For Sandra, a “hands-on” person, it was tough to stay out of the way as a contractor and workmen gutted and completely renovated the 1950s house she and her husband, Howard, had just bought in Walla Walla, Washington.
New to the area, Sandra was keen to get to know the neighborhood. So while the men upgraded her new home to a more modern aesthetic and condition, she turned to the front garden. Each day, from a rental house a few blocks away, Sandra would come over and labor in the garden in an effort to make progress on the house and to begin to meet her neighbors.
The garden was not a garden when she started. Her first efforts were directed at a steep bank along the sidewalk, a discouraging mass of rocks knit together by a dense mat of Bermuda grass. She progressed incrementally, each day removing a few more rocks and clearing a little more area.
On the strip of land between the sidewalk and street, sheltered under an old weeping cherry tree, Sandra placed a cheerful red rustic table and chairs saved from her garden at her previous house, in Seattle. She used river-washed natural gravel to cover the soil. A big water dish for dogs and a beautifully planted pot on the table, a garden in miniature, were the finishing touches. In effect, she created a street-side living room, a place to sit and visit. The tables and chairs had provided the same function at her former home, and many conversations, cups of coffee and glasses of wine had passed over its brightly colored surface.
The steep bank took shape with plants Sandra brought from her Seattle garden, chiefly low-growing succulents like groundcover sedums, low-growing grasses like fescues and American millet grass milium effusum ‘Aureum’ — all sparely punctuated with yuccas.
“I’m not a professional gardener, but I know what I like,” Sandra said. She wanted a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant garden with a modern aesthetic that would correspond with that of the house. As the plants grew and spread, she pulled off small pieces of the sedums and planted them around the yard to limit the number of plant species used and the number of others she’d need to buy. The garden is densely planted and the succulents now merge into a solid carpet.
In the winter, the pattern made by the low-growing succulents, gray fescues, golden grasses, lamb’s ears, coral bells and gray yucca is like a soft and vibrant Persian carpet draped over the bank, with the bright and soft greens and gray and yellow hues repeating in a tapestry of color. In early summer the succulents bloom and the bank turns into a miniature meadow of little white and yellow flowers, heavily visited by tiny native bees.
The strip between the sidewalk and street, a very difficult place to garden, has been turned into a gravel garden. Sandra used the same grey-white washed rocks as under the table and chairs to cover the ground, and she sparingly dotted the same plants as in the bank in small groups throughout, adding smaller lavender cultivars that resemble large, perfectly rounded stones and which contrast physically with the spiky yuccas and soft sedums. The space was perfectly weeded before she started planting and before a drip system to water the plants was installed.
The one-story house is painted dark gray with white trim around windows and doors. Along the front are evenly spaced large black pots planted with the yellow Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold,’ a color reflecting some of the yellow succulent foliage and golden grasses on the bank in front of the house.
Together, all the elements work to create a unified design of color and texture between the house and garden. The seasonally changing picture complements the house’s new aesthetic, and the plants look as much like friends as Sandra’s many new neighbors who often drop by.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: [email protected], freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool