Garden as theater

bahia(SF Bay Area)December 16, 2011

In approaching the design for this garden, I felt it needed a new narrative to live up to the one it had already lived. This was an Oakland hills Fire Zone garden from the huge firestorm back in '91 that destroyed over 500 homes in this neighborhood. The house attached to this garden burnt to the ground, but the existing concrete patios, retaining walls and brick bbq remained, along with a few survivor plants such as the succulent foliaged Bird of Paradise and a Fig tree. This uppermost part of a steep terraced garden had potential panoramic views of the bay and bridges if we only elevated the garden a bit to see over the roof.

Thus came the impetus for creating a stage set raised deck and stairs paved with travertine tile, to take advantage of the views. I was also working around an existing tiered Italianate fountain, trying to both screen views of neighbors while provide them for my clients. Please view some of the other photos in the same set to take a short tour of the entire garden. Succulents and year round vivid color along with edibles were the requests from my clients.

What do you think of the design solutions?

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden as theater

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tibs(5/6 OH)

As always, lovely design and planting. As a planner and bureaucrat involved in regulations, I am always interested in how the rest of the world operates. If this is in a fire zone - are you limited in how close you can plant to the house and the types of plants that you can use? Did they have to reubuild to the same footprint and size?

    Bookmark   December 17, 2011 at 7:43AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Regulations and permitting for rebuilds in the fire zone that didn't rebuild in the original footprint did require more stringent approvals and city reviews. I've had two clients now in the Fire Zone, both approximately 18 years after the fire, so I wasn't part of the big rush to work in this part of the Oakland hills immediately after the disaster. One client, (this one), bought the house from the previous owner who had it rebuilt exactly as it was pre-disaster, down to the 1970's style kitchens and bathrooms. I fail to comprehend how someone could be that sentimental about dated design, but it did mean faster building permit approvals and less hassles with the insurance company, no doubt. Another client hired a prominent southern California architect and built a larger and very modern contemporary sculptural home with metal roofs, copper cladding on the walls, the whole works.

For both homes and gardens, by the time I was hired to redesign the gardens, the neighborhoods were looking well established again 16 years after the fire. There was no requirement at this stage to submit plans for approvals by the city of Oakland for landscaping. My designs obviously incorporated landscape fire safety principles as a matter of priority. I did suggest major thinning of existing live oaks in proximity, removal of other trees too close to the house, no use of flammable exposed wood fences or decks and a preference for concrete, stone, tile as hard scape materials over wood, and massive use of succulents and less woody shrubs and trees in general. We also used drip irrigation to maintain the garden as well hydrated year round, and I only used California natives with less irrigation as the distance increased from the house at the upper hillsides at the second project, which bordered on open grass and oak woodland open space.(see my Flickr set labeled Drager Residence if you're interested in seeing another fire zone garden design of mine).

The lesson I took away from the Oakland Hills Fire is that everything will burn if the winds are driving the fire in such a hillside situation, all one can do is minimize the risks under a less intensive fire situation. Of the existing tree canopy, it seemed that only the native Live Oaks and cultivated Coast Redwoods survived the fire to continue growing, and are relatively safe trees to have in the garden, but still need thinning, limbing up and removal of dead wood and debris to make them as safe as possible. I also like the idea of surrounding the home with hard scape materials that can't/won't burn, and using low masonry walls/benches to create fire walls when possible. All trees are limbed up to avoid creating an easy fire ladder for a grass fire to spread. I avoided using native California plants that can't tolerate some degree of summer drip irrigation for the most part, as I wanted to keep plantings actively growing and with higher water content at the height of summer into late fall, when fires are most likely.

The suggestions for better fire safety in the hills area generally recommend no trees within 30 feet of the house, but this is almost universally ignored 20 years out. For one instance, front and back yards are typically only 20 to 30 feet deep, and side yards are typically only 4 to 5 feet wide for most lots. The cities of Oakland and Berkeley are pragmatic enough to realize they could never enforce a "no-trees within 30 feet of structures" edict, so focus on annual neighborhood inspections to keep dried grasses cropped and trees and vegetation thinned out as appropriate. Neighbors are often the source for complaints about not adhering to fire safety principles, but not all neighborhoods are as vigilant.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2011 at 12:42PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Hello David,
Thanks for posting these garden photos. This is one of your designs that I have not seen before and I am really enjoying it.

As always, I love your planting schemes and plant choice.
I thought the way you incorporated existing elements was creative.

I'm not a fan of the tiered lion fountain. It's not my aesthetic, but I think you did a great job planting around it.

If this garden is ever offered up on one of your garden tours I would enjoy the opportunity to see it. It certainly looks like you took advantage of the viewing opportunities and was sensitive to planting plants for this hillside fire zone.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2011 at 11:51PM
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tibs(5/6 OH)

Thanks for the info. Bureaucrats all over seem to make laws that are not feasible to inforce. No trees within 30' of structures and the yards are only 30" deep?!

    Bookmark   December 18, 2011 at 8:29PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Michelle, I thought you had seen this garden on the October, 2010 tour, I added it as an afterthought right after the garden on Wood and before the drive up Shephard Canyon, but I guess you didn't see it? No problems with arranging a personal tour, as I continue to do ongoing work on the garden, so anytime you're over this way...

    Bookmark   December 19, 2011 at 2:25AM
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