Plants and Stone for California Gardens


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Meadowfoam Path


Springtime is Meadowfoam time in our garden. It has been blooming since we got back from Baja. I love this plant. It is such a cheerful yellow to greet me when I get home. This path, leading from the top of our steps to the potting area, is the most convenient place to stash leftover materials from our jobs so it tends to get covered up, but when the Meadowfoam is blooming I make a point of keeping it clear.


I made the path with leftover stone from several projects. There are four different types of stone; a few pieces are flagstone, but much of it is wall stone and extends quite deep into the ground. The path was dirt, then mulch, then halfway paved for about a year, and finally completed last winter.


There is beach and woodland strawberry growing with the Meadowfoam, but this is the thickest the Meadowfoam has grown in, and I am curious to see how the other plants have held up beneath it.



The Meadowfoam is blooming well around our birdbath also, but not as full or as dramatic as in the front. It gets less sun here and has less space to spread and the plants look a little more leggy, a little more messy, as a result. Judith Larner Lowry at Larner Seeds, where I originally bought the seed, recommends giving it a space at least three feet wide for best effect. The plants are getting pushed out of the raised gray water bed by the Scarlet Monkeyflower and the Juncus, and I think it will only come back at ground level next year unless I actively make space and resow it in the raised bed.


The rest of that planting has filled in pretty well and I don’t think it will need the Meadowfoam next year. These plants are one of my goto combinations, I think of it as ‘green native mix’ or ‘native woodland mix’ and use it fairly often. Iris, Mahonia, Sidalcea, Tellima, Asarum, a few other plants such as Heuchera come and go with essentially the same effect.

I have more photos of the Meadowfoam below. (more…)

Lawn to Veggies, Flagstone, and Path Fines


Unsurprisingly, we’re doing a lot of lawn-to-garden projects this year. We usually do a couple per year, but we’ve already done two so far, with several others scheduled. Most of them are primarily plant focused, but this one was more hardscape oriented. The clients actively used their lawn, unlike so many people who only walk on their lawn to mow it, so we had to replace it with something the kids could walk and play on.


It was a little strange how the grass made a lip over the edge of the front walk. Alameda’s soil is basically beach sand, so I have a feeling that the soil had drifted onto the walkway like a sand dune and then the crabgrass crept out to stabilize it. It was pretty tired-looking by the time we took it out.


The grass on this side of the entry was more of a path than a lawn, so we could use more plants. The wooden edging is unfortunately necessary to keep the dogs from kicking the mulch onto the pathway, but we should be able to take it out after the grass has been suppressed and the plants grow in. I like doing veggie beds; I leave behind an empty new bed and then come back later to find it filled with edibles and flowers.


Natives, Mosaics, and a New Sitting Area


I recently did a couple of small projects in an established native garden, a pleasant space with a laid-back, informal feel. Oaks, Bay Laurels, and annual grasses are visible outside the deer fencing. Gravel paths weave around berms overflowing with natives, some of the usual plants like Manzanita, Iris, and Buckwheat, but also some of the less common plants you only see at plant sales.


My primary project was to create a little sitting area with blue path fines. We also cleaned the existing concrete patio next to the new sitting area and we redid the joints with blue path fines. I’ve done that a few times for this kind of old patio; a few bags of path fines and some scrubbing and the concrete looks pretty much as good as new.


When I finished, I was thinking that with some furniture, a little mulch, and maybe some Snowberry in the narrow space against the fence, this would be a nice little sitting area. This past week I saw the finished result, cheerful and inviting.



I edged the path fines with scrap pieces of basalt leftover from the stoneyard’s fabrication projects. It’s inexpensive and easy to install; the hardest part is sorting through the scrap pile figuring out which pieces to use.


The garden has some other interesting elements, including a variety of mosaics made by the client. The wall piece is quite nice.



My mom recently made one of these mosaic balls, so it was interesting to see that someone else had made one too. I guess I’ve seen them before, but I didn’t realize they were an established thing.



There’s a cone shaped one at the base of this dogwood. I like the look of the limbed-up dogwood; the trunk is almost like a manzanita.


The client’s father had been a stone lithographer. The press is now an element in the garden along with several of the old stones.



I was glad I got to see the garden this week, because a number of plants were in bloom, including Neviusia cliftonii, Shasta Snow Wreath, a rare deciduous shrub that was only discovered in the 90’s. I’d seen it at plant sales, but never established in a garden. It’s not the showiest plant I’ve ever seen — it’s easy to understand how it went unnoticed for such a long time, especially if it tends to grow intermixed with poison oak — but fun to see in a garden.



I was also glad to see the California Snowdrop, Syrax oficinalis, in full bloom. These take patience to establish, but have such an elegant flower and fragrance.



Buckwheats, Foothills Penstemon, and California Poppies were also blooming, with other plants like Coyote Mint getting ready to follow. And photographs of course don’t show the bird calls and all of the bird activity around the natives. A lovely little garden.

Healthy Joints

Sort of an interesting before and after on this patio. I did a design for the backyard of a rental property a friend of mine owns, one of those San Francisco backyards that you can only access by walking through the building. A general contractor — or rather the guys he delegates everything to — did the installation. I tried to keep everything really simple, designing the patio as a simple square made up of 24″ x 36″ Connecticut Blue rectangles, an easy material to install which is also quite cost effective because it is so easy to install.

The contractor’s crew butted the stones up against each other as if they were pavers. You can do that with some stones, but these are a little too irregular. I’m not sure how bad it looks in the photos, but in person it didn’t quite look right. It looked almost right, and my friend signed off on it, but it bothered me enough to spend a couple of hours fixing it, spreading the stones to give them the quarter inch decomposed granite joint that I’d spec’d. No doubt it’s partly just my personal preference, but it looks much better with the joint.

With the stones butted together, your eye is drawn to the places where the stones don’t match up perfectly. With the joint absorbing the irregularity, your eye lands on the stones themselves.

Giving the patio a DG joint also helped it match better with the stepping stone path leading to the patio.

A couple of before photos. The garden used to have a lot of roses and fruit trees before the owner passed away and everything fell into neglect. There were several grape vines, which confused me at first because there was little chance of them fruiting in that part of San Francisco, but I think they were grown to use the leaves for dolmas.

For now, we only installed the larger plants in the design and sheet mulched around them in an effort to suppress oxalis. The plants are nice but fairly common — a Fernleaf Japanese Maple, a Lemon tree, a Star Magnolia, a Variegated Buckthorn hedge, Spiraea, some groundcovers — but if a gardener moves in and embellishes the plantings it could be a sweet space.

Belgian Block and Wall Grottos

This summer I worked for the first time in several years with some Belgian Block, installing it in a parking strip in Berekeley. Belgian Block (called setts in some places, there are two photos of guys making them in the quarry photos I posted a little while back) famously came over to San Francisco as ballast in ships. The stones — usually about 5″ x 7″, a size that was supposedly easy to fit between the timbers of the ships — would be off-loaded whenever there was a heavy cargo heading back east and then used as paving for the growing city. You can still buy versions at the stoneyards sometimes, but I mostly come across it when it’s getting taken out of one site and reused at another. It’s better than cobblestone, but still not really the best surface to walk on; not so great for a patio or entrance walkway, just about right for a parking strip.

I know, I know, Mexican Feather Grass. I warned my clients it would reseed in all of the neighbors’ gardens, but they pointed out that all of the neighbors were already growing it.

This batch was once part of the Embarcadero. When the city upgraded the paving, they allowed people to come collect it. These stones here were set in mortar for a driveway, then demoed and stored in pile in the backyard for a number of years, and now they’ve found a new home in the parking strip. This parking-strip phase will presumably last a while, but who knows what they might be used for after that. I usually like to think of my stonework as permanent, but this batch’s peripatetic history makes me like with the idea of it moving on to a new project at some future date.

Along with the Belgian Block, the garden has two large, funky walls that were built by a previous owner. The walls are several feet thick and seven or eight feet tall, with ivy growing from the top and jade plants from the sides. The stonework is pretty crude — a mix of stone and recycled concrete held together with rough, smeary masonry — and the backside of one wall even has chunks of metal in it, including what looks like a rusted out car radiator. But there’s also a certain grace to it. The walls have several cavelike grottos that feel a little creepy but sort of beautiful at the same time.

There are a total of four grottos, but the larger ones were too dark to really photograph. I bet they look pretty cool at night with candles lit inside them.

The backside of the main wall is recycled concrete. All of the best rock is on the inside of the wall, none of it on the parts facing to the exterior.

One end of the main wall has several flower pots embedded in the mortar. The other end has a post in the middle, I guess for a gate that no longer exists.

The second wall is in the background of my last photo, with three different kinds of rock, including a single flagstone set as a shiner. The neighbors have pretty much hidden their side of the wall, the side with the metal chunks in it, behind bamboo. The tree trunk on the left is from a beautiful Purple European Beech and there are a couple of nice Japanese Maples. All together, it makes for a very interesting, very Berkeley kind of garden.

Arizona Flagstone

Clockwise -- Rosa, Sedona Red, Buckskin, Oak, Buff, Peach

Clockwise -- Rosa, Sedona Red, Buckskin, Oak, Buff, Peach

The corollary to the East Coast Connecticut Blue, is our West Coast Arizona flagstone. It’s sort of the ubiquitous, default flagstone of Bay Area gardens, but I’m always happy to use it. It’s easy to work with, and I like the color range, with each of the colors having a slightly different feel. Oak is the hardest; Buckskin and Peach are the nicest to work with; Sedona Red is the lowest quality, the one to avoid.

Arizona Peach Patio at Installation

Arizona Peach Patio at Installation

Peach is probably my favorite, though in the Bay Area it tends to gray over time if it doesn’t get a lot of sunlight and air circulation or if you don’t put a sealer on it. I showed the photo of this patio once before, but here are a couple of more photos. The plants have really filled in around it.

Arizona Peach patio 1 year later

Arizona Peach patio 1 year later

After Three Years

After Three Years

The Pacific Wax Myrtles are eight feet tall now, three years after planting as five gallons. I think they’re going to lose the race with the workers constructing the McMansion next door, but they should provide a good screen fairly soon.

Arizona Peach

Arizona Peach

Last month I went back and built a second patio with the leftover stone and another new pallet of stone. The cinder blocks are new veggie and flower beds that the clients are building. I think the block will eventually get mortared and stucco’ed.

Sedona Red

Sedona Red is by the far the softest, weakest, crumbliest of the Arizona flagstones. My parents house was the only place I’ve ever used it, and I hope to never use it again. Fortunately, the patio is mostly to be seen and is rarely walked on, so there haven’t been problems with cracking. This is a photo of it in its first year; I had some nice photos of it this spring with a ton of crocuses blooming, but those photos were lost when our laptop got stolen. If the crocuses do their thing again next spring, I’ll swap this photo out for a better one.

Sedona Red sideview

Sedona Red sideview

You don’t really want sandstone to be this striated; it’s often a sign of how weekly bonded the layers are. With other Arizona sandstones, the striations are not nearly as distinct.

Buff Sideview

Buff Sideview

I have a few more photos of palleted stone below, similar to what you would find at the stoneyard page, but not so tiny. Actual colors of course vary. (more…)

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