From garden design

Napa County Hilltop Estate Garden

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Perched on a sunny hilltop in Calistoga CA the drought tolerant plantings connect the architecture to the native plants surrounding the garden areas.

The hot summer-dry landscape demands tough California native and other Mediterranean climate plantings. The sterile rock on which the house and garden were built also requires plants that can thrive with limited nutrients.

The owners desired a casual. relaxed looking landscape around the house, one that would transition to the native landscape on the property. And they wanted plantings that would look good throughout the year and not require a lot of maintenance.


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The driveway opens at its high point to a path descending to the large rectilinear opening which is the entrance both to the house and a large sunny courtyard beyond.


Before entering the vestibule to the house and tile courtyard, there is a smaller gravel patio on the NE side of the house which faces a landscaped hillside. This is a pleasant space to get the first sun in the morning or cool afternoon shade on hot days.


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Looking from the stone stairway descending from the driveway toward the open porch entry to the house and courtyard. Planted urns give the courtyard colorful flowers and foliage.
The morning patio side faces a slope planted with easy care, drought adapted plants combined for constant visual interest.


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The southeast side of the residence has a formal walled vegetable garden or potager which provides fruits, vegetables and herbs conveniently to the adjacent kitchen. The four central small trees are genetic dwarf nectarines.


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The potager also features fragrant roses to cut for the house, growing in beds with blueberries and strawberries. Roses perform excellently with the hot dry air if give irrigation.


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On the southwest side of the house, the hot tub is placed within a richer planting of maples and Wagner windmill palms and looks out over the pool and canyon beyond.


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The strong architectural features of the hardscape are balanced with a variety of plant types, forms and colors to give a relaxed feel to the garden.


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On the northwest side a small sedge lawn of Carex pansa looks up the canyon and mountains. Easy care perennials, roses and other shrubs accent the border.


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Strategically placed bold succulents like the beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata) provide focal points for the more casual surrounding plants.
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Australian grass tree (Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata) creates a energetic burst of plant energy to contrast with billowy Peruvian lilies.



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The house sits near the crest the hill and is surrounded by slopes of chaparral (summer dry native shrubs) and woodland. We created a meandering trail to provide a scenic route through the vegetation and connect with the creek at the bottom of the canyon.


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Descending the hillside, the trail passes many ancient manzanitas (Arctostaphylos manzanita) that have become tree sized.


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Detail of the richly colored, smoothly sensuous, muscular bark and trunk of the manzanita, The trail allows one to touch and experience this amazing plant.



Steep hillside transformed into an accessible oasis of flowers and foliage in Marin County

This steep hillside in San Rafael, Marin County, is the setting for one of our favorite gardens.  A large red-flowered horse-chestnut (Aesculus X carnea ‘Briottii’) is the main focal point in the spring in this garden.  An inviting set of curved steps leads up under the horse-chestnut to the beginning of the trail.  The switch back path connects to two sitting areas, a hot tub, and vegetable gardens. The views toward Mt. Tam gets better as one moves up through the plantings. From the perspective of the back patio of the house, the plantings are overlapping and layered, giving a simple cascading garden effect which is colorful yet restful.  The garden is a mixture of old fashion favorites and the newest horticultural introductions.  There are many edible plants and flowers for cutting.  Mixing a wide variety of unusual subtropical and Mediterranean shrubs and perennials combined make this a classic Planet Horticulture garden.

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The owner created this fish-eye photo montage looking off the master bedroom balcony. The lower level is the dining patio with a wall fountain opposite living room.  The curved steps lead up to another smaller patio and the hot tub under the tree.  The informal switch back trails pass an urn fountain (center), then the vegetable garden and then to upper view seating area, and more.


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The large red horse-chestnut tree is the focus from the dining patio outside the living room. The curved stairway invites one to go up and explore the garden.


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The colored concrete steps strewn with fallen flowers adds a casual look.


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Urn plantings add color accents against the stucco. Here Canna with Pelargonium and Oxalis ‘Plum Crazy’ balanced with reverted bronze stems gives seasonal interest.


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Containers support the in-ground plantings. Pieris ‘Katsura’, Aeonium ‘Swartzkopt’ and Loropetalum ‘Firedance’ create a nice burgundy accent.


Another rust colored concrete patio provides a separate sitting area
Another honey colored concrete patio provides a separate sitting area that is close, but separate from the house. Blue star creeper fills the interstices.


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The beautiful red horse-chestnut, Aesculus ‘Briottii’ as viewed from the first terrace.

