Creating Garden Moods
Creating a Mood: From the Mediterranean to England, without leaving Santa Rosa
Photographs by Electra DePeyster
If designing a garden were only a matter of considering simplicity, balance, focal interest, proportion or scale and unity, and applying those principles, it might be easy. Look at the existing site, the size of the house and trees, choose a few more trees and shrubs to balance it out; select plants in preferred colors and varieties; install one exceptionally fascinating tree or fantastic fountain; tie it all together with a bit of repetition, and boom, there’s the design! Many subdivisions are landscaped in exactly this way, with results that are not displeasing. The better landscapes use plants appropriate to the climate, in esthetically pleasing combinations with a nod to neighborhood harmony.
But what if you want to create more than just a pleasant environment? What if you have a specific style, ambiance or location that you admire, which you want your garden to reflect? Although as Master Gardeners we advocate practicing ‘location appropriate’ gardening (here in Sonoma County that means choosing plants that are generally low water and minimizing lawn), that doesn’t mean that you must restrict the mood of your garden to the most common interpretations. With a little imagination and planning, you can achieve a garden mood ranging from that of a dry, sun-drenched Tuscan Villa to a Romantic English cottage. Two of the 2008 Master Gardener Bloomin’ Backyards tour gardens are fine examples of how “mood” has been created: “Joan’s Garden, A Mediterranean Mood” and “Gwen’s Garden, California English Country”.
Importantly, she chose a theme that works well here in Sonoma County: we share the same type of climate with the Mediterranean and thus, the plants grow well here. Also, much of our architecture uses Mediterranean touches. Mediterranean-style garden design has its roots in both the Italian Renaissance and with the Moors, who brought their ideas to Spain from North Africa. Familiar elements of Mediterranean gardens include: fountains, statuary or other ornament, courtyards, shade pavilions, patios and gravel or stone pathways. So Joan’s challenge was how to incorporate those elements into a modern Santa Rosa backyard! She spent almost two years studying the light exposure, the natural elements of the property, the topography, the prevailing winds, the views, the water absorption and runoff. She says, “The design sprang from its own roots, the rocks and the stone.”
Her enclosed backyard was her ‘courtyard’ and a stroke of luck was the massive Coast Live Oak just behind the house. What was this but a ready made ‘shade pavilion’, a perfect spot for a table and chairs? Thus, a classic element is reinterpreted in a medium that is so appropriate to our County that it is a native tree! Her patient study of the property’s natural attributes enabled her to use this feature in a way entirely consistent with her desired theme.
Since fountains are an important component of Mediterranean garden design, Joan incorporated a fountain into the swimming pool, so that the sound of running water can be heard throughout the backyard. Rather than use Spanish tiles as one might see at the Alhambra in Spain, she used the native rocks that were excavated from the garden itself, again re-interpreting a classic element in thoroughly Sonoma fashion. Deciding that classical statuary was too formal, Joan has ‘modernized’ this element by using round stone balls as ornaments. Large pottery urns are placed strategically throughout the beds and walkways to reinforce the theme.
The stone patio extends the living space from the house to the outdoors and serves to link the two. The curving stone pathways again make use of locally available materials and the beds are planted in masses of Mediterranean and California native plants, such as ornamental grasses, lavenders, butterfly bushes, salvias, and nepeta, producing an undulating rhythm, a calming softness. Olive trees, oreganos, and Russian sage were added to the mix, giving a Mediterranean presence to the entire garden in both texture and color. The soft gray-green foliage lightens the palette and emphasizes the sun-drenched effect, with brilliant punctuations of color. The entire effect is Mediterranean, but thoroughly California!
However, just because we have a Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma County does not mean that gardeners are restricted to Mediterranean styles. The English Country or Cottage Garden is a popular style the world over, and it is possible to replicate it here, with thoughtful planning, prudent plant selection and careful gardening practices.
Why does it feel English? Gwen has managed to incorporate several key elements of an informal English cottage garden in her Santa Rosa backyard: enclosure (dating back to medieval times when gardens were more formal), a rich assortment of plant material (not the large masses of single species seen in Joan’s garden, for example), trellises and arbors, a mixture of colors, an informal, sometimes almost riotous design and the inclusion of fruit trees and vegetables.
The success of Gwen’s garden owes as much to her selection of specific plant material and her gardening practices as it does to her design. While she does, in fact, use many plants that are not low-water, she makes enormous use of ones that are – salvias, knifophias, phormiums all share garden space with thirsty Roses and Clematis. By beginning with the trellises and arbors, she sets the stage for an English mood before she has planted a single plant. The riot of color and mixture of plant material carry the theme along, regardless of the specific plants chosen. Her decision to incorporate trees and shrubs in her flower beds is also a very English touch. There is something blooming at almost all times of the year, and the overall sense of lush informal plantings gives way to specific delights and wonders as visitors approach and isolate individual plants or flowers.
While many of the plants are low water, it is obvious that the garden is overrun with roses and there is no denying that the paths are grass. How can Gwen manage to keep this landscape looking so lush in water-scarce Sonoma County? Her secret is two-fold: mulching and hand-watering. Mulching, (in case you have missed our previous attempts to proselytize), conserves water, keeps down the weeds and enriches the soil. By heavily mulching her beds – and by top-dressing her lawn paths with compost – Gwen makes the most of the water that she applies. Secondly, Gwen has no automatic irrigation. She waters the entire garden by hand, as needed. She has hose bibs conveniently situated around the property so that she never has to drag a hose very far. Hand watering means several things: first and foremost, it is very unlikely that you will overwater and hence use more than you need if you are standing there holding a hose! Secondly, you can use the water where and when you need it, and give a long drink to the rambling rose and infrequent hits to the salvias and rockroses. Thirdly, no water is wasted with broken nozzles, overwatering of pathways and drives, or inefficient spray patterns. Overall, although her garden might use more water than a garden such as Joan’s, it uses far less than one would imagine. Gwen’s extensive use of shrubs and trees in her borders, with their larger and deeper root systems than herbaceous perennials, add a degree of lushness than would be hard to achieve with smaller plants and restricted water use. Thus, the lushness, incredible variety of plant material, strategic use of roses and trellises set the stage and make a California garden seem English!
These two gardens are totally unlike each other, each evoking a different mood and reflecting the lifestyles and personalities of the Master Gardeners who designed them and live there. Joan and Gwen each had in her mind a visual concept of what she wanted and the mood she wanted to create. Each began with a plan, a set of characteristics to incorporate, and each garden evolved over several years to their current mature states.
As you wander around these Bloomin’ Backyards gardens on June 22, notice how the design principles were incorporated into their landscapes. Do you want to create a mood in your garden? The basic steps are:
- Select the theme or mood – try to make it harmonious with your location, the architecture of your house, and your microclimate.
- Study a bit about the design you’ve chosen and determine what key elements give it its integrity and feeling. We’ve discussed Mediterranean and English Cottage, but there are many, many others: Southwest Desert, California Woodland, Japanese, etc.
- Determine ways to interpret those elements in a manner that you find aesthetically pleasing, affordable and suitable for our climate.
- Think about ways to use native and local materials in place of foreign or introduced materials and plants.
- Go slowly and study your garden to make the best use of your natural elements.
- Enjoy the process!
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners