Thursday, August 4, 2011

Garden Design: Personalizing your garden with the Element of Surprise!

There are many styles of gardens, and likely one that best suits you, your house and your environment... but no matter what the style, a quality that sets one garden apart, and gives it a unique quality is the element of surprise!

Some people may think of this as something whimsical, like the treated metal wall with cut-outs shown above, a delightful form of surprise from a garden at the 2011 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show... But surprise does not have to be whimsical... it can merely be something refreshingly unexpected.

The unexpected comes in many different forms, some more subtle than others, and is a wonderful way to add interest to your garden... here are some examples:

Just the right curve in the path or change in elevation that takes you to an unexpected view or garden room - such as in this Los Altos, CA garden, which has been worked on by several generations of designers.

The sound of water coming from somewhere, calling you...

A change in hardscape materials that signifies you are entering a different part of the landscape... such as in this Palo Alto garden.

Repetition of a certain plant... and then the surprise break in repetition along this pleasing meandering pathway.

Or an unexpected plant combination that sings...

A pause along the way... perhaps it is a serene lantern nestled in a planting that gives you a sense of calm and makes you feel you’d like to linger.

or the sound of chimes in the wind.
or the unusual mixture of materials.
or an intoximating scent from a plant that wafts its way towards you from an unknown spot in the garden.

Or perhaps it is a completely unique use of a space, such as a front yard that has been turned into an aesthetically pleasing and useful working edible garden. This is a Japanese style Front Yard Edible garden in San Jose, CA. A collaborative effort and still a work in progress, it is already overflowing with edibles.

A whimsical pot or piece of garden art,
A uniquely placed mirror that reflects back into the garden,
A 'secret garden' hiding in a corner of the landscape,
or some colorful friends...

Its fun to think outside the box!
These are all ways to personalize your garden space and create the element of the unexpected.

This season, take time to consider the forms of whimsy or surprise you would like to develop. Have fun and enjoy your space. Your garden has endless creative possibilities!
...and please share your thoughts on ways you've created surprise in your garden!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


One of my favorite corners of my friend and fellow landscape designer, Rebecca Sweet's Garden...



Friday, August 6, 2010

Bamboo Beauty

Bamboo is one of the things that take my breath away and bring me to a profound place of quiet, beauty, simplicity and serenity. If you've ever been in a Bamboo Forest you likely know what I mean.

Today I'm taking you with us (my client-friend and I) to a wonderful Bamboo nursery called Bamboo Giant in Freedom, Ca. (south about 10 miles of Santa Cruz, CA)

We are in search of several varieties of Bamboo for the Edible Japanese Style Garden that we are creating in their front yard. (Stay tuned for a future post on this garden.) As a landscape designer using green-organic practices, with a love of Japanese gardens and an interest in designing more mixed edible landscapes, this is a wonderful project which I have the privilege of participating in. In this case my friends/clients are long-time mentors in all things related to beauty.

Nancy particularly loves Black Bamboo, as do I - however I was concerned this running variety would not do well in her micro-climate - an already very hot spot in San Jose, CA with reflected heat from concrete. Sure enough, Black Bamboo is one of the Bamboos that does much better with some shade, but we will be wandering around the beautiful grounds of this nursery in search of other varieties with the cultural inclinations needed, that have dark culms (the reeds of the Bamboo).

Black Bamboo

Black Bamboo Forest growing in

Everywhere you look in this beautiful demonstration nursery there are wonderful photographic opportunities... like this old wooden wine vat. I wondered what the story was here... but being focused on our mission I dropped that particular question for the day... sometimes a photo opportunity is just that...

Old Wine Barrel

Old Wine Barrel

Bamboo Giant Nursery is composed of several sections (garden rooms) linked together by trails and several Bamboo Forests, often with signage to let you know what you are viewing. It is both a demonstration ground and a nursery and as you can see, a wonderful way to experience many different kinds of mateur Bamboo grown in large scale. There are Bamboos from all over the world in different sections. It is a family run business and they have been working on this property for many years. Each time I visit, there are new developments on the property. It has obviously been a work of love. It is open to the public and a great place to visit.

Coming out of a forested area, we came upon a clearing with this beautiful scene...

Its as if we had stepped into an Asian Tropical Paradise!

The photos below are a tropical specimen we happened upon. This tree was brought in before the current owners and the staff does not know what it is. I've done some research and haven't yet discovered what it is. I have some thoughts - possibly in the Ficus family, but if so, have not discovered the variety. Any thoughts?

One noticeable characteristic of these grounds are the sustainable elements. Much of the hardscape is made with recycled concrete. With all the moisture in this area (close to the ocean), moss has grown onto it and it looks quite natural - like its been there for a long time. Various hardscape materials are mixed allowing for subdued but different textures.

Natural stone has also been mixed with a man-made material.
Here an example of a large boulder set with broken pieces of concrete...

Searching for the possible substitutes for Black Bamboo that can take lots of sun, here is what we found that day at this nursery. None of these are black, but they are rich dark, striking shades...

