While writing a travel guide for garden lovers, I dreamed about relocating to the San Francisco Bay area and gardening in its lush climate. In 1999, we moved unexpectedly from our Chicago neighborhood to a small town in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Although this meant saying a bittersweet goodbye to the Lilliputian plot I’d tended for two decades, the prospect of gardening year-round thrilled me.One Sunday we found a small house on a busy street with a formidable stucco wall buffering it from traffic. A “For Sale” sign flanked by palm trees beckoned us. Impulsively I phoned the real estate agent, who proposed a meeting straightaway.
Entering the enclosed front patio, we found the palms surrounded by wild vegetation. I marched to the rear of the house, where French doors opened onto a small porch overlooking a forlorn yard. Littered with old lawn chairs and forgotten children’s toys, the weedy overgrowth was being used as a hangout for neighborhood and transient cats. Still, the promise of a new garden began to sprout that very day, when in my mind’s eye, I transformed the parched, infertile dirt into dark, rich soil ready for planting.
Digging and planning
As the El Niño rains of 1999 poured down on California, we moved from a temporary apartment into our new home. Almost immediately, my husband assumed the back-breaking task of digging out the back yard’s overgrown brambles, rampant ivy, and undesirable old shrubs while I charted a garden plan. On paper, I arranged island planting beds, borders, and meandering gravel pathways. To delineate the beds and borders and accentuate the serpentine contours of the landscape, I opted for a combination of warm-hued paving stones and large decorative rocks.
After discovering concrete rubble and other debris hidden just beneath the ground, my husband and I nixed the idea of renting a tiller and turned to our trusty shovels to dig out the rubble and cart it away. The steady rain loosed the compacted soil, allowing me to lift and remove section after section of weedy turf.
Our “hands-on” approach to digging the garden educated me about the heavy clay soil, so unlike Chicago’s sandy loam. Working in the garden, I developed a comforting cadence: first, I would define an area to be planted; next, eradicate the top layer of weeds; and finally, deeply cultivate the soil and add large amounts of compost, manure, and a ready-mix amendment. This method raised the soil level and greatly improved the drainage.
Planting bed by bed
With my plan in hand, I started planting with a long border of drought-tolerant herbs and perennials at the western boundary. We rescued a rambunctious old climbing rose from a suffocating thicket of weeds; freed from its camouflage, it now anchors the entryway to this border. Next to the rose I planted a tree mallow with pink flowers resembling single hollyhocks. Further down, I put in an airy stand of bronze fennel, a tall purple hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’) and a handsome rosemary shrub.
Today, a melange of herbs spills over the sun-drenched entrance path. Native ceremonial sage consorts with Malva sylvestris and vivid rose campion, while the felted chartreuse leaves of ‘Primrose Heron’ lamb’s-ears, silvery artemisia, and helicrysum offer luminous contrast. Jasmine, golden hop vine, and a variegated potato vine scramble up trellises.
Because most plants have medicinal, domestic, or culinary uses, I tend to think about herbs in the broadest context and to intersperse them throughout the garden rather than reserve a separate space for them. Whenever I find interesting new plants, I research their herbal heritage, but when it comes to locating them in the garden, I put the priority on where they’ll look good and grow well.
Today the kitchen window overlooks a narrow bed that faces the rose. Culinary compatriots such as arugula, mesclun mix, colorful chard, and mustard greens await harvest here. In one corner is a billowy mound of variegated oregano. Alongside, a diminutive ornamental fence helps contain a medley of tarragon, winter savory, green onions, and chives. Dianthus, dwarf iris, long-blooming cranesbills, and nodding blue borage blooms add color amid the greenery.
A glossy privet is one of the few plants remaining from the property’s previous life. Centered along the back fence, it forms a shady canopy over the gravel patio. Beneath the privet’s feathery flower clusters my husband and I enjoy leisurely summer meals, surrounded by aromatic herbs. The garden has become an outdoor room that expands the living space of our small house.
Crazy for color
I like to personalize my garden space with bright colors. In Chicago I painted doors and shutters in brilliant red enamel, brightening the garden during long months of ice and snow. In San Francisco, the climate and landscape recall the Mediterranean, so I turned to a saturated blue-green for an arbor.
Just beyond the French doors, I applied the same paint in a thin wash on a low stucco wall, creating a luminous backdrop for a bed of silver-gray plants including Russian sage, catmint, alliums, and most striking of all, the jagged-edged leaves and enormous purple flower heads of artichokes grown as ornamentals. Willowy purple stems and glistening white flowers of Artemisia lactiflora ‘Guizhou’, coupled with the shiny burgundy foliage of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias, create a stunning contrast. The tumbling form of a Chinese fringe flower shrub acts as a foil for ‘Berggarten’ sage and the delicate foliage of rue.
Adjacent to the patio, a crescent bed declares my passion for dramatic plant combinations. Glowing golden feverfew, creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), and variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) set off the plum-colored foliage of Cimicifuga simplex ‘Brunette’ and the dark-leaved dahlia, ‘Tasagore’.
Despite my unbridled enthusiasm for foliage, I also dote on flowers. Early in the year, I bask in the conspicuous blooms of lungworts and purple foxgloves. The purple-tinged leaves of the nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ emerge to herald summer. Its radiant red flowers look as glorious in a salad as they do in the garden.
On the other side of the patio, a blue-hued conifer highlights the cypress bed. Lady’s-mantle, golden lemon balm, yarrow, and the yellow-striped leaves of ‘Pretoria’ canna lilies light up this area. An uninhibited pineapple sage attracts hummingbirds throughout the summer and into the fall with its bounteous crimson flower spikes. Bees and butterflies flock to the lilac-colored clusters atop the reed-like stems of towering Verbena bonariensis.
Growing into its second year
During the garden’s first year I had intended to plant only half the space, but once June rolled around I couldn’t bear to look at the unsightly weeds remaining. I cultivated the entire yard and put in a temporary planting of red sunflowers, black hollyhocks, nicotiana, and mullein to fill in one side.
A craving for more flamboyant juxtapositions overtook me as the second summer loomed. That section of the garden is now a blaze of hot colors. Above blushed bronze and vermilion leaves, the flaming orange flowers of ‘Tropicanna’ cannas soar. The boldest specimen is castor bean (Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’), flaunting enormous reddish-brown, deeply toothed leaves, and spiny crimson fruit (be sure this poisonous plant doesn’t grow where children play).
An opulent gray-green carpet of lamb’s-ears serves to cool things down a bit, as do the distinctive blue and pale mauve spikes of salvias and lavenders and the translucent bracts of statuesque clary sage. Passion vines and a rose relative, Rubus rosifolius ‘Coronarius,’ create an emerald curtain at the rear, providing a backdrop for this exuberant spectacle.
Celandine poppies are among the shade plants that I treasure. I grow the European cottage-garden plant, greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), alongside a North American species, Stylophorum diphyllum. Although similar in leaf, the latter has prettier blooms and round bristly seedpods that I find delightful. I recently introduced lesser celandine to the mix: Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ sports deep purple leaves and heaps of cheerful yellow flowers. I happily track the progress of R. repens ‘Buttered Popcorn’, an uninhibited spreader.
Despite numerous endeavors to protect our edible greens, the neighbors’ cats prevailed. So I replaced them with an array of ornamental foliage: golden varieties of meadowsweet and mop-top hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra); variegated pelargoniums ‘Golden Ears’ and ‘Crystal Palace Gem’; the ‘Terrace Lime’ potato vine; and a mock orange. Punctuating those tart tones are the more somber chocolate-brown leaves of Salvia sinaloensis, the festooning vines of ‘Blackie’ sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus), and the glowing red flowers of lobelia ‘Fran Scarlet’.
All the new and unusual plants I’ve discovered here, the challenge of putting in a new garden, and the joys of gardening in a temperate climate have more than made up for the difficulties of the move. The garden very quickly made Marin County seem like home.
Alice Joyce is author of West Coast Gardenwalks: The Best Gardens from San Diego to Vancouver (Michael Kesend Publishing, 2000). In 1997, her Chicago garden was awarded a First Prize in Mayor Daley’s Landscape Awards Program; her Marin County, California, garden was featured two years later in the San Francisco Examiner.