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Posts from the ‘edible garden’ Category

Oakland Sloped Garden

looking down

I had the pleasure of working on a job in Oakland where my client’s goal was to salvage as much of the existing landscape as possible. At the same time they really wanted an area for raised beds, a small play area for their little one, and more useable spaces in their sloped garden. It was challenging because the existing landscape had layers of different materials built up over the years with a slick and rickety creosote railroad tie staircase.  Each retaining wall was made from pieces of stacked broken concrete, stone, and wood, creating levels that were not useable.  One thing was for certain, the railroad tie staircase had to go.

BEFORE: creosote railroad tie staircase

BEFORE: creosote railroad tie staircase

M Brace raised bed area looking up slope

AFTER: Timber tie staircase winding up slope

Rebuilding the staircase allowed us to reroute it to maximize existing spaces and to safely access the sloped garden. The old staircase was unnecessarily wide in some parts, eating into valuable useable flat space. The new staircase starts out wide and welcoming near the house, but then narrows into a utilitarian staircase as it winds up the slope to the various garden ‘rooms’.

AFTER: timber tie stair case winds down slope

AFTER: timber tie stair case winds down slope

The first room houses the raised vegetable garden. We kept the existing drystack stone retaining wall because it was in good condition but built out another retaining wall on the downslope to create a flat area for the raised beds. This was the sunniest area in this Oakland garden which was mostly covered in shade from huge Coast Live Oaks and eucalyptus. We used metal ‘L’ brackets called M Brace from Art of the Garden for the raised beds. 2×8 pieces of redwood slip into the metal brackets. The raised beds can be configured into different sizes depending on the space, simply by trimming the wood to the desired length. The frame is then filled with soil and ready to be planted. There’s lots of wildlife in this Oakland backyard so we installed a wire mesh of gopher barrier at the bottom of each of the raised beds before filling with soil. This will prevent any underground gophers and moles from coming up through the bottom of the raised beds and harvesting the veggies for themselves.

The second room was the one-person reading perch. It is nestled under the dappled shade of the Coast Live Oaks and made of two small drystack stone retaining walls. We kept the patio small so as not to disturb the sensitive root systems of the oaks. We were also able to keep all the existing soil on site by not overcutting into slopes and using all the soil fill to create level ‘rooms’.

AFTER: Reading perch under Coase Live Oaks

AFTER: Reading perch under Coast Live Oaks

Walking further up the stairs, the third level room is dedicated to play. There is a small patch of shade loving lawn next to a play area. This level was already established in the existing landscape by the blue rock retaining wall. We were able to enlarge the level area by consolidating two failing shorter stacked concrete retaining walls into one three foot high retaining wall. Above this wall we dedicated to edible plants. We planted a blueberry patch with a mix of different varieties to provide a longer season of harvest with edible thyme to trail over the wall.

AFTER: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone wall

AFTER: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone wall

Finally, at the very top of the sloped garden, you reach the fire pit. This room existed in a dilapidated unusable state before because the huge eucalyptus tree roots had busted open the stone retaining wall. The stone was mortared together, leaving a huge crack right in the middle of the retaining wall. The existing patio underfoot was uneven and hard to access by a small offshoot of a staircase, only 18 inches wide. We reused the existing stacked concrete debris and created a new drystack concrete retaining wall further away from the eucalyptus root. The drystack nature of the retaining wall will move and shift as the roots grow, hopefully, not for a long time since we gave it more room to expand. The floor of the fire pit patio is decomposed granite which will also be forgiving and easy to repair if the roots decide to make an appearance.

BEFORE: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

BEFORE: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

AFTER: fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

AFTER: fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

All throughout this Oakland landscape we inserted fruit trees and edible plants. Rosemary and sage are used in planting beds amongst ornamental perennials. Fragrant lemon verbena and lavender attract hummingbirds. A strawberry patch grows just above the raised vegetable garden area. Kiwi vines grow on the fences. Persimmon, fig, pear, apple, plum, lemon and kumquat trees dot the sloped garden and fight to win the battle against the dense layer of eucalyptus leaves that can easily smother plants.

