What would you do with this garden?

bahia(SF Bay Area)May 22, 2011

I thought it might be fun to solicit opinions on how to tweak this front garden to best accent the house, and get a sense of how others would approach this redesign. To give a bit of information, it is in northern California with a zone 10a climate, has automatic irrigation already in place for a lawn that is more meadow than pure grass, sandy loam soils, faces northeast, and is flanked by two relatively young Coast Live Oak trees that were volunteers planted by the birds. Coast Live Oak woodland, Quercus agrifolia, are the default tree canopy in this town if the gardener doesn't keep them weeded out, they thrive here and once covered the entire town. In general, Coast Live Oaks are intolerant of summer irrigation within their canopy, but young trees that have grown up with irrigation and have good drainage generally do tolerate summer irrigation without killing them over time.

The owners recently moved into this Victorian after completely restoring another smaller Victorian in the same neighborhood, and jumped at the opportunity to have a nearly double wide lot and larger home with guest cottage in the back. They have 3 young daughters, keep chickens and rabbits in the back yard, and would like as much edible fruit and perennial veggies as possible. This would include subtropical fruits and veggies that could be expected to do well here. The entire back garden is also fenced with an 8 foot tall fence which presents opportunities for ornamental/edible vines. There is also a huge 100 year old Avocado tree in the backyard, which is almost something out of the Swiss Family Robinson book.

To the right of the driveway, this existing patch of lawn is in play for potential additional garden or edibles, but the main lawn area is sacrosanct for ball play and volleyball games, perhaps a small strip at the front sidewalk could be given over to garden, or enclosed with a low fence and gate.

Surrounding homes and gardens are a varied lot of old Victorians and newer 1930's bungalows, with lots of Rhododendrons, Hydrangeas, Azaleas and Roses in gardens here. The majority of existing plantings in this front garden are higher water usage plants, but the owners would like to reduce watering as much as possible for new plantings, but aren't necessarily onboard to remove perfectly fine plants and trees that aren't water conserving. Lots of old fashioned deciduous flowering shrubs here, including Deutzia, Spiraea, Snowball Viburnum, Flowering Dogwoods, Flowering Cherry, Hydrangeas, Wisteria, etc. The previous owner also added a Jacaranda street tree by the street, which is already blooming size.

Would you make significant changes, leave it alone; in general, how would you approach this garden redesign? Initially I was simply asked to make sure the irrigation system was operational and fix/improve it as necessary, and find spots for some new fruit trees and other edibles, and also an area for roses. I'll post some photos of what I did end up installing after a few months of growing time, things look pretty much like sticks at the moment. In the meantime, what might you do given this design program and such a beautifully proportioned old Victorian home that is the grand dame of the block?

Here is a link that might be useful: New garden for a Victorian home in California

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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I love the house! Where I grew up, a house like that would be painted in stronger colors though. Your area is so foreign/exotic to me - I have no idea what most of the plants you name are like or what growing conditions are like.

The one thing that jumps out at me in the view of the front of the house is that gate with the circular lattice insert - could that insert be changed to a shape that mimics the long oval window/door(?) above the front door? The circle and that long oval don't seem to go well together.

What is the pattern in the 'hellstrip' made of? Plants or some hardscape or is it a painted thing? You mentioned the possiility of a fence across the front... Some sort of black wrought iron would seem appropriate for the period of the house and black might pick up on whatever the dark stuff is in the hellstrip.

Amusing that you have to research chicken-proof plants! When I was little, there was a large fenced area in front of my grandparents henhouse. I remember that area as having great rhubarb, red currents and gooseberries :-) (I have a fabulous recipe for red current pie...)

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 8:02PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I would think that the majority of the plants mentioned except for the Jacaranda, Avocado and Coast Live Oaks would be immediately familiar, as they are all staples of the northeastern/Mid-Atlantic shrub borders, as are Flowering Cherries and Flowering Dogwood trees. The ground cover in the hell strip is just a particularly dark bark mulch, with a few flagstone pavers for exiting the car. This area has been freshly weeded, converted to drip soaker lines from conventional spray irrigation, but planting in this area will be one of the last areas to tackle, not a priority for the clients. Interesting to see your focus on the circle at the gates; I rather liked this detail and didn't envision changing it at all. I think it does have a more subtle tie in with the existing stained glass windows of the house, which have a curved inset border within the frames. While I certainly do like bold colors, I wouldn't want to see the house colors changed, and I also think the owners are quite content with the current colors. Not to mention that detailed painting of an old Victorian can cost a small fortune to do, lots of details

Period fencing here in California would generally have a combination of low 12 inch tall concrete wall with an embossed pattern with painted black wrought iron gates and fence panels. One of my initial ideas was to do just a gate with columns at the walk, and use a very full perennial border at the lawn's edge to give the suggestion of enclosure and fencing,(rather than an entire fence) and repeat these plantings with lower plantings at the parkway or hell strip.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 9:08PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I wasn't suggesting painting the house - just commenting that I'm more used to seeing houses like that in darker/stronger colors. It's an East Coast thing... (My DH's jaw dropped when I painted our dining room raspberry red - he comes from a paint-it-white/cream/beige tradition and I come from a strong color tradition...)

