Words by Michelle Slatalla
Mill Valley, Calif. — “Remind me again why we bought this house?” my husband asked. He was standing on the front porch a few days after we finally moved into our cottage here, after the three-year odyssey of buying it, renting it out while an architect drew plans for an addition and, finally, living like nomads with various friends as the promised four months of construction stretched into six.
“For the garden,” I said.
“What garden?” he asked, not unkindly. He was genuinely perplexed.
I love him, but he is not a gardener.
He did not see that this garden was a rare find in our hilly town. For one thing, it had a flat, sunny backyard, which would enable an outdoor living room to connect seamlessly with the kitchen, creating a bonus room during the nine months of the year when the weather is pleasant. And the house was set unusually far back from the street, producing privacy and an illusion that a small, gently sloped front garden was actually large.
Where my husband saw a recently active construction zone with souvenir dirt piles, I could imagine a landscape of rosemary and daphnes in a boxwood maze. Where he saw sad remnants of the contractors’ orange mesh safety fencing, I envisioned a silvery hedge of pittosporum. Where he saw a broken concrete path churned up by the roots of an angry cedar tree (“a lawsuit waiting to happen”), I pictured a neat redbrick walkway marching up to a tiled front stoop.
Also, that cedar tree, the one aspect of the landscape that still looked alive? I saw the tree surgeon coming Monday with a chainsaw.
Creating a garden is a leap of faith because, unlike an interior renovation, a landscape is alive, and that makes it fragile.
A post-apocalyptic landscape is not uncommon after a major renovation. Neither is a tight budget. But lucky for me and my garden, as we moved into this house, I also became the editor of a new gardening website called Gardenista. I am actually supposed to spend my workdays learning how to improve my own garden.
I figured I’d take it slow to avoid making expensive mistakes. But my dogs had other plans. My two tiny papillons, Sticky and Larry, spent their days prancing around the dust field formerly known as the backyard and leaving paw prints all over the newly refinished wood floors.
An emergency bluestone patio put an end to the paw prints by creating a buffer zone between the backyard and house. After agonizing over how to lay the stone, I chose a running bond pattern — simple offset rows of pavers — instead of herringbone and making that first design decision emboldened me.
So now what? Every garden designer needs a plan for hardscape (fixed elements like patios, paths and retaining walls), softscape (the plants) and furnishings — and some inspiration. My plan was to work in stages to keep the budget under control, addressing separately the backyard, front garden and driveway of my small lot.
A main consideration was the water shortage in California: My garden needed to be drought-tolerant as well as beautiful. For inspiration, I had the long-ago gardener who once had lived in my house. As we began to clear vines and underbrush from the perimeter of the property, we uncovered gifts she had left behind, including an ornate metal trellis we transformed into a gate and an old concrete birdbath.
First, I tackled the small back garden. With a bluestone patio in place, we had the beginnings of an outdoor living room. I needed to furnish it (a teak daybed came to the rescue) and turn the rest of the landscape into a serene, calming backdrop. To cover the fence, my husband and I planted espaliered olive trees and white climbing roses in deep garden beds. We limited the use of turf grass to a postage-stamp-sized patch.
By then, I had become obsessed with Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s environmentally conscious meadows of flowering perennials and grasses. When it came time to work on our front garden (where the sudden demise of the cedar tree had opened up a sunny spot), I laid out a miniature meadow inspired by Oudolf’s planting scheme for the High Line in New York City.
With space roughly the size of two football fields, Oudolf had to create a coherent narrative along a route from the West Village to the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. In my front garden, roughly the size of a badminton court, the square footage presented a different challenge: How do you make a small space with a brick path running through the middle of it look like a meadow instead of a muddle?
The solution was to divide the space and to plant the meadow on only one side of the path. In the other half of the front garden is a quieter space where a low hedge of rosemary surrounds a square of boxwood, which encloses a ring of daphnes planted at the base of an olive tree.
I think the reason this juxtaposition of wildness and formality works instead of looking like the crazy experiments of a mad scientist is that the front garden slopes gently up from the street. The change in elevation as you move through the space makes you feel as if you are on a journey, and your eye is drawn to what’s ahead in the distance.
Four years later, the garden is not finished, but happily, a garden never is. Some plants get too big and others fail to thrive. Landscaping is tricky. Half our rosemary hedges died, and if I had to do it over, I would not grout the patio but would lay the bluestone pavers in a permeable base of decomposed granite because there’s less rainwater runoff if it can percolate into the ground.
But these days, I don’t have to remind my husband why we bought this house. I often find him sitting contentedly and playing his guitar on the front porch, overlooking the meadow. He has not mentioned the cedar tree in weeks.
Featured Image: Aya Brackett, The New York Times