Urns as Sculpture

Urns of any scale can be an easy and effective way of adding visual interest to any garden. But large urns are especially impressive.

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A large tijana or olive oil urn from Portugal anchors a lush planting in this Berkeley CA garden.
(Photo by Marion Brenner).

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This tijana complements the large-scale plantings in this Napa Valley garden.  In the foreground a large Beschorneria (a Central American spineless agave-like succulent) is starting to produce its flower spike.

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This smaller urn is an attractive accent in this stroll garden of drought-tolerant, low maintenance garden.

2011 Fellow of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS)

It was a very thrilling evening for me when I was presented with the annual 2011 Fellow award of the California Native Plants Society (CNPS) on November 15th.

After the presentation of the 2011 Fellow award I also received a Commendation declaration by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors with David McCrory.

CNPS presents the Fellow award once a year as “a means of awarding special recognition to persons who have made an outstanding contribution to furthering appreciation and conservation of California native flora and to the success of the Society.” Thus it was an incredible honor to receive such recognition. And if that were not enough, I unexpectedly received a Commendation from the Sonoma Board of Supervisors congratulating me for getting the Fellow award and my 30 years of work with native plants and in particular increasing the awareness of, and conservation of the Main Canyon parcel we owned at The Cedars in Sonoma Co. This was very satisfying too, as The Cedars has been a real passion in my life and is one of Sonoma County’s greatest ecological “wonders”; very nice to know the Board is aware of its special treasure with that amazing area.Untitled

David McCrory (Planet Horticulture)  and Phil Van Soelen (Cal Flora Nursery) making comments at the presentation.

Getting such awards has made me pause and reflect on what an amazing trip it has been since I arrived in California in 1978 – at that time knowing no more about the native flora than being able to recognize a California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Now I’m considered an authority on the flora of the state, had four plants named in my honor (Tomales red-ribbons, Clarkia concinna ssp. raichei, The Cedars’ fairy-lantern, Calochortus raichei, Cow Mt. manzanita, Arctostaphylos stanfordiana ssp. raichei, and recently a new subspecies of bristly jewelflower, Streptanthus glandulosus ssp. raichei), and have co-published two new entities (The Cedars’ buckwheat, Eriogonum cedrorum and The Cedars oceanspray, Holodiscus dumosus var. cedrorus).

Wow, somehow I still find it hard to believe I did all that! And this doesn’t take into account 30 years of horticultural endeavors both with native plants and plants from all over the world.

A whole contingent of friends came up from Berkeley to see the award and my PowerPoint presentation on The Cedars. L-R are Skip Durham, Marcia Donahue and Kathy Ann Miller (Marcia’s sister).

More friends from outside of the county; Linda Aurichio, Richard Ward (head turned), Jana Olson and Robin Parer. In the background right are two local friends, Josh Williams and Nancy Summers.

I was especially thrilled to see how many friends from out of the area attended, some from several hours away – thank you again to all of you, and the many well wishers who could not attend.

And a very very special thanks to Phil Van Soelen, Angel Guerzon, Warren Roberts and Phyllis Faber who nominated me and shepherded the nomination through the process – it wouldn’t have happened without you!

Starting Big

Weeping Atlas Cedar

Planet Horticulture uses plants of all sizes from 2″ liners to amazing specimen trees. In this West Sonoma County garden we planted a uniquely trained 80 year old weeping Atlas cedar. A slow growing form of a drought tolerant North African native, this tree provide a powerful focal point and screening for the front yard of this delightful 19th century farm house. Once it was installed, it seemed like it had been part of the original landscape.

Guadalupe Island Palm

Brahea edulis, the Guadalupe Island palm, a rare endemic native of islands off the coast of northern Baja Mexico is very slow growing in cultivation and is also drought tolerant and among the hardiest of palms. This specimen was estimated to be more than 40 years old and helped to create an instant oasis effect in this wine country poolside garden.

Ancient Olive

The clients of this newly built modern home in the Oakland Hills wanted to start the landscape with as many mature trees as possible. We chose this special ancient olive as a focal point for the main entry courtyard. This gnarly old tree gave the house a more human scale making it seem more at home in the landscape.

A Welcoming Cottage Garden


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A diverse planting of succulents, shrubs, palms, perennials and annuals all attractively arranged for a long season of interest.




The driveway approach to this cottage in the foothills above Calistoga in the Napa Valley now has a welcoming cottage garden of diverse heat-tolerant, low water, all season plants. This garden border invites lingering and perusal of the plants, both as individuals and for their combinations. The stairway seen in the Before image is just beyond the gray shrub on the right.