Magic mountain: strong lines and bold arches transform a California hillside
‘FIVE ACRES +/-. Old home,” was all the sign said. It was a cold, wet November evening on Sonoma Mountain, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, and it was growing dark. But my wife and I were tempted, and turned in for a look. The house and land were both old and derelict. Along with our disappointment at the state of the property, however, came the realization that we were never going to find paradise ready-made. The extent to which we would make our dream a reality would depend on our ability to transform what we were given. But was this the raw material?
Having decided that this was the place where we would live and stay, the process of transformation began. I immediately started drawing the lines and laying out the spaces. The orchard would be an essential element. We had room for a meadow and, of course, there was to be a real garden–not one of the “landscaped yards” I saw all around me, but a creation to involve, indulge, and reward us for the next 30 years. It would be a compilation of stored images–fragments of old gardens, memories of summer days at friends’ homes. But the garden grew from subliminal promptings as well as conscious memories. There was no Master Plan.
Our turn-of-the-century house sits at the edge of a meadow a thousand feet up the northeast face of the mountain, cradled between wooded slopes of oak, madrona, and bay. At this elevation we avoid the worst summer heat and the killing frosts of the valley below; and the climate allows gardeners to grow a sometimes stupefying wealth of plants–apples and oranges in the same orchard, perennials from the Canary Islands, tender roses, tree dahlias from Mexico. And yet there is enough frost to whiten the lawn and give flavor to the winter vegetables.
As with many country properties, the first issue to be addressed was what to keep of a mass of native trees and the remnants of an old garden. The 80-foot bays, which surrounded the house like guardsmen, the giant live oaks, mahogany-barked madronas, and the two towering redwoods were to stay and become the overspanning architecture for the garden below. An ancient fig tree, some large camellia bushes, and a huge fountain-shaped pyracantha (now draped with ‘Belle Portugaise’ and ‘Silver Moon’ roses) became starting points for the new borders, structural elements to pin them together. We also kept a pair of Persian lilacs and an old hybrid perpetual rose because they were nostalgic links with the garden that once was, and the people who lived here before.
Despite its 80 years on the spot and the assortment of trees spread about the property, the house lacked the essential connection to the earth that gives any structure a sense of belonging in the landscape. The walls dropped abruptly to the ground. You were either inside or out–there was no middle ground. And the outside was a mess of asphalt, Bermuda grass, and chain-link fences. All that was to go, as I extended the house out into the garden and introduced the garden to the house.
We built steps to sit on, arbors to sit under, and decks to link them and provide a transition between house and garden. In the process we allowed ample space for benches, for tables–to sit at and enjoy meals from the simple to the grand (a guest later wrote of the delight she felt at the sight of rose petals falling into her soup)–and for hammocks to nap in after a weekend lunch.
Then came the plantings to cover these structures and embower the space. We chose wisteria and roses–deciduous climbers that create dappled light and shade throughout the summer and then turn yellow and drop, letting the low light flood in and illuminate the inside of the house in the winter.
We trained the vines around the windows to make green friezes of backlit foliage and impart a sylvan, Pan-like feel to the interior of the house. We draped roses over railings and around bench backs, and let the trunks of wisterias wind around the porch posts, so that in time they would become a living support system for the house.
Next came the need for a protective envelope for the central space. This took the form of a series of wide borders encircling a level lawn, which itself wraps around two sides of the house. These borders, in turn, are backed by a curving, 120-foot-long rose pergola. Anchored at one end by a pair of redwoods that grow within the garden, the pergola leads the eye in a graceful and ordered progression toward a larger stand of redwoods across the road, visually binding together these two vertical features. At the far end it terminates in a massive arch hung with the blush white garlands of a pair of ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ roses.
The pergola fulfills a number of roles. It provides a framework that enables me to grow some of the grander climbing roses that I love. It ties the garden together, enclosing everything in its reach, without excluding the wooded slopes that rise behind it. It provides a perfect backdrop for the borders in front, and also introduces a vertical element to the picture, allowing you to look up to blooms high above your head. I let the longest canes hang down and mingle with the roses in the border. In this way swags of intermingled blossoms sweep up and down between the levels in great floral waves. Seen from the other side, the pergola produces a waterfall of bloom some 15 feet high that cascades down into the meadow. The walkway beneath the pergola is a wide, shady path from which to look through the borders and back toward the house. When the roses are in full bloom the pergola resembles nothing so much as a giant weeping standard. It is a quintessential garden structure, combining both aesthetic form and horticultural function.
The borders themselves are planted with a variety of shrubs, roses, and perennials, with additional groups of bulbs. Star magnolia, Jerusalem sage (crowned with Clematis texensis ‘Duchess of Albany’), Rosa californica ‘Plena’, a yellow-leaved form of choisya, and abutilons are a few of the shrubs. Hybrid musk roses–‘Felicia’, ‘Penelope’, ‘Autumn Delight’, and ‘Pax’–serve as cornerstone plantings. Groups of dwarf boxwood, myrtle, and small-leaved pittosporum fulfill the essential evergreen requirement. Unusual for California, where the penchant is for year-round gardens, deciduous plants predominate. I prefer to see the passage of the seasons and delight in the dormancy of winter.
Beyond the borders and the rose arch you reach a wilder, less controlled part of the garden. Here the grass grows long and the roses luxuriate as loose, informal shrubs, spread among the apple trees in an attempt to recapture the feeling of the blowsy, half-overgrown gardens that made such an impression on me in my youth. I call it the Rose Orchard, and interweave it with mown paths that wind through the tall grass. The roses arch over into the paths, needing to be pushed aside as you pass, and spilling their petals in the process. By the middle of May the hillsides here in California have begun to turn gold, and the combination of pink and purple swags of old roses hanging heavily down into orchard grass, especially on a dewy morning, creates a picture as fine as anything in formal gardening. This is the place for a hammock and a good book, and it’s the part of the garden that children naturally seek out.
One of the more enjoyable but less predictable aspects of the garden is how it grows and matures and what repercussions this has for plantings. Spaces come and go. Plants that I was determined to find a place for outgrow their roles and are moved. Maintaining the balance between solids and voids and recognizing the need for the spatial energy that this balance creates in a garden is an important lesson, which you must keep relearning as a gardener. There’s always a plant waiting to fill a space, and soon there are no spaces. So ultimately what you leave out becomes as important as what you plant. You prune up to create canopies, which, in turn, open up new avenues of sight and suggest the line for a new path. But canopies axiomatically produce shade and soon you find yourself chasing the sun. Every year, just when I think I have it finished, my garden presents me with these new opportunities.
The sense of magic that we experience in the finest gardens comes, it seems to me, not from any particular combination of flowering plants but from the subliminal awareness of being in a special space. And that is created by just a few things: a feeling of enclosure, or embowerment, of that balance between what’s planted and what’s left out, from the feeling of being led to places beyond, and by the visual enticement of windows through to other worlds. And how you achieve this state–weave this magic–has been the focus of my work for the last 10 years.
I try to garden in as naturalistic a way as I can. I try to be responsive to the demands of the landscape and climate and yet stay in touch with my English gardening heritage. So I use existing native trees as part of the garden architecture and mix in plants in what I see as natural and complementary ways. These are Californian, not English, meadows, of course, but both plants and cultures commingle happily and come to lie down together in the garden.