The Foundations of Lee’s Garden: Topography, Fractals, and Planting Design

By: Katharine Cook

Katharine Cook studied French Intensive Biodynamic gardening with Alan Chadwick and is one of the founders of the present Green…

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View from highpoint of garden across lawn to newly realized view of San Francisco Bay. Photographs by Saxon Holt, except as noted - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-foundations-of-lees-garden-topography-fractals-and-planting-design/#sthash.v5SmPn11.dpuf

View from highpoint of garden across lawn to newly realized view of San Francisco Bay. Photographs by Saxon Holt, except as noted

Upon slipping an iron latch, the wooden gate on a narrow street above Sausalito opens into the garden’s uppermost corner, where a well-established Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) spreads its canopy over a ground cover of ferns, contrasting shade-loving foliage, and a large hydrangea. The maple is the focal point of the upper garden, and its prospect from the second story of the house is treasured by owner Lee Flynn, whose early experiences in her grandmother Idy’s garden in Portland, Oregon, fostered the landscape sensibilities that now shaped her own garden.

From the upper corner, one descends a paved walkway that curves to the left and right, passing a corner of the rose bed and a patch of fragrant jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), before touching down on the flat plane of the central garden. Broad steps then ascend to a wide porch and the front door of the house. Flanking both sides of the walkway in summer are aromatic borders, both edged in boxwood. Between the front porch and the lawn, a semicircular patio, tiled in curving terra cotta, is set into the lawn and provides the main outdoor seating area.

This is a landscape created from a deep cut into the watershed slope that stretches from the Sausalito shore of San Francisco Bay to a ridge near the freeway above. We are about a third of the way up from the bay. Stands of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), visible below and above, suggest an original cover of mixed evergreen forest. One majestic oak frames the view from the lower garden; a wide grove fills the property below.

The substantial Craftsman-style house, built around 1910, is finished in brown shingles, with wide porches on the bay and garden sides. Once inside the gate, one is immediately aware of the light reflected off the bay, as it transcends all patterns of sunlight and shadow in the garden.

Plantings above the sitting area wall. Author’s photograph - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-foundations-of-lees-garden-topography-fractals-and-planting-design/#sthash.v5SmPn11.dpuf

Plantings above the sitting area wall. Author’s photograph

Renovating the Welcome Borders

I had been invited by my daughter, Lee’s bosom buddy and maintainer of the garden for the past eight years, to provide a design for its renovation. A gifted interior designer, documentary filmmaker, and philanthropist, Lee was ready to turn her attention to her home’s outdoor spaces. In addition to the established flowerbeds, patio, and lawn, an old cherry tree rose from the lawn, near the property line. Hedges of five-foot-tall hebe enclosed the lawn on the bay side. Espaliered evergreen pears (Pyrus kawakami) and a lemon adorned the home’s east walls.

An old lavender bed, about twenty-four feet by ten feet at its widest, was a welcoming border—a key element in the garden, and a favorite view of Lee’s from the house; it evoked the countryside of southern France and Italy, where she and her husband often go in summer. Lee’s wish for its rebirth was simplicity: “lots of lavender” and nothing to detract from the view of the maple.

This S-shaped bed sloped from the shadow of the maple into full sun. At the shadow’s edge, we added white-flowered Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) below the maple; in the full-sun section, the main body of the renewed lavender bed is a mix of English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and L. x intermedia ‘Grosso’, planted in alternating double rows. Demarcating its spine, two prostrate Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba ‘Cameo’) emphasize the height of the contour. One standard HONEY PERFUME rose (‘Jacarque’) rises from inside the narrow “V” of boxwood edging at the bed’s foot.

Lee’s fondness for apricot permeates the entire upper garden, and so the palette ranges softly around it, with a variety of complementary tones, both warm and cool. To bring some vigor and wild vitality to the more subdued glow of the Mediterranean plants, I brought in California native buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium), for its articulate mounding grey foliage and flat white flower heads, and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica var. maritima) for its zingy yellow flowers with orange centers—and for its coastal evocations. (We are near the water, although we cannot yet see it.)

To modulate the foliage color towards yellow from the grey green of the lavender, I selected the prostrate quince, which would also provide early spring blooms and some fruit later in the season. To grade the lavenders’ foliage toward a middle and dark green, I chose an oregano (Origanum laevigatum ‘Hopleys’), with its bonus of small, dense, maroon flower heads and an aromatic punch.

The floral colors now ranged softly through white, yellow, coral, apricot, lavender and muted purple; foliage, from yellow through silver, gray blue to dark green. The design read as a gentle exuberance of both Mediterranean and California native color; the composition was highly aromatic and well organized..

The tiled sitting area cut out of the lawn; behind is the wall of ivy and the walk down from the gate - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-foundations-of-lees-garden-topography-fractals-and-planting-design/#sthash.v5SmPn11.dpuf

The tiled sitting area cut out of the lawn; behind is the wall of ivy and the walk down from the gate

Spirit and Gravity, Soils and Topography

To make replanting possible, all of the existing plants were pulled, the depleted, compacted soils were loosened and combed of roots, and the bed was filled with Turboblend (a local organic amendment), mushroom compost, and fine crushed lava rock. We applied organic mineral fertilizers, tilthed in compost, then raked and shaped the bed until the topography was both strong and uplifting. “Fractal geometry” is the study of the patterns of how things evolve in nature—patterns that make natural things beautiful (for example, the shape of a lily, the contour of a watershed slope). I like to get those right before planting; experience has shown me that the contours that comprise the garden’s topography will ultimately account for to eighty to ninety percent of its final success.

From the late Alan Chadwick, I learned that the biological and aesthetic benefits of planting into a gently-curved mound are interdependent. In nature, soils develop from the repetitive layering of leaf fall, plant remains, rain, and bird and animal manures, all to be tunneled by worms and other critters so that sufficient air is brought into the mix to support microbial processes. We can mimic and intensify that soil aeration by creating mounded beds that draw air into the soil, allowing for an even flow of water and nutrients to new plant roots.

Although designing a garden that my daughter maintains for her client had its moments of struggle, Amber and I were both happy with the look of the final layout. Fueled by compost, the plantings took off; Lee was pleased, and I was on for the rest of the renovation, which included designs for both upper and lower gardens.

A Design Challenge

On the opposite side of the entry walk, the lavender bed’s counterpart lay between the walkway and a steeply cut bank covered in Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis) and a mixture of evergreen trees and shrubs, all sheared to a defined plane—the virtual bulwark of the entire garden.

Again, all plants were removed from the bed, sorted, and what was to be kept (the roses) heeled into the service area below the house until the bed was ready.

As roots from the “ivy wall” had traversed the full width of the bed, they were pulled up, and a sheet of hard plastic inserted three feet from the wall; luckily, there was no die-off in the wall. With the old soil loosened and combed, the bed was filled with new soils, lowered onto the site and into the bed on the shoulders of Reuben Mendieta’s crew. By tilling and raking, we now graded the bed into a new shape, raising its outer edge, where it met the ivy wall, by several feet. This change to the architecture of the upper garden, though not big in itself, was perhaps the most important of all our design decisions. The benefit to the whole garden that accrued from raising the edge of the bed was remarkable—a permanent change to the topography that would be felt for a long time. Solidity, plant vigor, and beauty lifted the upper garden into a new relationship to the sun, land, sky, and sea. From the point of view of long term value, nothing is more worth doing in a renovation than this: the remodeling of the topography.

The design challenge in this bed was to create a relationship between the narrow horizontal of the bed, only ten feet at its widest, and the vertical backdrop of the ivy wall. A pair of eight-foot- tall, unadorned, rusty wrought iron cone- shaped tuteurs by Sierra Mirage of Dorado Hill would help bridge this transition.

I located them as I had done with the two quince, along the high point of the contour defined by the longest, highest line of the bed— the upper curve of its “ridge.” This established the bed’s literal center of gravity, from which point the design would radiate. The core plantings of the bed’s new design were to be the ebullient rich, golden yellows of Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’, one on each of the rusty tuteurs, plus the white r. ‘Penelope’, and two apricot r. ‘Just Joey’—all replanted from the old bed. To ground the tuteurs and mask the bare wood of winter roses, I chose three Koster’s false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’), for their soft, low, mounding shapes, and sprays of intricately curling evergreen foliage.