Towering eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter

Towering eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter

Eucalyptus leaf litter

Eucalyptus leaf litter

Limited sunlight, eucalyptus droppings and a mishmash of materials were all challenges in this Oakland backyard. Thanks to my clients, who were open to trying new things and appreciative of the whimsy and beauty of reusing materials, we were able to create a functional, beautiful and purposeful landscape. The overwhelming slope is safely accessible and provides a daily journey through shadow and light.  This sloped garden, full of wildlife continues to evolve as the plants and trees grow and the raised vegetable garden gets changed through the seasons.


AFTER: View of fire pit room and various new and existing retaining walls. Old stone and concrete are artfully combined with existing broken concrete.

January maintenance tips

Winter in the Bay Area can be a forgetful time in the garden. Since we aren’t necessarily spending our days and evenings outside it’s easy to forget about your garden. However, there are chores that are necessary during the winter months to keep your garden thriving. There are also plenty of fun gardening and enhancement opportunities this time of year too – consider them a bonus! You can ensure a stellar spring garden if you follow these winter gardening tips.

January Maintenance Tips:

Trees and Shrubs: Most shrubs and deciduous shade trees can be pruned now (flowering trees shouldn’t be pruned until after they’ve bloomed) to promote healthy structure and growth during spring time months.
Bonus: Now is a great time to plant fruit trees – bare root trees are now available at many nurseries are typically less expensive than those potted in soil. Dormant fruit trees, like apple, cherry, plum and pear, require a certain amount of hours below 45 degrees to break winter dormancy and produce a healthy crop. Make sure you find the right tree for your microclimate.

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Roses: For your existing roses, prune no more than half of the new growth from the last growing season. Pinching and pruning encourages vigorous new growth.
Bonus: January and February are the best months to plant new roses, and bare root stock is now showing up in Bay Area nurseries. This time of year the stock should be full with desirable varieties.

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Raking: Stay on top of it. Fallen leaves can damage lawns and choke perennials if allowed to sit for too long.
Bonus: Got kids? Consider it a fun day raking the leaves into piles and playing in them. Got (pre -) teenagers? Make them earn their allowance and assign them the weekend chore.

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

A Healthy Lawn: This is a great time of year to aerate and fertilize your lawn. Aeration is a simple process that improves drainage and opens the thatch so water and oxygen can reach the roots. This helps microorganisms thrive and break down accumulated thatch build up. It also helps to reduce compaction which occurs naturally over time. All of this combined improves water absorption, produces deep root growth, and encourages a healthier grass that chokes out weeds. Once aerating is complete, fertilize your lawn to ensure a speedy and healthy recovery.
Bonus: A healthy, well-tended lawn improves the value of your property and the aesthetics of your neighborhood, not to mention the enjoyment a lawn can provide for your family.

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Bonus! Veggies! Lots of vegetables want to be planted in fall and winter for spring harvest- it’s not too late! Some of the best to plant now: asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, peas, spinach and turnips. Year round vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes can be planted now too. Maybe this is your year to create the kitchen garden you always wanted – stick to the resolution to eat more locally and garden more frequently!

Rather not get your hands dirty? Call our maintenance department at (510) 444 -5195 to set up an annual maintenance visit. We can get your garden all spruced up for a spectacular spring.

Bonus! Considering design changes in your garden?! Now is the perfect time to have our designers complete your landscape design plans. Depending on the size and scope of your project a design could take 4 – 6 weeks, giving you plenty of time to design and build your garden for enjoyment this year, as soon as this spring!

Downton Abbey and the English Garden

Well a year has come and gone and a new year is upon us.  For the third year in a row the New Year also brings us a new season of Downton Abbey.   The third season begins this Sunday, January 6th, on PBS.  Along with the intriguing story line and great interiors we are also treated to wonderful views of the landscape surrounding the great English manor house, Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey has used Highclere Castle to film the exterior shots since the series began.  It seems the creators of the show are enchanted by Highclere Castle’s location and frequently include wonderful shots of long views within the estate parkland.   This is understandable since Highclere Castle estate sits on 1,000 acres and dates back to the 8th century.

