Monday, June 15, 2009

The Agony and The Ecstasy... Chapter 1, Making A Garden

February, 1999
... Now

The Agony and the Ecstasy

When asked to choose...
you responded with a request for more about my California garden.

In appreciation, I offer the first post in a series - 
The Agony and the Ecstasy - about making a garden;  revealing the creative urges, and arguably, the less exciting, albeit, practical aspects relating to the design. It's not hyperbole to say my garden was made from scratch.

The images scanned from a disposable camera - forgive their poor quality -  show the property 'before.' Among the weed trees, brambles and detritus were 2 young oaks, trees that reach skyward 100 feet at maturity. Their vast sprawling limbs are known to crash down during winter storms, both in open fields and on houses in our county.

One young oak was growing a few feet from the house; the other effectively shaded the yard. 
Well-adapted to the region, valley oaks cannot survive any supplemental watering during our dry season. You must not plant or water beneath the tree's canopy or over their expansive roots. As they grow, access is necessary for pruning and maintenance. However, given the confines of the space, with 2 very narrow sidewalks leading back from the front entrance, it would have been impossible for an arborist to work in this situation with the tools of the trade.

After moving from Chicago, we had searched to find a house where I could create a garden refuge like the town garden we left behind.

I fully expected my new garden to encompass an extensive palette of plant material, which I had come to know while visiting West Coast Gardens to research my first book. 

We chose this small house, with a blank canvas in the rear: a space that required me to begin totally from scratch, on a garden that would be a bit larger than in Chicago.

And as soon as escrow closed, we removed the two trees in order to begin anew: opening the space to let the sun in.

The only professional labor we have employed in the process of transforming the sadly neglected patch - see photos - into an essential outdoor room? 
One guy to remove the trees,
and a company brought in to build our fence.

I had designed, and Tom and I had built a fence for the Chicago garden shortly before moving West.

For the California garden, I designed, and we built two front gates. 

But, we were no longer up to the task of constructing a fence that would wrap fully around 3 sides of the garden's perimeter; necessary to prevent deer from grazing on the rarities I intended to plant.

Stay tuned... To read more about my Chicago garden, click on:


  1. Very inspirational, Alice. I still have some corners that have "before" written all over them. But you give us all hope.

  2. Well, that's a pretty awesome before/after there Alice - I am tapping my fingers here in impatience, waiting for more. That one amazing after shot - you're a tease! :) The yellow chair, the mosaic path, the swaths of colorful plants and restrained greens, silvery tones, all combine to make a magical place where once was nothing. OK, I'm hooked, bring on the rest of the series!

  3. Alice:
    What a wonderful way to pass the morning, waiting for photos to upload to a new post.... the before and after shots defintely tease of what is yet to come, can hardly wait. Those mosaic tiles are goegeous! More please, preferrably by tomorrow, my other day off! One cannot be disturbed when witnessing a transformation of this magnitude!

  4. It's good to look back at a garden and the changes over the years. I enjoyed your Chicago garden post too.

  5. Alice, I do like before and after shots of gardens and yours are great. I really look forward to seeing/reading more.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  6. James, lostlandscape is a regular source of inspiration to me!

    Karen, if you're hooked, I'm happy! Thanks for coming by...

    Teza, so many posts.... so little time. Back to my garden in a bit, fueled by your enthusiastic response!

    Joanne and Sylvia, It's wonderful to connect with my British cohorts. If I'm unable to visit, it's the next best thing :-)

  7. An award winning Chicago garden is a tough act to follow, but you have definitely pulled it off. Your California garden is stunning. It is an artists garden, with color, texture, and attention to every detail.

    Are you growing dwarf bamboo?

  8. Red Studio, interesting that you should ask that question. Yes, I grow a dwarf bamboo in a larger wicker basket! It's lovely ...and contained! I bought it at the S F Flower Show a few years ago. Cheers!

  9. My husband and I have spent more than a decade "greening" our formerly blighted industrial property. (Before and after photos here: It's been an adventure, as I'm sure constructing your Bay Area garden has been!