The Secret is Finding the Right Landscape Designer

By: Andrea Testa-Vought

Andrea Testa-Vought lives with her husband and two teenage children in Palo Alto, California, where she enjoys gardening in her…

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The long view of the side yard, with grasses and restios unify- ing the plantings; beyond the bubbling terracotta fountain sit the Adirondack chairs in a cool corner favored by the owners. Photographs by Jason Liske, except as noted

The long view of the side yard, with grasses and restios unifying the plantings; beyond the bubbling terracotta fountain sit the Adirondack chairs in a cool corner favored by the owners. Photographs by Jason Liske, except as noted

The existing garden was definitely not a selling point when we purchased the property in 1994. The 1947 ranch-style house was typical of this older neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, as was its traditional suburban landscape of water-demanding roses, camellias, azaleas, and an expanse of green lawn. The central courtyard held a large brick patio, a wooden trellis hung with wisteria, aging fruit trees, overly fussy, and needed more water than we were willing to provide. The large back yard had been untended for years and was not even accessible from the house. We removed more than a dozen large eucalyptus trees over several years, in preparation for the future landscape. For the new garden, we wanted a sustainable landscape that would reflect the natural surroundings of our creekside property, a habitat rich with native flora and fauna.

We remodeled our home with a goal of opening the house to the garden, taking advantage of a California climate that encourages outdoor living (Sunset zone 15/17). Broad, sliding glass doors replaced small windows to allow easy access outside from almost every room, but particularly from kitchen to dining court, bedroom to poolside and creek view. The challenge was to find a designer to help us achieve our goal of integrating house and garden in a water-wise aesthetic suited to our mediterranean climate. After several false starts, we found a garden designer who shared our enthusiasm and commitment to this ideal, and who brought to the table expertise, vitality, and a willingness to break boundaries.

Fleshy leafed succulents, like blue gray Senecio mandraliscae and nearly black Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ with its bright yellow flowers, add a lushness to the water- conserving landscape. Photograph by RGT

Fleshy leafed succulents, like blue gray Senecio mandraliscae and nearly black Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ with its bright yellow flowers, add a lushness to the water- conserving landscape. Photograph by RGT

The 1999 Gamble Garden Spring Tour in Palo Alto was a watershed event for us. Bernard Trainor had designed two gardens on the tour that expressed what we were looking for. Bernard’s designs have a rare natural beauty, and a sense that they are extensions of the homes. Because of the flow between each house and its garden, indoor and outdoor rooms eased into one another, and even the smallest areas became magical spaces. We saw how details in hardscape, and careful use of plants, color, and textures all combined to create a sense of quiet harmony and relaxed comfort. It was clear that Bernard was in the vanguard of a movement that celebrates gardening in the “spirit of place.” We had found our dream designer.We were excited to think what he might do with our half-acre property and a home remodeled in that same aesthetic. We had found our dream designer.

A side courtyard becomes a combined kitchen garden and outdoor dining room defined by low walls and an informal crushed stone ground plane

A side courtyard becomes a combined kitchen garden and outdoor dining room defined by low walls and an informal crushed stone ground plane

Process

Bernard worked with us to define and develop a concept for the garden. He got to know us, and to know the needs and desires of our family of four, by spending time listening to us and asking questions. He brought landscape books, journals, and magazines, and urged us to flag images that excited us. A consistent pattern soon emerged for Bernard to build upon. He noted our preference for “wacky” plants, and for outdoor sitting and dining areas in informal and naturalistic settings that clearly reflected the culture and environment of their place. We collected images of beautiful, graveled dining areas in Italy and France, sparse desert plantings that cast bold shadows on the walls of Southwestern homes, and the plants and gardens of North African courtyards and old California missions. After reviewing the ideas that resonated with us most strongly, Bernard fleshed out a concept that became the basis of his design. Construction began one year later and was completed in May 2001.

Bernard used walls and hardscape elements to create separate, distinct places for us within the garden, crafting a series of small spaces that connect to the house and flow into each other, defining the space and the form from inside out. An arbor over the bocce court was designed to gradually bring the viewer’s eye to the borrowed landscape of the eucalyptus trees on the far side of the creek. The low and medium height walls are canvases for light and shadow play, and the plant selections reinforce this. As the days and seasons progress, the shadows and lighting constantly change; their patterns shift across our hardscape and the reflective surface of the pool. The walls also provide seating, shade some of the planting beds during the day, and, after absorbing a day’s worth of heat from the sun, become reservoirs of warmth for the cool evenings.

A view from the covered outdoor living room to the pool terrace; euphorbias, New Zealand flax (Phormium), agaves, and restios pro- vide structure and interest through the year; free-standing walls frame a sculpture by Frank Morbillo, and open views to the creekside beyond

A view from the covered outdoor living room to the pool terrace; euphorbias, New Zealand flax (Phormium), agaves, and restios provide structure and interest through the year; free-standing walls frame a sculpture by Frank Morbillo, and open views to the creekside beyond

The Frosting

We asked for variety in the kinds of plants selected for the garden, and Bernard provided them. But they all share a preference for low water and excellent drainage. Most are native to mediterranean climate areas of the world and tolerate our long, hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.

My favorite groups are the restios, leucadendrons, and aloes from South Africa, grevilleas and acacias from Australia, aeoniums from the Canary Islands, and agaves from the Americas. They are all like children— each one special and wonderful. The plantings follow the rhythm of the seasons. Each has a period on center stage, then recedes into the background to give another group of plants their turn to perform. The olive trees in the front yard greet you, and set the tone for what follows. Among the trees, my favorite is Arbutus ‘Marina’. I love their orange red bark and the way Bernard placed them to serve as living sculptures, their distinctive branch structure casting shadow patterns on wall and pavement. He was able to meet the rigors of our climate by selecting plants that would survive the dry conditions without going dormant or turning brown over the summer. The plants genuinely work with our seasons; even in winter and early spring the garden is aglow with the acid yellow of Euphorbia rigida, the brassy yellow of aeoniums, and the red orange of aloes.

Bernard asserts that all elements in the garden need not be organic, so we placed two pieces of sculpture in the garden. Beyond the pool, between two walls, is a large sculpture called “Wind Dancer” by Frank Morbillo. In the dining courtyard sits “Stone Window” by Derek Hopper. We knew, when we found these pieces at the New Leaf Garden Gallery in Berkeley, that they would grow into the garden as the plants grew around them.

The view from the bedroom wing into the rear garden, with the flat plane of the bocce court in the foreground, subtly enclosed by diagonal beams overhead and by the low walls and gentle steps up to the pool terrace; by lifting the pool terrace, the swimming pool is minimized to a horizontal sliver of deep blue; a simple iron pipe fountain adds the sound of falling water

The view from the bedroom wing into the rear garden, with the flat plane of the bocce court in the foreground, subtly enclosed by diagonal beams overhead and by the low walls and gentle steps up to the pool terrace; by lifting the pool terrace, the swimming pool is minimized to a horizontal sliver of deep blue; a simple iron pipe fountain adds the sound of falling water

The Garden Matures

Bernard got to know us quite well as he refined the concept and finalized the garden’s design. He saw that my daughter was a quiet reader who loved to curl up with a book, and that my son, who was four at the time, was an active boy who enjoyed construction. The bocce court proved to be a wonderful place for children to play ball, play with trucks, and swing. The children have grown older, and it now serves as a perfect place to play catch, ping-pong, or bocce, and even serves as a dance floor during parties in the garden.

As the garden matured, we got to understand it better. We learned which plants worked well, and we added more of them, editing out those less adapted to our specific conditions. We replaced the bronze fennel and many other of our original perennials, which lay dormant in mid-summer, with grevilleas, aloes, and a number of other succulent plants that provide beauty all year long. As the larger trees and plants matured, the original under-plantings of Agastache and Salvia no longer received enough sun; we planted aeoniums in their place. We also realized the need for more vertical elements in the garden, adding Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea aztecorum), several manzanitas (Arctostaphylos), and other plants with a more upright, year-round presence.

The garden was originally surfaced in gravel— beds, pathways, and terraces. Eventually, we realized the need to remove some of the gravel in an area along the boundary fence and under a large overhanging oak, in order to refresh the soil with an organic mulch. This opened up another opportunity to add more plants, many of them California natives, that help create a link from our yard to the creek.

An underground drip irrigation system was installed during construction to get the new plants established. For the past few years, however, we have been weaning trees and older plantings off this system and are trying, instead, to rely only on seasonal rainfall.

Our family enjoys the garden throughout the seasons. Andy and I love to read and observe the long vista of the side garden from chairs under a Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis). My favorite places in the garden change with the time of day, season, and year. On hot summer days, we lounge on the terrace; this secluded, room-like area is a cool, shaded, and quiet retreat in summer; when the trees lose their leaves in winter, the sun warms us in this clearing. We particularly enjoy dining and entertaining in the kitchen garden, on an iron and concrete table designed by Bernard.

Low walls in the side courtyard frame a bubbling terracotta foun- tain; chartreuse Euphorbia rigida and purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria ‘Purpurea’) color the spring garden

Low walls in the side courtyard frame a bubbling terracotta fountain; chartreuse Euphorbia rigida and purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria ‘Purpurea’) color the spring garden

Since the installation of the garden, we have noticed an increased presence of wildlife of all types. Birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and others visit regularly. The activity seems constant: Western tanagers nest above the rear garden, red tail hawks have built an aerie in the tall eucalyptus along the property line, and hummingbirds feed on the nectar-rich flowers, nest in the larger shrubs, and bathe in our fountain.

Tending the garden has become my passion. I spend as much time in it as I can and never think of it as work. Some weeks, I might spend ten hours in the garden, and sometimes less than two. I work closely with a one-woman gardening service and an expert arborist. I love to share the garden with other enthusiasts who visit, and I always tell them that the secret behind a successful garden like ours is to find the right designer