'Borinda' is a clumping variety...

'Tibetan Princess' is also a clumping variety...

'Temple' is a running Bamboo...

We decided the growth habits of 'Tibetan Princess' and 'Temple' will work best for the two areas we have in mind, but 'Borinda' was wonderful as well. Some varieties of Bamboo change in form as they mature. Its good to keep this in mind when you are looking for Bamboo and do some research on it before you decide on a variety. If you have a designer, that work will be done for you.

Bamboo 'Robert Young'

There are clumping and running varieties of Bamboo and they have different growth habits and so different siting needs, as well as different treatments for planting depending on your space. This is another important element in deciding which Bamboo works best for your space.

What have been your experiences with Bamboo?
Do you use it in your landscape or designs?
What are your favorite varieties?

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Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Amazing World of Succulents

Ruffled Echeveria

An underwater scene or life from another planet? Indeed, our own planet earth is home to this amazing group of plants. Long since are the days when the well loved 'Hens and Chicks' (a Sempervivum) were my only idea of succulents. The world of succulents is vast, beautiful, exotic, sculptural and fascinating and can add a whole new dimension to your landscape!

Mixed planting of Succulents on a mound

With our focus strongly turned towards water conservation and drought tolerant solutions, creating a succulent garden, succulent corner, mixed planting bed including succulents or succulent containers is not only an interesting addition to a landscape, but a water-wise choice. Though the particular microclimate must be considered (many succulents enjoy the marine layer and don't like hot blazing inland sun) succulents can flourish here in California given the right planting environment.


Knowing where plants originated helps to understand their microclimate needs. Succulents are plants that have adapted to mostly harsh environments where water was not always available, sometimes going for long periods of time without water .

Aloes & Cacti

According to Robin Stockwell, owner of Succulent Gardens Nursery in Castroville, CA and an expert on succulents, “There are three environments that caused this adaptation: the desert (hot and dry), the alpine regions (cold and frozen) and the tropics (wet and salty).” Partially due to these challenging origins, Robin calls succulents “The Conservationists of the plant world”. They have learned to conserve their need for and use of water.

Stone wall at Succulent Gardens Nursery with
Echeveria tucked into crevices

Virtually all succulents have a thick skin or protective coating that actually seals in moisture and minimizes evaporation. Thus their name. The coating may be white and powdery or waxy and blue-green. Spines can also provide some sun protection. They need a porous, well draining soil to thrive, and once established, like to fully dry out between waterings. They do not do well with 'wet feet' or roots, so the porosity of the soil should be adjusted to your climate. The wetter the climate, the more porous.

Bougainvillea with giant Cacti

Many succulents prefer some shade or protection from intense direct sun, doing well with as little as 2-3 hours of direct sun each day. There are also those succulents that thrive in hot sun. Cacti by definition are succulents belonging to the Cactaceae family. They like more light and sun and prefer less water than many other succulents. Southwest style or desert theme gardens are perfect for these, but they can be carefully worked into some other garden styles.

Mixed Planting with Miniature Cacti & Boulders

When planning and planting your garden, keep in mind that all plants tend to grow and reach towards the sun. Also, since succulents don't like their roots to stay in water, planting on berms is one way to assist natural drainage. Though not essential by any means to plant this way, it does take advantage of gravity and the natural flow of water/drainage. Plant succulents on the tops and sides of the berm, rather than at the base which naturally tends to catch more of the water. Save this area for plants or groundcover that need that extra water.

Aeonium 'Sunburst' & Senecio Planting

The variety of forms available in succulents range from very low growing groundcovers to very large forms, to even tree-like forms in size and shape. They go from soft to spiky in texture and from bright, playful colors to soft muted pastels. Often they have sculptural forms that set them apart and allow them to easily be used as focal points. Mixing them with other drought tolerant plants allows for even more expansion of the palette and textures.

Succulent Living Green Wall

Living green walls are becoming very popular and these can be created with succulents as well as other plants. The photo above and several others were taken at Succulent Gardens Nursery. I highly recommend visiting them if you haven't been. They grow a vast and beautiful array of succulents.

Succulents (senecio mandraliscae) mixed with other perennials
add a juicy texture, color and form to this window box.

Whatever opportunity you might have in your landscape for adding succulents, be it a complete new design, to a little vignette or corner, the unique features of succulents enable seemingly endless creative opportunity for beauty and interest! Enjoy!

There are several wonderful reference books for Succulents. Two of my favorites are by Deborah Baldwin: "Designing with Succulents" & "Succulent Container Gardens".

Judy Maier, is a member of APLD, and a Landscape/Garden Designer, Garden Coach and Aesthetic Pruner serving the South Bay, Peninsula East Bay and entire SF Bay Area. You can find her several ways: As 'Judy’s Gardens and Design' on Facebook; "GardenDance' on Twitter., is her blog and her website is She can be reached by phone at 408 398-3161