Gardenmaker Brandon Tyson

Grubb, founder of the acclaimed Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, has a keen eye for good plants and high praise for her friend, fellow Southerner and frequent customer Brandon Tyson.

This spring, she and a small group of other Tyson-garden enthusiasts, on a tour organized by the San Francisco Botanical Garden, visited five of his Marin gardens. Collectively, these gardens spanned Tyson’s 26-year career and reflected an arc of his artistic range.

“In my opinion, Brandon’s plantsmanship is profound,” Grubb offers. “He mixes plants from other Mediterranean climates, Australia and South Africa for instance, with gems from the American deserts and trees from the tropics. It all works together like magic.”

Tyson’s apparent magic, and his unquenchable fascination with flowers and form, stem from a childhood immersed in the landscape. His grandmothers both tended large Georgia gardens and the men in his family logged the Everglades. “I told them that because they cut down so many trees, I’d have to replant them all and sometimes I think I am,” he says only half-jokingly.

His journey to a career in garden design, enhanced by a fine arts background and detoured by a foray into retail fashion, was serendipitous. He was debating his future while working in his sister’s Ross garden when a car pulled over and the driver, impressed with his work, asked Tyson to landscape her two-and a-half Tiburon acres. “That’s when it started happening for me,” he says. “I wouldn’t do a 9-to-5 job, and painting was stagnant for me, but painting with living things is so perfect.”

Today, Tyson has cultivated a body of work that includes more than a hundred gardens throughout the country; the bulk of them are in Marin.

Of exotic gardens and fanciful landscapes

“Although his gardens are beautiful even to the uneducated eye, most people don’t realize just how innovative his planting plans are on a horticultural level,” Grubb says. “His dense, plant-driven collector’s gardens are as perfectly executed as his sparse, modern architectural ones.” And he “gets these amazing commissions that are the type of projects most garden designers only dream of getting, truly creative projects with clients who are more like patrons.”

Linda Hothem is one. She hired Tyson to design first her garden in Kent Woodlands and, more recently, her garden in the warm banana belt of Sausalito. “He’s so creative, he’s impossible to match,” she says. “He’s a cross between a modern artist, a botanist and a landscaper. It’s like commissioning an artist to paint a painting for you.”

Her hillside garden overlooking San Francisco Bay is gracefully terraced and, at her request, lushly bedded with edible plants and fragrant flowers, a refined blend of old-fashioned favorites: fuchsias, daphne, iris, Japanese maples, roses, citrus, camellias, lilies, abutilon, and campanula, along with yuccas and grasses that are relative newcomers to cultivated spaces. Fanciful ornaments by local artist Marcia Donahue, a new element for Tyson, mingle among the plants.

“The one thing Linda wanted was to be able to pick armloads of flowers, so I created a fantasy garden," he says. "It’s all about color and form and textures.” And, consistent with all of his gardens, it’s also about balance. “You can’t have everything blooming or ‘singing’ at the same time. You’d be overwhelmed. You’ve got to have your chorus and your backup.”

The Hothem garden is vastly different from the small, minimalist design he just completed in a walled Sea Cliff garden in San Francisco (“it’s the most wonderful thing; it’s very spare but it showed me what feelings you can create in a very small space”) or the intriguing Moroccan modern garden he fashioned in Sonoma. A New York Times feature four years ago extolled its enclosed resplendency of mosaic tiles, sleek water runnel, artichoke fountain, and theatrical plantings of succulents, banana trees and slender palms.

There are none of these elements in the blousy Tiburon garden Tyson created for Greg and Aimee Price. Here, box-shaped oaks, lean cypress trees, balled boxwood and the exuberant white bearded iris Frequent Flyer, a particular favorite with the designer, line the driveway. “I always know this variety will put on a great show. It hardly ever stops blooming,” he says.

Closer to the house, sweeping terraces of lawn and borders of perennial beds upstage the competing backdrop of San Francisco bay and the East Bay hills. Bird-shaped topiaries charmingly flank the staircase and Meyer lemon trees are potted up in English orangerie boxes.

It is, as Prices quotes Tyson, “the ULG–the ultimate lady garden.” A mother of four, she says she has little time to linger in her garden, “but when I do, it always takes my breath away. I’m sure another designer could have done something beautiful, but there’s not another Brandon Tyson out there. He brings his own recipe for magic.”

A passion for palms

He worked his wonders on Elena Mills Mandin’s hilltop Kentfield garden, too. She had eyed his progress on a small English-style garden down the hill from her home 25 years ago and dreamed of doing something just as delicate in her own garden. That dream quickly evaporated, though, when “Brandon took one look at my garden and said, ‘Oh, no, no, no,’” she recalls.

For his part, Tyson remembers being “blown away by the scale of her garden. It’s so big and so close to Mount Tam that you get this floating sensation, but the elevation really works. The views are spectacular.” The elevation also does a number on plants. “Elena’s garden is the first thing hit by any storm and nothing frail was going to work there–only something as tough as nails and dramatic enough to hold up with the scenery.” 

She agreed then, and still agrees, with all of his decisions, even if she doesn’t understand them. “He’s the boss of the garden,” she says. “He has the ability to see the big picture and he uses plants I would never dream of using. My privet hedge is balls: big balls, little balls. I don’t know where he comes up with these ideas. My only influence is that I wanted palms.”

Fortunately, so did Tyson. “We agreed 150 percent on palms,” he says, and now the landscape is punctuated with a magnificent collection of spectacular palm trees (there are almost 50 specimen trees alone) and splendid cycads, an ancient plant family that has outlived the dinosaurs. “These trees are like garden sculpture,” he muses. “And, once they’re established, you hardly have to do anything. It’s like buying a piece of art.”

Past the patio, across the lawn and through a grove of Japanese maples that gently shade a soft carpet of volunteer maple sprouts, a lower sun-exposed hillside trail is lined with natives, cacti and South African bulbs. It’s a surprise for some. “People always expect exotics in my gardens, but I use a lot of natives,” Tyson says.

Even though his maintenance team is largely responsible for taking care of the garden, he still visits twice a month. “These gardens are like family members. Just because you plant things doesn’t mean that it’s over, because it’s really just the beginning. When these trees get to be 100 years or older, they’ll be even more amazing. Just like with people, it takes a lot of time for their true personalities to come out.”

Time has also had its way with Tyson. The designer, who once swore he’d “never go back to the South,” has, with his longtime partner Noel Gieleghem, purchased an 1870 coastal cottage in Southern Georgia as a second home. “It has a tin roof and 14-foot-high ceilings, original pine floors, and fireplaces in each bedroom,” he says. “And the only things growing on the property are an enormous oak and two palm trees. It’s a clean slate!”