet spots for the eye to rest. Clusters of native bulbs (Tritelia, Allium, and Brodeia) richly underplant the larger neighbors.
Glenda’s studied work in her front garden has fostered a sense of community. “A gardener who gardens,” as opposed to those who hire outside help, “gets to know her neighbors.” When Glenda works in her front garden, “it’s a time to visit with [them].” So, her front garden pulls together, socially, her cul-de-sac, much like her trio of Modesto ash, the predominant street tree in this neighborhood, unifies the streetscape. Because Glenda possesses a deep knowledge of plants, and gardens in a distinctive style, neighbors turn to her for help with their gardens; she has become the local horticultural consultant.
The Graves Garden
Farther west in an area originally called Mayfield, on another cul-de-sac, lies a distinctly different house and garden. Its history parallels that of its immediate community. This part of Palo Alto, now called College Terrace, traces its beginnings to 1887, when wealthy San Mateo County farmer and landowner Alexander Gordon bought 120 acres and subdivided it to attract faculty and fraternities from neighboring Stanford University, then under construction. Built in 1904 by Joseph Birkett, an English stonemason who came to work on the campus’s construction, Birkett House is home to botanical artist, garden designer, and historic preservationist Pria Graves and her husband George Koerner. Their predominantly Eastern Shingle Cottage incorporates details of Colonial Revival, Queen Anne, and Craftsman styles. If Mrs Tiggy-Winkle were to live in a cozy house, rather than in the hillside cubby that Beatrix Potter provided her, this would be it. Seven hues, from gray and sage green to cream, teal, and aubergine, imaginatively color its wooden exterior.
Pria’s home sits on charming, narrow Yale Street, behind a ‘Fuyu’ persimmon planted in the parking strip for its colorful fruit. Chinese pistache trees (Pistacia chinensis) run the full length of the street, their spreading canopy of yellow and red setting the street aglow with intense fall color. A majestic maiden-hair tree, part of the borrowed landscape, rises from the front garden just to their north. Pria and George, both tree activists, rolled up their sleeves to bring more trees into their neighborhood. They and a neighbor dug out concrete-filled parking strips so that Canopy could continue its neighborhood planting of pistache and a few red horse-chestnuts; George is caretaker for several of them. Pria confides that the “trees helped to transform their neighborhood,” just as the residents had hoped.
Pria’s passion for gardens and history shows in the historically correct garden she created to suit the late 1800s architecture of their house. The project inspired her to earn a degree in garden design. Given the architectural elements of the house, an English style garden seemed right. Houses at the turn of the last century had a more formal structure, she reasoned, so she planted a boxwood hedge around the front garden, which is then filled with abundant massed plantings of old cottage-garden favorites. The formal architectural bones, softened by romantic and luxuriant plantings, brings to mind the early twentieth-century gardens at Sissinghurst and Hidcote. Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, are also evoked in the natural use of plants here. This is an old house and garden that reverberates with historical antecedents.
A lovely Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) anchors the front garden; Clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’ twines among its roughbarked limbs. Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’ and such stalwart shrubs as common myrtle (Myrtus communis), English holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Angustifolium’), and rhododendrons are planted against the house to create a gentle transition to the garden. Many heirloom plants now fill her boxwood-edged beds: knapweed (Centaurea), scarlet campion (Lychnis coronaria), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora), Michaelmas daisies (Aster novi-belgii), lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), salvias, peachleaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), and lavender irises. Rosa ‘Felicite Parmentier’, R. glauca, and R. ‘Cecile Brunner’ clamber over the massed profusion. Apple, peach, and Seville orange trees produce bountiful crops for pies, jams and chutneys; Heuchera, Penstemon, and Corsican hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) cluster beneath.
While each of these front gardens captures a spirit unique to its place and a beauty particular to the eye of its creators, the gardens grow within neighborhoods that happily welcome them. Each adds to its community. It is through these front gardens that neighbors create “invisible little threads” which tie them together into community. Trees do their job of weaving distinct visions together. “El Palo Alto” started it all, and it continues to inspire. Palo Alto’s trees are essential as infrastructure, providing a cohesive frame in which its diverse gardens can flourish.
The author extends special thanks to Barbara Worl, rosarian and mentor, whose tour of Palo Alto gardens started this article, to all those who graciously shared their gardens with her, and to the City of Palo Alto.
The Spring Garden Tour, Gamble Garden Center
A great way to experience the garden city of Palo Alto is to take the Annual Spring Garden Tour organized by the Elizabeth F Gamble Garden Center. Usually set for the last weekend in April, it offers access to several exceptional private gardens in the community on a self-drive tour. It’s best to carpool, park a block or more from each garden, and enjoy a stoll past other front gardens en route to the tour garden.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, 2002. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page xxvi. ↩
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by George Lawrence, 1988. New York: Harper Perennial. Page 458. ↩
- Statistics provided by Dave Dockter, Palo Alto’s managing arborist. ↩