Yes, some of the plants you listed are familar but those ones are obviously not the basic palette you work with there and I have no idea how comfortably the familiar plants work with the local plants - I assume there would be somewhat of a disconnect because of the difference in culture requirements.

The hellstrip, what I could see of it, looked interesting. Once again, I wasn't suggesting changes, just noting that the dark color there would probably go well with a dark wrought iron fence (I like a 'hammered' gray-black on iron rather than a solid black.) I like the iron fences above a base of some sort - I'm nore familiar with the base part being stone or brick than concrete but that's immaterial - would the concrete be colored to match the house?

Given the children using the front garden for active play, I assumed a full with fence would be necessary for safety.

The fence/gate circle vs oval is a bit like fingernails on a blackboard for me :-) If it was my property, I'd definely change the fence to better reflect that striking window/door shape. But if it doesn't bother the client, then there's no point in changing it.

(I've said before... I know I couldn't do landscape design for others; I'm too ideosyncratic!)

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 10:46PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

We can actually grow a lot of back east style deciduous flowering shrubs here, being a sort of transitional climatic zone between the cooler winter PNW and the more subtropical or true Mediterranean Climate of southern California. I'll admit to a bias against most large deciduous flowering shrubs as garden mainstays, I prefer to use them more sparingly as accents. A chartreuse foliaged Smoke Bush, Cotinus coggygria 'Golden Spirit' was a perfect addition to the front foundation plantings to light up a dark corner, especially when it catches some mid morning sunlight to make it glow.

There is even some Lilac blooming in their old garden, that I will be taking cuttings of to bring into the new garden. Renata wasn't particularly interested in other new lilacs for this garden, but has a sentimental attachment to the old one which was a cutting from her mom's garden in Santa Barbara. We've also moved a Hachiya Persimmon tree, artichoke plants and a fruiting Passion vine from the old garden to the new one, as well as adding more southern Highbush Blueberries, a Mandarin orange, and several new 4 and 5 in one grafted fruit trees. Seeing a beautiful if expensive weeping fruiting Mulberry tree at a local nursery, I knew this had to go into the new garden, and replaces a relocated Red Leafed Japanese Maple by the fountain in the backyard. I'm finding more and more of my clients also want edibles incorporated into the garden, and I am happy to oblige. I get to nibble the blueberries and alpine strawberries on every visit now,(would you believe blueberries already in early April?, and my crew never leave a job site without bags full of oranges, lemons, figs, or apples, or more exotic fruits such as Pineapple guavas or Kiwis or whatever else is fruiting, and now fresh eggs. We've all become gleaners over the past few years.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 11:25PM
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Looking forward to the "after" pics - shall we see a total makeover?
I would probably plant a mix of strawberries, fennel, sage, lavender, chives and other edibles in every lawn area that I was allowed to replace; dot it with groups of tall alliums and other bulbs here and there, maybe take out the small tree at the left window and replace with a lower, drought-tolerant, possibly fruit-bearing shrub. The tree could find a new place in the hell strip along with an evergreen ground cover. The gate doesn't bother me - I find the seeming mismatch to be part of the charm of old houses like this.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 6:01AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Funny, I live in a Victorian myself in a neighbourhood of Victorians (though not as nice as this) and I can't come up with an idea to save my life. I do know I don't like the flowering cherry where it is.

I believe Victorian gardening wasn't really about suiting the house but just an extension of the busy/ornate aesthetic into the garden. That's what I've done with my own, and what most of us do around here - garden it up.


    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 12:55PM
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I didn't notice the oval circle mismatch so much as the painted house and unpainted fence mismatch. I would paint the whole fence and not just the little cap and window.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 1:48PM
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I don't know whether to swoon at the gardening possibilities or hyperventilate at the thought of maintenance!

I am interested in how to balance the aesthetics of the Victorian, and perhaps the neighborhood expectations, with a passion for producing as much edibles as possible (or whatever proportions are desired). The front appears the most sunny but also of course the most public. Espaliering fruit trees has not only advantages of formality and decorativeness, but preserves more sun exposure to plant other things nearby. Will they want to aim toward the more decorative of the edibles and ones that look good for more of the season, or allow it to all "hang out" at times in the interest of serious veggie gardening? Will there be an interest in a more formal potager-type look or combining edibles and ornamentalsW ould you mitigate the more utilitarian aspects of fruit and veggie gardening with more formal hardscape surrounding or borders of boxwood or something? I have also made judicious use of container gardening for greens and other seasonal produce since you can move containers about to chase the sun and/or some items require getting off to a good start in sun but can continue to grow in less; but I don't know anything about this zone and climate--also I confess that in order for that to work I have to use plastic-type (though really expensive plastic, I might add) containers in order to be portable. Also are the chickens confined to the back yard, so that certain things can be managed in the front yard?

