From outside the gate, one gets the immediate sense that this is not a typical Los Altos Hills garden. Enclosed by stucco walls and fences festooned with Bougainvillea ‘Barbara Karst’ and Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), only the tops of trees within the garden can be glimpsed from outside, but among them are a distinctive selection of thirty- to fifty-foot-tall palms. On entering the garden, a visitor is struck with the unique blend of tropical and Mediterranean effects created by the hardscape features and the mix of plantings—especially the palms.
The owners were drawn to this property by the garden’s collection of mature palms and the broad expanse of lawn in the lower garden, which, they hoped, could accommodate the large parties they were accustomed to hosting. Commissioned to redesign the landscape, I worked closely with the owners to develop a concept for a series of garden rooms. We ultimately created a new garden overlay for an existing landscape that was dominated by a varied and disparate collection of plants. The redesign of this garden was started in late November of 2001, as the house was undergoing major reconstruction.
We established a series of goals in developing the concept for the new garden. Among them was the need to protect, enhance, and expand the collection of palms. The owners wished to entertain on both a grand and an intimate scale. They hoped to preserve as much of the existing hardscape as possible. And, they wanted to reduce water use in the garden and create a sustainable landscape. It also became clear that what they desired in their garden was a fusion of the special places where they spend their free time—Santa Barbara, Italy, and Spain.
Palms Set the Stage
Forty-eight existing palms, two of which marked the original driveway, set the tone for the landscape. The tall palms included Mexican and California fan palms (Washingtonia robusta and W. filifera), queen palm (Syagrus roman-zoffiana), Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), and windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). These tall specimens added a sense of maturity to the site, while large, multi-stemmed clumps of Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) provided a sense of place, around which new plantings could be added. Two old bottle palms (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis), planted in the ground near the pool, were not in the best condition; native to the tropical Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean, they were probably suffering from winters colder than they prefer. They were removed from the garden beds and planted in large boxes. They are now moved to the upper part of the garden for winter protection and returned to poolside locations for summer viewing.
Five fine specimens of naked coral tree (Erythrina coralloides), many large clumps of bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae), as well as established stands of giant bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) set the stage for a blend of plants not typical of gardens in this part of the San Francisco Peninsula. It was apparent from the maturity of many of these plants that the site had not suffered from severe frost in a long time. To verify that observation, I set out eight recording thermometers at varied exposures in the garden; despite heavy frosts that winter in other parts of the Peninsula, the temperature never fell below 28° F within the garden’s walls. The Sunset Western Garden Book places Los Altos Hills in zone 16, one of the Bay Area’s thermal belts.
Much of the existing hardscape was in good condition, making it practical and economical to keep the red terra cotta surfaces and the swimming pool for the patina of age that they lent the garden. The combination of pale stucco walls, palms, and the terraced site reminded me of gardens visited in northern Italy’s Lakes District. To support that image, certain plants had to be introduced into the garden: roses, olives, grapes, figs, citrus, and vines of various types. The owners requested the addition of some of their favorite plants, such as cycads, lavender, and succulents in the library terrace, bougainvillea on walls and fences, azaleas by the front door, and pots of pelargoniums throughout the garden.
Room for Entertaining
The owners asked that space be provided to entertain gatherings of up to 200 people as well as for intimate, formal, outdoor dining. The latter was an easy request to fulfill by making the terrace off the dining room more enclosed and room-like; large gatherings were more challenging. The existing terrace around the pool and the patio area in front of the pool house were too small to accommodate many people. One solution would have been to add more patio surface, but the town of Los Altos Hills adheres to strict limitations on lot coverage by paved surfaces, and the property was already at the maximum allowed. By removing some unnecessary paths, we were able to add a flagstone extension to the pool patio with an overhead trellis for grapes. To achieve quick coverage of the trellis and to shade the new patio, we bought, dug, transported, and craned onto the site three grape vines that were over fifty years old.
The owner’s determination to reduce water usage was actually an aid in deciding what to do with the lawn, which was an obvious water guzzler yet provided the owners with a degree of verdancy that they enjoyed. Given the limited amount of hardscape that could be added, it was clear that the lawn would have to serve as the flooring for any entertaining. By determining exactly how much lawn would be needed to accommodate tables and chairs for 200 guests, we were able to remove more than one-third of the original lawn. Adding a small retaining wall along the downhill side of the lawn allowed for the creation of a terraced bed below the wall that was planted with an orchard of eighteen fruit trees for nearly year-round, fresh-fruit production. Semi-dwarf citrus trees, planted along the lower fence line below the orchard, provide evergreen foliage to screen the equestrian easement just outside the fence.
A gravel and flagstone path lined with Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) passes through the orchard. A blend of reddish pink and gray gravel was used to slow down a strolling visitor and echo the colors of the strawberries and the Arizona flagstone treads placed at changes in the grade. With regular shearing and fertilizing, the strawberries provide a continuous supply of succulent fruit and
tease the unsuspecting passersby with their subtle fragrance.
A Quiet Corner
The destination of the orchard path is a contemplation garden in the lowest corner of the property, which happens to get no cell phone reception. (I borrowed cell phones from friends to be certain that none would work there.) A selection of Himalayan dogwood (Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’), the dominant evergreen screen planting in that corner, sets the stage for a white and green garden. The entire room was planted in white-flowering plants to provide a distant focal point from the upper levels of the garden and from the house. In fall, the spectacular red, strawberry-like fruits of the dogwood complement the red foliage of a number of nearby white-flowering, deciduous shrubs: doublefile Fujisanensis viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Fujisanensis’), Onon-daga viburnum (Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’), and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’). Warm summer evening strolls are enhanced by the unusual tutti-frutti aromas of banana shrub (Michelia figo) and the recently introduced Michelia yunnanensis.
The owners quickly embraced the concept of a sustainable landscape. In addition to the new orchard, we constructed raised beds for vegetables. We developed color and flowering charts to insure that there would be cut flowers for use in the house throughout the year. Plantings were selected for minimal need of toxic pest controls. The entire landscape, with the exception of the lawn, is watered with drip emitters to ensure that the least amount of water would be used for irrigation. In addition to grouping plants according to their water needs, separately valved irrigation lines were run for the citrus, deciduous fruit trees, and roses, so that their specific water and fertilizer requirements could be met efficiently. Even in the first year after installation, water usage dropped significantly from the amount the garden had previously used. In the second year after installation, while new plantings were getting established, the drip emitters were relocated to provide water to the expanding root systems of the young plants. Since then, the frequency and duration of many valves have been significantly reduced; some have been turned off completely, further reducing water use. A fertilizer injection system was added to the drip system to simplify landscape maintenance.
Special Attention to the Palms
At the outset, palm specialist Kenneth Allen assessed the condition of the existing palms, recommended protection techniques for the palms during construction, and advised on the proper care of the palms once the project was complete. Continuing protection of the palms includes providing winter cover for some of the more tender specimens. As the owners became interested in expanding the palm collection, we asked Palm Sundae, a local palm consulting firm, to recommend new genera and species for the collection. New palms added to date include: bangalow palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), Formosa palm (Arenga engleri), Guadalupe palm (Brahea edulis), jelly or pindo palm (Butia capitata), pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), and Trachycarpus wagnerianus. In keeping with the Mediterranean theme, we chose terra cotta pots for use in the garden; many have been planted with unusual palms like blue hesper palm (Brahea armata), mountain fishtail palm (Carota gigas), triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi), Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), and foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata), all of which standout beautifully against the pale stucco walls.
The landscape installation was completed in the late summer of 2002. The palm collection continues to expand, providing an ongoing sense of discovery for all of us who are privileged to be involved with Las Palmas de La Loma. The garden will be open to the public on May 14, 2005, as part of the Open Days program sponsored by the Garden Conservancy (see page 18).