The Garden Maker

"Each garden is the story of its owner,” says Pete Pedersen, who’s been fashioning people’s stories into landscapes for 25 years. “First, I listen to my clients about what they want out of their garden. Then I see how they live in their current spaces and view the kinds of things with which they surround themselves to see if there is an opportunity to create a stronger connection to the garden. It’s through this lens that I begin my design process.”

Pedersen, a San Rafael landscape architect, completes about 35 landscapes annually, usually including seven estate gardens. His Bay Area clients have lives as varied as their gardens.

There’s the well-connected Eastern European who admired the grand gardens of France and paid homage to them in his Tiburon garden with Italian cypress, clipped topiaries and 700 roses. The Pacific Heights woman who loved the knot garden Pedersen created for her so much she had him re-create it when a new garage displaced it. A Tiburon couple who wanted a garden with structural plants and watery elements to set off their architecturally strong home and stellar water views.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of Marin’s most beloved authors, Isabel Allende, would have her own story to tell in the garden she shares with husband Willie Gordon. It’s a garden blessed with bay views, warm breezes and wide-open spaces.

The garden was a key element in their decision to purchase their San Rafael home, and Gordon was instrumental in creating the design story with Pedersen. “Isabel wanted a fiesta,” Pedersen says with a laugh, “and Willie loves flowers.”

So they got both—and more. Allende adores roses, for example, but Gordon is allergic to them, so Pedersen positioned them in the garden where they could bloom freely but safely at a distance. Combining that with 30 more rosebushes thriving behind a cabana, Gordon says, “we have roses for her office from April to November and sometimes December.” They are both fond of lemons and requested a lemon tree in the original landscape plans, then relocated another lemon tree from their office building to join it. “Now, needless to say, we have plenty of lemons,” he says.

Pedersen nurtured the existing knoll-top trees and lavished the perimeter of the garden with rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas. He planted Siberian iris, blue-eyed grass, lantana, salvia, bougainvillea and daylilies closer to the house, sited the pool for best exposure and designed a comfortable outdoor kitchen and entertainment area on a flagstone terrace.

“He was pretty clever in his design because if one stands on the steps behind the pool and looks toward the rear of our garden it looks as if it never ends. It’s an optical illusion,” Gordon says. “One sees the hill beyond the valley below us and it appears that it’s all part of our garden.”

Pedersen takes his cue from the site and from nature—the sun, wind and water orientation. “If you do that, you’re OK,” he says. “If you don’t, you’ll be fighting it all the time and it won’t be a successful landscape.”

Gordon and Allende chose seasonal annuals: primroses and cyclamen in winter, ranunculus and pansies in spring, and zinnias and roses in late spring and summer. He browses the local nurseries and has “settled on Costco to replace any ailing rhododendrons,” he says.

She writes her books in the cabana on the other side of the pool, “so she has to walk through the garden daily to get to her work, and I wander through it every day with my clippers and get rid of the dead flowers and other unsightly stuff while our dog, Olivia, chases the birds and the occasional rabbit that gets through the wire mesh on the fences.” During summer, “we live outside amidst our garden in full bloom while all the kids in the family enjoy the pool and barbecue.”

It’s all about the view

In another of Pedersen’s gardens, he blended the different geographic roots of his clients. She grew up in Marin, appreciates a little formality in the garden and, like her mother, loves roses. He’s from the South and has a penchant for big porches and gardens with plenty of color.

When this San Rafael couple moved from Kent Woodlands, where they’d had a simple view of Mount Tamalpais, to a hillside property above Glenwood in San Rafael with an arresting view of the bay, their stories merged in the garden.

“We wanted the garden to be pretty, to have privacy but openness, and nothing that would interrupt the view,” says the woman. She can enjoy a vibrant burst of color from the roses right outside the living room window and from anywhere on the long colonnaded porch. He can relish a peerless water-to-water view that stretches seamlessly from the infinity-edge pool to the bay.

In the garden, a sheared boxwood hedge embraces white shrub roses and drifts of perennial color in the form of lavender, pink Indian feather and lavender catnip around the lawn; a secluded shade garden envelops a simple fountain and a collection of white and pink azaleas and rhododendrons.

Surprisingly, this level garden space didn’t exist before: it was purposefully built through a series of offset retaining walls. “The property is on a promontory and I had to create a terrace for the lawn and pool,” Pedersen says. “In the flatlands of Kent Woodlands, a garden like this would have been no big deal, but it was a heroic effort to get this deep and spacious area on this lot.”


Peaceful retreat

For a pair of business owners who live near Loch Lomond in San Rafael, the garden is a retreat from a busy world. “We travel a lot and when we get home, we’re looking for tranquility without too much influence from the outside world,” the woman says. “We like nature and quiet time.”

The couple had just built their new home on a steep, challenging lot three years ago and wanted a garden that would let them experience the serenity of the bay and the sunsets behind Mount Tamalpais from all vantage points on the property.

Pedersen created hillside stairs that lead to a natural terrace where outdoor garden rooms are subtly separated by the house. Stone seating areas that overlook a lush lawn with large, artfully placed granite rocks around it are restful destination spots.

He also encouraged the owners to place meaningful sculptures in the garden. “That thought resulted in a wonderful entry garden graced by ancient Asian figures and the soothing sounds of the entry waterfall, which greet visitors,” she says. One of the couple’s most favored spots, though, is in their step-down spa near the termination point of a watercourse and granite waterfall.

“Sound was a key element in this design, and masking the distant background noise from Highway 101 was essential in creating the serenity of this garden,” Pedersen says. “You have to choreograph the water with the noise of the distant sigh of a freeway by emulating it with short runnels that break often.”

Sitting beside the waterfall “is the perfect spot to watch the light on the water, the bars from the adjacent marina and the ducks and other waterfowl gliding by,” the wife says. “And the spa is the ideal spot to unwind and view the stars and the lights of the bridges across the bay. It’s like being on vacation without leaving your home.”

Landscape architect Pete Pedersen has been designing Marin gardens for the last 25 years.