Charles Barry designed Highclere Castle and building began in1839.  Charles Barry also designed the Houses of Parliament in London.  You can’t help but notice the resemblance.  The Estate is presently owned by the Carnavon family, who acquired it in 1679 from the Bishops of Winchester who had owned the Estate for 800 years.

Before I go over the landscape, I want to go over some of the historical details of the grounds of Highclere Castle.

The 1,000 acre parkland was original designed by Capability Brown at the end of the 18th century.  Capability Brown was a proponent of the more relaxed English garden style and designed close to 170 garden parks and fine country estates.  His style broke away from the traditional formal garden style popular in France.  Capability Brown’s design style attempted to mimic nature; trees and ponds were scattered throughout the landscape.  In addition to the parkland and arboretum, the present garden also contains The Secret Garden and Monks’ Garden.

The current owners, Lady Carnavon and the 8th Earl of Carnavon oversee the Highclere Castle gardens.  The owners not only maintain the original scheme but also actively add to the garden.

The first season of Downton Abbey begins in 1912, at this time the garish display of Victorian bedding plants was out of fashion.  The trend was a more relaxed ‘country house’ style of herbaceous borders and rambling roses.  Lady Carnavon adheres to this relaxed Edwardian garden style in her new planting.

As early as the 13th century fruit trees were planted in the garden.  Today fruit trees (peach, nectarine and quince) can be found trained on the brick garden walls.  Roses, blue and white Agapanthus, Lavender and Penstemons have been added to the undulating borders of The Secret Garden.  Rose varieties include ‘Penny Lane’, Alberic Barbier’ and ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.  Giant white-flowered mophead Hydrangeas also can be found in The Secret Garden.

If you want to capture the feeling of an English garden, regardless of the size of your own garden, there are several key elements to keep in mind.

Use a large variety of plant varieties even in small flowerbeds.  Shrubs and perennials of the same variety should not be planted en masse.  If you do plant en masse, use varieties that seem wild.

Plant perennials that do not need trimming.  Instead choose those that ramble through the border.  Remember that you want to avoid the ‘designer’ look and lean towards a more natural feeling.

Eliminate straight rows and geometric planting patterns for trees and shrubs.  Plant in odd numbers to get away from symmetry and rigid formality.

Pathways and planting beds should be curved.  Avoid straight lines and square beds.  Even hedges should be allowed to grow in a more natural style.

If you decide on using sculpture in the garden, choose something that looks aged.  The piece should be pastoral and peaceful, not new and modern.

Even if we do not live in a grand English estate set in acres of rolling parkland we can still use key design ideas that embrace Capability Brown’s time tested theories.  These ideas can be used regardless of the garden size or location.

In the mean time, with the long winter nights ahead of us, its great to sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold on Downton Abbey.  Once the series has run its course we will be that much closer to spring and spending time in our own gardens.

Can you believe it is October?!?

Happy October – can you believe it?!? Only three more months left to 2012. There are lots of things you can be doing in your garden this month to continue to enjoy it throughout the fall and to get it ready for the upcoming new year. Check out this great article from our friends at Houzz – Northern California Gardener’s October Checklist – reminds us how lucky we are to live in such a great climate where we still can enjoy our gardens.

More Confessions of a Delinquent Gardener

I can’t believe how this month is rushing by. The good news is that I’ve been so busy in my garden, I haven’t been updating my posts. I haven’t achieved my goal of 20 minutes a day in the garden, but i have good reasons! In addition to seeing friends and live music some nights, and being really busy here at work, we went to a great presentation by the good people at, and another great presentation by The Splinter Group at the Moraga Barn. To make up for it, I’ve been spending hours outside on the weekend with my husband and our dogs and the one million (slight exaggeration) hummingbirds that have come to call our garden home. Did I mention I’ve inadvertently created a garden chock full of hummingbird food? More good news: We’re mostly on track to meet our October 6 (San Francisco staple) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass garden party – check back for pictures of our garden party.

