Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


A Tommy Church Garden

A couple of weeks ago I got to see a Tommy Church garden in Burlingame. Tommy Church is often called the father of modern landscape architecture, and he’s the one most responsible for the inside/outside California-living concept, the idea of ‘garden rooms,’ and the now-cliched kidney-shaped pool. He did a huge number of residential gardens, but not a lot of them are still intact. I only knew his work from drawings and from photos; the Donnell Garden is his most famous. His designs tend to have a lot of lawn, hardscape, and juniper, and to be more like what people now call landscaping rather than a garden, but they were very influential at the time.

This Tommy Church design, however, is an actual garden. It’s also quite close to his original design, perhaps because it’s more formal than most of his other work and there’s something about formal designs that make you afraid to change them; I think you sense that everything has already been thought out and decided and that your role is just to keep it from ever changing. I don’t know the story of the garden or when it was put in or any of those details, but most of the plants and materials clearly date from Tommy Church’s era. It’s pretty much the complete opposite of the gardens that Anita and I design, but I found it surprisingly interesting and engaging as I wandered through it. There are some nice spaces and moments within the formal structure. More photos are below.

I liked the view across the senecio, hedge, and crabapple allee. The sculpture is sort of an odd, jarring element that doesn’t really fit the rest of the garden, but I thought it looked kind of cool, like a robot topiarist patrolling the hedges. Viewed from the house, it was too small to serve as the focal point for such a structured view, but it worked a bit better when it was in the foreground of the view back towards the house.

I find myself surprisingly sympathetic to the hedge in the backyard, with the line of boxwood taking your eye to the trunk of the oak and the path wrapping around behind the tree. The low-maintenance, low-water, habitat-friendly part of me wants to replace the lawn and boxwood, but I respect the underlying design. And that’s a great oak tree.

I find rose gardens as old fashioned as boxwood hedges, but all of the reseeding columbines made for a nice effect. You don’t really get columbines like this with drip irrigation.

There were benches and gates and trellises tucked throughout the property. Like the cherub in my first photo, they did a lot to make the formal elements feel more personable.

The pollarded trees are another element I would never think of putting into a residential garden myself, but I can appreciate them as something from a different era.

A pleasant garden. Quite different from what I usually show on this blog, but the combination of the classic elements and the whimsical touches created a pleasant, personable space.

8 Responses to “A Tommy Church Garden”

  1. May 31st, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Anonymous says:

    Gardens are for people. When I studied landscape design in college, Thomas Church was/is one of my favorite designers. His use of scale is unbelievable and personal. It sounds strange calling him Tommy.

  2. June 1st, 2011 at 6:28 am

    Gayle Madwin says:

    I can appreciate most of this without wanting it in my own garden, but the pollarded trees are a step too far for me. I don’t even like seeing those in other people’s gardens. The trees just look like they’re in pain.

  3. June 1st, 2011 at 9:16 am

    ryan says:

    Interesting, I’ve always heard him called Tommy, even more than Lawrence Halprin gets called Larry. I’d like to see more of his gardens. This one is very nice and his drawings are great.

    I totally hear you about the pollards. I am a little open to them because the trees live longer lives, but it does seem cruel. I feel the same about bonsai, too; they’re something I could never personally do. The shadow in the first pollard photo looks a little like it’s flipping the bird.

  4. June 1st, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Town Mouse says:

    What an interesting garden — and great photos. I must admit I like that little angel sculpture better with this type of garden than the modern sculpture, but different strokes for different folks.

  5. June 1st, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Plantanista says:

    This garden is of another era, one which for me represents a time of innocent excess, but excess nonetheless. And though I appreciate the lines, massing, and form, I can’t reconcile the water use.

    But imagine a meadow of native grasses on subsurface drip where that lawn is. A line of Muhlenbergia where the big square hedge asserts its line along the path… If I could get my hands on this garden, it’s exactly what I would do. It won’t make me popular in Hillsboro, though, so I imagine I’ll never get my chance to desecrate this work of art. Imagined solely as a living piece of art, that happens to probably use upwards of a million gallons of water per year, I suppose I can re-categorize my appreciation. nlike others, I love the pollarded Platanus.

    There are many trees in Europe which have been pollarded for hundreds of years, and there is actually a reason for it, I was fascinated to learn from Arborist Michael Young. Apparently there was a “Pollard or die” law in France, to avoid the wholesale cutting down of trees for firewood. Branches of only a certain diameter could be cut, and the eventual result was the nubby cambium fists, ready to sprout anew in spring. I don’t think the trees really mind, though I could be wrong…

    There was an amazing exhibit of the carcasses of dozens of old pollarded Platanus at Chaumont about ten years ago. Such character, and imagining the many hands that had over the generations harvested from these elders transported me. So in that way, they’re like old vine grapes. Somehow more tolerable and seemingly less painful?

  6. June 3rd, 2011 at 9:35 am

    ryan says:

    @Townmouse Ah, but you can’t climb on the cherub sculpture the way you can with the robot topiarist.

    @Plantanista My instinct would also be to update the plants, so it’s best that I’m not in charge of this garden either. My problem would be with all the hedging; I would never want to be responsible for keeping that up.
    I hadn’t heard about the pollards coming from firewood laws. I thought it was just part of the French tradition of plant control and manipulation, a tradition that I can respect but feel very distant from. Thanks for speaking up for the pollards. They do give a very tangible sense of history.

  7. June 5th, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    lostlandscape (James) says:

    Like you I find myself secretly oddly sympathetic towards hedges, even though I aim for something totally different. I guess that for one thing they can provide for wilder things against them. Shaping hedges, pollarding–It’s all pretty much the same idea. But a pollarded tree doesn’t push the same geometric buttons that a hedge does for me…

  8. November 25th, 2013 at 8:23 am

    jeanne illenye says:

    Ohhhh…those poor trees! Everything else is nice…but those poor suffering trees….

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