Guest Blogger MB Maher
The only time you don’t want to put your lens to a landscape is high noon. Which is, diabolically, the only time private gardens unbolt their gates for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days. It’s insidious and unscientific, but even if there are five gardens to view in a single day, you will arrive at each of them at high noon, as if the sun has stalled in the sky on this one day when you most want slanted evening light, or even the good glow of a morning. There’s nothing to be done. You tell yourself these are scouting trips only, and that any images made are simply place-savers for an eventual return, but it pains you to take photograph after photograph with nuclear highlights, craterous shadows, washed out details, anemic color, and dazed-looking Conservancy members in broad hats and bright pants.
And it is in this spirit that I file my report for A Growing Obsession and present these images from the Peninsula Open Days in San Mateo County. Nothing here looks good, but it is no fault of the designers, architects or plantsmen. I retain full responsibility for the crumbiness of the images and curse our unfailing star at its apex even as I sing its praises at every other declination.
(Can’t you imagine us all visiting these gardens at cocktail hour, with the sun low in the sky, a pitcher of whiskey sours sweating in the heat, the murmur of good conversation, and the clicking of happy photographers?)
This first garden was designed by landscape architect Keith Willig and planted by Nancy Shanahan in Woodside, California. The chief features of this space are a lima-bean-shaped pool and a sizable meadow, both very central to the composition. To break up the cement and pebble lip of the pool, Keith Willig studded the space with small (1.5ft square) sunken planters, which are now home to tough plants like euphorbia and a Mexican evening primrose, among others. The conjuring trick pays off (‘how are these plants growing from sealed cement??’) and brings the planting to the pool very successfully and modestly.
Nancy Shanahan prides herself on drought-tolerant and deer-proof plantings (the regional concerns of horticulturalists fascinate me) and nowhere is this more evident than in the enormous grass meadow that bisects the garden. The owners wanted less lawn and Nancy gave it to them with three species of bunch grasses and a smattering of native manzanita. The meadow is the defining feature of the garden and invites viewers to its curved edges much the same as the swimming pool, with the exception that the meadow space has been deeded back to the natural hillside and is decidedly not for human incursion. Which is incredibly refreshing and causes one to keep investigating the meadow, testing its borders and circumnavigating it for better views.
There is also the ineluctable succulent orb in the entryway of the house. No one should be without one of these. The more fire sticks the better.
Kristin Davis has done a workman-like replanting of this next garden in Atherton, but while the extensive grounds have nice moments and vignettes, she was battling against preexisting hardscape in this case that leaves you adrift in an endless lawn and pushes all detailed plantings to the borders, holding them at a continual arm’s length. Serendipity has been banished and the plants have been sent to their rooms by disciplinarian parents who believe foliage should be seen and not heard. Lots of edibles mixed in with good color and texturing, but in the end, this is a trampoline garden.
Our host and guide in San Mateo county was the lovely Ms. Laura Schaub of InterLeafings, the SF Flower Show, and SchaubDesigns. Laura, pictured here with Haku, has a dazzling home garden (soon to be featured in Fine Gardening, although I’m probably supposed to keep that quiet). While driving down the block with only the vaguest directions, we wondered out loud how we would recognize Laura’s house, not realizing that it would be landscaped like a Whitman poem. We think quite a lot of Laura.
I encourage Bay Area hortilati to visit the gardens in San Francisco’s Open Days this coming weekend (5/22), several of which are designed by Beth Mullins, whom I have had the pleasure to work with on many occasions. Her spaces are characterized by razor sharp intersections of stone hardscape that define her gardens with nooks, planes, and angles. The only thing that curves in Mullins’ gardens are her plants. And a one-time circular labyrinth built with river stone and tall grass that will be open this Saturday. Beth is a biochemist turned designer and a good friend.
I include this final image of lunch because it will be the last image to come out of my 1Ds, which died in Marin County immediately after this photograph was taken, due to the carelessness of some Boy Scouts staying at our hostel. This was my very first digital camera (I trained on film) and will be remembered with affection and red wine. If you would like to write to Canon and encourage them to build a professional full-frame DSLR that can withstand eight-year-olds, I will not stop you.
Thanks to Denise & A Growing Obsession for having me — MB Maher