Seeds of Inspiration

Garden centers are more than just places to pick up plants. They’re also places to pick up good design ideas and designers to implement them. While a number of garden centers can refer you to designers on request, three local nurseries offer in-house design services: Bayside Garden Center in Tiburon, California Bay Nurseries in Ignacio, and Sloat Garden Center in Mill Valley. We asked their designers to show us one of their coolest garden installations and tell how they made it happen.

An Odd Lot, Reborn

Matt Donlan, owner of Tiburon’s Bayside Garden Center, loves challenges, odd-shaped lots and clients who share their vision and trust him to fulfill it.

A few years ago, he designed a garden for a young family who had seen his work, then called him after purchasing an updated ’60s Marinwood home with front and back gardens.

It had multiple challenges: an irregular-shaped backyard with a history of creekside flooding and 20 years of neglect, 27 dead trees hidden in the overgrown ivy, and ground that dropped off just 15 feet from the back door.

This garden needed a little work.
Matt Donlan: It was a disaster! The owners love the outdoors and wanted a place where they could be comfortable in the backyard, but everything was covered in ivy. We had to bring in a backhoe and a tractor, reroute the drainage and add more than 500 cubic yards of fill and topsoil to create elevation. Now, the house will never flood again, there’s more usable garden space and there’s good feng shui.

What did you do in terms of design?
MD:  The yard backs up to open space, so we turned it into a parklike setting with an area for her, one for him, a play area and lawn for the young kids, and an outdoor kitchen for entertaining. It’s a trapezoidally shaped garden so it gave us all kinds of places to be creative. There are walkways and destinations, a pond and waterfall, a customized cedar greenhouse for orchids and a play structure we built.

And plants?
MD: A few natives but mostly woodland: hellebores, ferns, hydrangeas, lilacs and seven different daphnes including sun- and shade-loving varieties and some that bloom darn near year long, and lots of trees such as Himalayan birches, Japanese maples and gingkos.
Now, when you walk into the home you look through their back wall of windows to the pond and upper seating area and pergola. It’s a complete transformation.

Bayside Garden Center, 1520 Tiburon Blvd., Tiburon, 415.435.0041

Modern Lines

When Courtney Reeser, managing director of Landor Associates in San Francisco, remodeled his 1940s-era Streamline home on a sunny flat site surrounded by three garden spaces in Kent Woodlands, his hardwired love of authenticity and graphic design background kicked in.
“I wanted the architecture to be of the period without being kitsch, and the outside to be an extension of it, too,” he says. A construction firm recommended nursery manager and landscape consultant Mark Erickson of California Bay Nurseries.

How did you interpret your client’s vision?
Mark Erickson: He’s a graphic designer so he wanted everything linear and all the plant material to be on the blue-green side. There are hedges of clipped boxwood and Laurus nobilis around the perimeter with masses of agapanthas and some accent trees and rectangular expanses of lawn in the back gardens.

The front garden is the sunniest area and flanks the long path from the driveway to the front door. I added a grove of olive trees here, underplanted them with teurcrium and filled in around them with a white path of gravel.

What about the rest of the garden?
ME: The hardscape is concrete, linear and very serene. We subcontracted it along with the pool and the lighting but installed the drip and pop-up irrigation for the plants and lawn. It’s all designed to blend in naturally.

California Bay Nurseries, 399 Entrada Dr., Ignacio, 415.883.6383

An Eastern Motif

In the fall of 2009, Gloria Sanchez of Sloat Garden Center’s design department got a call from a Novato home owner who wanted to continue the Asian motif in the garden begun by her father and to integrate the three pine trees he’d planted in the front yard more than 30 years ago.
The two-story hillside home has two extreme microclimates—-a front garden exposed to deer, full sun and afternoon winds, and a fenced back garden shaded by a canopy of redwood and cypress trees.

When you think of all the beautiful Japanese gardens in foggy San Francisco, it’s difficult to imagine installing one in Novato’s hot climate. Can it work?
Gloria Sanchez: Yes, there are a lot of similarities, especially with the windswept elements. And there are a number of plants that work well —mugo pine, pittosporum, nandina.

Any challenges?
GS: A drainage canal that ran the length of the backyard! But working with a negative aspect of a site can very often make it the most distinctive part of the design. We made it into a “creek bed” by painting the exposed concrete sides with a product called Moss Mikshake to encourage moss to grow, filling the center with rocks and pebbles, and planting it with ferns, daphnes, Japanese anemones, pieris, rhododendrons and azaleas.

The mix of foliage and blooming plants really ties the space together. Finally, we placed three wooden bridges across the “creek” and added some step stones.

What about surprises?
GS: The back garden was so overgrown that our client never spent any time there, especially since she had such nice views from her upper deck. But we created a river-washed stone staircase and added a small patio in the back that now gives her a nice place to sit in the shaded part of the garden and look out over the rolling hills.

Sloat Garden Center design department, 401 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.3754