So what is considered hummingbird food in my garden? Almost everything. I have Tecoma stans, two cultivars of Abutilon, Iochroma ‘Sunset’, Cuphea salvadorensis, Pandorea pandorana (much more fun to call it by its common name: Wonga Wonga Vine), Thunbergia alata, three cultivars of Cannas, Fuchsia boliviana (both straight species and alba), lovely Meyer lemon blooms, and the giant flower spike of my Agave vilmoriniana while it was blooming (more on that later). It’s also amazing to see hummingbirds fly up into the depths of the giant tubular throat of the Brugmansia.

With all of this natural hummingbird food blooming almost all year long in San Francisco, who needs hummingbird feeders? I didn’t design my garden to be a haven for hummingbird food, I guess we just like the same kind of flowers! Regardless, if you’re in Sunset Zone 17 (areas influenced by the ocean, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley), try any combination of these plants to provide hummingbird food for your fine-feathered friends. My next venture is to see how many hummingbird species actually frequent my garden. I know we have lots of Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) for sure. And I’m fairly certain I’ve seen a ruby-throated hummingbird, but i have to admit (this is a confessional after all) that I’m not the most experienced birder. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Just what have we been up to over the past 24 days, you might ask? A giant garden clean-up and reorganization of the tool shed. Reorganization and a lot of replanting of all of my container garden. I’m most excited about my new, lovely Meyer lemon tree. It’s absolutely loaded with fruit, and Meyer lemons are a staple in my cooking. Planting up some herb pots to enhance my kitchen garden is on this week’s agenda. We’ve also focused on weeding, weeding, weeding – with all of the animals in my garden, both domestic and wild, I have to keep things organic. Fortunately, I actually enjoy weeding. I also spend A LOT of time removing spent Brugmansia flowers. We also retrofitted our irrigation. One of my favorite things this weekend was spray painting my rusty garden chairs. They’re going to look great if we switch our gravel to basalt.

We have two looming questions: 1) Do we change out the gravel in our garden or just top dress our existing? And 2) Do we go with real or synthetic sod?

I REALLY hate our gravel. From the moment we poured the first wheelbarrow-full out I hated it. I believe my first question was, “Did we just create a giant litterbox?” We kinda did – but at least it’s easy to keep clean. I do love the gravel for its crunchy sound as we sit around the fire pit on those chilly San Francisco nights. I think I’ll love it more if we switch to black basalt gravel. I just need to decide how MUCH more I would love it…

If you asked me two years ago if I would even consider artificial turf you would have gotten the hairy eyeball. But my thoughts have changed – at least for my garden (and many San Francisco gardens) requirements. First of all, I have very limited space. We mostly use our garden to entertain at the picnic table or around the fire. I like the idea of a flat soft space, and I currently don’t have a space to recline, relax and enjoy the circus of hummingbirds flitting about the garden (I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve counted no fewer than 15 buzzing around at one time). I’m embarrassed to say it, but this is my confessional, we have already installed real sod lawn, wait for it, THREE times. Here are my sod problems: My garden is pretty shady – mostly from a beautiful, prolific and extraordinarily messy giant Brugmansia. There are dogs. I love to let my plants to grow into the lawn area. I want to keep my lawn chair on the lawn. And this last should be no surprise, I’m a lazy mower. Artificial turf technology has improved by leaps and bounds, especially for residential homes. The artificial turf is lush and green – my dogs even enjoy laying on it. One major complaint is that it’s much hotter to walk on than real sod, but we rarely have that problem in San Francisco. It still seems kinda crazy, though. Artificial turf can also be cost-prohibitive, at least at the time of installation. It promises to pay off over time with maintenance and water savings.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. If you actually made it this far, check back in October to see the results!

Weekend Project: Container Gardening

Looking for a quick weekend project to spruce up your patio, deck or even you front porch? Container gardening is a great, easy project to do just that. Whether you are sprucing up some pots you already have, planning to buy new containers or creating a specific container garden, you will be pleased with your results.

Have some boring clay pots? Add some interest by sprucing up your old pots with paint! Spray paint can be used on clay pots; even plastics can now be painted with spray paint. Think about creating a design on your pot, use painters’ tape to create color blocking details or stripes. When purchasing new pots you can be a little adventurous with color depending on the selection available to you. One thing to consider when deciding on container colors is the plants you are going to plant. Make sure the plants and the pots are complimentary to each other and you’ll get more bang for your buck.

This red garden pot compliments this modern garden space, which is accented with red Japanese Maples, as well as the heuchera plants filling below the sphere shaped boxwood centerpiece.

When picking out plant species for your container garden, don’t forget the simple phrase thriller, filler, and spiller. You want to select one main plant species for the focal point, the thriller. Fill in around the thriller with some filler plants, these plants shouldn’t get as tall, but offer texture or color in the arrangement. Lastly, for your container add a spiller, or trailing plant that will spill over the edges and create a soft, lush look. Container gardening is that easy!
Container gardening successes following the simple phrase thiller, filler and spiller.

Container gardening could also be specific and not just ornamental. Always wanted a vegetable garden? Do it all in one container, big or small. A planted pot with assorted herbs could be the perfect compliment to your kitchen. Or next year consider planting tomatoes, with basil and chives for your summer salads. Have a love of succulents? Looking for a small ornamental planted centerpiece? Consider creating a gorgeous succulent bowl as a centerpiece for your outdoor dining table.

Whatever your container gardening style, you’ll enjoy your creation for many more weekends – just don’t forget to water regularly!

Home Improvement: Gravel vs. Hardscape in Your Bay Area Garden

When we want to create useable space in our Northern California gardens, we often think of flat hardscape.  This usually refers to level patios paved with stone, or brick, or concrete; or perhaps flat lawns for physical activity and play.  The term ‘outdoor room’ has been used more and more often in the last several years when describing useable space in the garden.  And it really is a good description.  Creating a defined space outdoors that is accessible, attractive and can be used for one or many purposes equals home improvement.   And it helps you to take advantage of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we can spend so much time outdoors.  Hardscape patios and soft green lawns will likely always be part of the garden.  But we’d like to make a case for gravel as a paving option with a lot of upsides.

One is environmental.  Permeability is the rate at which water can flow through a material.  While mortared stone, brick or concrete are impermeable, gravel, properly installed and maintained, can collect 50% of rainwater or more- so it is sinking into your land, not running off into storm drains or sewers. As Northern California is often in a state of drought, more permeability which allows water to soak back into the ground and prevent runoff is crucial.  This is a small change you can make that positively affects our environment- and not every home improvement can make that claim.

Another is cost.  Per square foot, other types of hardscape can cost 4 to 5 times as much as gravel.  When we install gravel for a patio or path, we’re excavating down several inches, installing an edging to retain the gravel (a resin-based bendable board, metal, wood, or stone), installing a layer of base rock which is compacted for sturdiness, and finishing with 2-3” of gravel.   Even with all these steps, gravel is significantly less expensive than a reinforced concrete slab, brick or stone patio.  This logic also applies with driveways.  Long expanses of hardscape for driveways can mean low permeability on your property, and with paving materials like a concrete slab or asphalt, significant cost.  

The aesthetics, however, are often the main reason our clients choose gravel.  There are many gravel options. You have choices in the color of materials, size of stones, and whether it is rounded or crushed.  And perhaps the best attribute is the sound gravel makes when we walk across it.  That crunch underfoot can define an edge or alert the user that they are entering a new space.   It can even bring up nostalgic feelings of childhood trips to a lakeshore, a walk on one of our awesome California hiking trails, or a summer at camp.  For those of you interested in container gardening or building a raised bed garden, surrounding your vegetables with gravel creates a permeable, low maintenance environment that is rustic and beautiful.  It may not be hardscape in a traditional sense, but you can still push a wheelbarrow over it.

There are maintenance requirements with gravel that should be considered – gravel can move over time and may need to be replenished a few years after installation, and permeability is reduced over time as the material packs down.  But it’s certainly worth considering for the Bay Area home; as a replacement of asphalt driveways, hardscape or lawns, or as a paving material for new paths or patios. Maybe you can’t hose it off like other types of hardscape . . . but ask any Japanese Tea Garden expert- raking a gravel pad, path or driveway is a physical activity that can be a calming in itself!