Other pattern repeats were in threes, fives, or sevens—a lesson from a Zen monk, as well as a request from Lee. Arranged behind the core, again on equidistant centers, were bog sage (Salvia uliginosa) towards the back, and S. clevelandii ‘Winnifred Gilman’ towards the front, chosen for their contrasting blues and purples, aromatic foliage, and wildlife vitality. Penstemon ‘Holly’s White’ was added for sheer flower power, along with the highly aromatic white sage (Salvia apiana) to take the heat at the bed’s sunniest end. In the shade at the base of the ivy wall, we planted Nicotiana sylvestris for its height, grace and mass, pendulous flower heads, and intoxicating evening fragrance.

Heir to weather and gravity, the original dryset, antique-gold stone retaining walls supporting the upper garden were in grave disrepair. As part of our renovation project, we set about restoring angles, finishing the tops of walls, and filling in the blanks. Where the wall sloped up from the lawn to meet the lower edge of the upper garden, we planted seven dwarf Hinoki cypress (a Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivar) and added a new white-flowering Camellia japonica to make the existing pair a threesome. At the lawn edge of the lavender bed, where the stone wall crossed the lawn, I finished the top by alternating Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ and Origanum ‘Kent Beauty.’ In early spring, the tiny crisp pink urn-like shapes of the manzanita blossoms against the dark green foliage are a touching complement to both the stone and the Douglas iris above.

Natives for the Hottest Spot

The full sun shines long and hot on the narrow semi-circular bed edging the tiled patio. The low boxwood hedge bordering the sunken patio was preventing the cool green lawn from reaching the seating area. By removing the hedge, the plane from the top of the patio to the lawn became one.

To embroider this tile edge, we chose California natives that would both thrive in the heat and drape its edges: Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet,’ Artemisia pynocephala ‘David’s Choice’, and Sedum spathulifolium. As they settled in, both sedum and artemisia turned out to be a little too wild for Lee’s taste, and so were replaced with the more refined look of silver thyme (Thymus x citriodora ‘Argenteus’).

Upslope from here, a stone retaining wall was softened with an upright quince (Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Toyo-nishiki’) that bridges the change in height. The lovely, evergreen, garden adaptable Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) takes on the toughest corner, where stone wall, ivy hedge, and flower garden meet, filling it with its inimitable, evenly profuse, graceful mid-green foliage, and native California vitality.

The upper garden is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon and early evening of summer. This rose, herb, sage, and dwarf conifer garden offers a gorgeous floral display mixed with aromatic herbals.

The tiled sitting area cut out of the lawn; behind is the wall of ivy and the walk down from the gate - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-foundations-of-lees-garden-topography-fractals-and-planting-design/#sthash.v5SmPn11.dpuf

The tiled sitting area cut out of the lawn; behind is the wall of ivy and the walk down from the gate

Revealing a Magnificent View

In the lower garden, a visitor chanced upon an expansive, but long hidden view of the San Francisco Bay behind the hebe hedge. Removing the hedge revealed an extraordinary 180° view of the bay. We were filled with awe and amazement, and simultaneously pitched into a new frenzy of design excitement. The cherry tree came down, we built two new retaining walls, added backfill, and extended the lawn to the utmost edge of the property. Though one can debate the appropriateness of any lawn in our summer-dry climate, in this case, the expanded lawn became the silent main event, the new peaceful ground of the central garden, balancing and opening it to the newfound expanse of San Francisco Bay waters—bringing the presence of the bay right into the center of the garden.

Reuben built a Sonoma fieldstone wall to support the west side, and another wall of pressure-treated redwood to hold the backfill for the new lawn, now forty feet at its longest dimension. He topped the bay-view edge with a three-foot-high guard rail to keep the spellbound from tumbling downhill. Day after day, soils for the backfill were carried down from the street on the shoulders of Reuben’s crew to fill behind the walls. We were returning a good percentage of the slope that had been removed to build the house.

The narrow bed in front of the guardrail called for blue gray foliage, dwarf conifers to define and anchor the edge, subtle color to meet the bay’s varied tones, and something to honor the delicacy and delightful charm of the garden’s owner. I chose seven dwarf cryptomerias (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Bandai’), with an Escallonia ‘Compakta’ halfway between them and a Correa ‘Ivory Bells’ on either side of the escallonia. All are dwarf shrubs; future pruning choices would allow for some interesting hedge sculpting. We now had a low border filled with two white-flowering silver-leafed shrubs (Correa) and one red-flowered evergreen (Escallonia), filling in around conifers with reddish branch tips (Cryptomeria). Add to that the delicate tracery of fragrant jasmine (Jasmine polyanthum) trained along the redwood guardrail. The foliage effect is cool, subtly colored and textured; its fence-top embroidery, fragrant, white, and pink.

The Spell of the Northwest

While nosing around for plants at a local nursery, I fell hard for a shipment of ‘Emerald’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’) from Oregon. Though native to the Eastern states, it evokes the Northwest’s majestic conifers. The thick, soft evergreen foliage was perfectly balanced and the plants flawlessly grown in their nursery containers. Now, the spell of the Oregon coast from Grandmother Idy’s garden was invoked, as five eight-foot-tall specimens were wheeled down the concrete steps on dollies.

They filled the front of a new bed bordering the neighbor’s property, as part of a semi-formal space, framed by coast live oaks and open to the deep expanses of the bay. The shade on this bed is mitigated by the bay’s reflected light, with Camellia japonica ‘Silver Waves’ planted behind and between the arborvitae. With a curved hardwood bench in this now deeply peaceful corner, we have a contrapuntal complement to the perfumed exuberance of the upper garden beds.

Having watched two beloved Irish yews slowly die from root suffocation in the sticky clay of Marin County, I was careful to evaluate the drainage and was pleased to find loose decomposed sandstone a couple of feet below the fill. We removed two feet of compacted topfill, creating a wide trench, which we penetrated with spading forks to further loosen before backfilling with a mixture of native sandstone, humic peat, crushed red lava rock, redwood compost, and green sand.

Disguising Chain-link

To mask a new (required) ten-foot-tall chainlink fence along the property line, and to provide support for vines, we harvested timber bamboo from nearby Green Gulch Farm’s grove to wire on the diagonal at two-foot centers across the length of the fence.

I learned from both Alan and my first assistant that you can manage vines and their supports easily if, from the outset, you tie them only onto the outside of their support and prevent them from ever growing through, around or behind the support. On the diagonal bamboo poles, we planted a repeating pattern of Clematis armandii for its evergreen leaf and fragrant white flowers, Akebia quinata ‘Alba’ for its lovely, mid-green, palmately divided leaves and fragrant white flowers, and deciduous wild grape (Vitis californica) for its wood and red autumn leaves. Each was trained to the front surface of the bamboo (no twining around the chain-link) and requires only a yearly shearing to bring it back to the plane of the support, never bunching, tangling, or breaking it.

Across the front of the house, for a sparkle of color and fire below the espaliered evergreen pears (plus some masking of the home’s foundations), we planted Rosa ‘Joseph’s Coat’ for its coppery red flowers, pegging down the stems as low arching canes to encourage maximum flowering. To the right of the entrance, where the beds were wider, arching canes of evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium) anchor and complement the rose; across the base of the bed is a stand of blueberries. At the front of these beds, stretching across the full width of the house, is a sweep of Achillea ‘Moonshine’, with large, flat, pale yellow floral heads standing straight on strong stems.

View from the gate down into Lee’s garden

View from the gate down into Lee’s garden

Revisiting this garden during the second summer of its renovation, I was impressed with the vigor, health, and beauty of all the plantings—a deeply rooted expression of a life force I have seen in only one other garden, that of the Zen Center’s gardens at Green Gulch Farm. The payoff for the time we took for bed preparation, the depth of the tilling, and the quality of added soils and amendments has been enormous.

The contribution that such a garden makes to its visitors and its watershed is unparalleled in my view. Lee’s garden is truly alive, an expression of the value of the world of plants to humans and our interrelatedness with them. Flowers are the starlight of the earth.