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 1:49PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Frankie, your concerns and approach probably most closely mirror the internal debate I went through before redesigning the plantings. I did end up adding several fruit trees to the right side of the driveway, removing that entire lawn area, and combined these with artichokes, roses and lavenders mixed with annuals and succulents to replace the lawn area, and a fence with grape vines along the side property line. If I had my druthers, I probably would have added some more formal parterres of boxwood or clipped/hedged English Lavender as well, but the owner wasn't really concerned about it not fitting in. You are absolutely correct that the front yard area has the most sun, although the raised veggie beds in the back garden will eventually expand into the adjacent lawn area, or at least I've suggested this. The owners also intend to demolish the large existing raised deck and do a smaller deck landing and stairs down to the garden below, not really liking the effect of being above the garden and exposed to the neighbors view as it is now.

Chickens are intended to be confined to the backyard only, and we have had some initial problems with them eating new plants. I think they are getting back for having been confined in that small coop for the past month! Previously they were more selective about the damage they caused, and I guess I wasn't cautious enough about some of the new selections. I've asked the owners to keep them confined to one area in the back garden for at least the first 6 weeks, to give the new plantings time to get some size and better resist their pecking at them.

The front lawn may eventually be converted to a lower water use no-mow lawn/meadow, as it is mostly weedy grass species and dandelions at present, and while we did take out a fair amount of overgrown and straggly former hedges that had become small trees in the back garden near the fountain, removing or relocating trees in front were not in play. I agree with KarenL that that flowering cherry isn't the best placed tree, nor well shaped, but I worked with it and the dogwoods as a given. The Coast Live Oaks will be significantly thinned come fall, which will make them seem less oppressively massive, and also benefit the understory plantings below.

Painting fences isn't done much here, unless it is more the picket fence style, and personally the contrast between raw redwood aged to gray and the house doesn't bother me, I see it as the norm around here. My take on Victorian style gardens taken into the present is to continue the ecclectic planting choices common to the era, but also try and give a bit more continuity to the design. If there hadn't already been so much mature plantings that demand summer irrigation to thrive, I would have steered this garden towards more drought tolerant plants and California natives. It wouldn't have worked well with so many Hydrangeas, Japanese Maples, Flowering Dogwoods all accustomed to spray irrigation, so I only converted the hell strip to drip irrigation, and everything else was left as conventional spray irrigation.

I am hoping that at some point there will be a phase two with this front garden, switching out the lawn, adding a colorful perennial flower/shrub border across the lawn at the street, perhaps a new gate at the front walk, planting up the hellstrip, etc. I don't think I'll add any photos for this garden until it has filled in a bit. Not much charm in seeing lots of mulch and tiny plants, but it will be an explosion of color in another 6 weeks or so. Also not a pretty sight to see how I hacked back transplanted roses and hydrangeas to bare stubs after moving them around, and was also very rough with my moving/dividing perennials such as Alstroemeria, Achillea, Tulbaghia, Anemone japonica, etc. Fortunately as the client already knows the results I can get even when things first planted don't look "prime", I didn't have to be worried that the garden looked full of cut back bare stems. Even 5 foot tall artichokes were cut back to the roots after moving them, but I'm confident they will look great again in just a month or so. One of the pleasures of working in such a balmy coastal climate, Alameda has spring-like weather without heat waves nearly all summer long.

The photo link is of one of the perennials I've added throughout the front planting beds for a blast of purples and blues next spring, Florist Cineraria which self sows like a weed here, and stays in bloom for 4 to 5 months in winter through late spring, and is great foliage filler when not blooming.

Here is a link that might be useful: Perennial color for shade

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 2:37PM
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It is great when you work with someone who knows something about plants and shrubs and you do not have to appease their imagined concerns as well as real concerns. Otherwise you have the sort of false-front plantings to soothe someone when you could be concentrating on real achievements.

I have my fantasy farmer life, in which I would like major row crops, and my real life, which currently lends itself best to wandering out to pick some cherry tomatoes and herbs and snip greens which will still be about the same a week from today as today or to my famous collard greens which I could harvest before, during or after snowfall, fall, or spring and none the worse for it. So clients too may help you figure out what types of "crops" give the most bang for buck or pleasure for work.

I am interested in their removal of the high deck. I live in an area of lots of high decks and had one at my former house. It was very nice, in the trees, but it is very frustrating for a "gardener" as all my efforts were "down below". I am now much more enamoured of the types of homes that have courtyards, doors and windows on the level looking out into garden, etc. and these would be my dream home indoor-outdoor combinations. Very difficult in uneven terrain, though.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 3:36PM
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