Pink House Chronicles – The Garden: Asking ‘Where’ Covers Lots of Ground

Read Part 3 of “Pink House Chronicles – The Garden” here.

In the interrogative outline we’ve been exploring in our series, the “Where” part is about assessing your site and its immediate surroundings. This is almost as important as the “Who” part we’ve already discussed. So, at the beginning of your garden planning, take a long hard look at its physical location.

Consider: Climate zone. Solar orientation. Soil fertility. Storm water drainage. Slope. Zoning. There is a lot to look at.

Here’s a list of everything I consider when inventorying a site prior to starting any real planning. It may seem like overkill, but I have found that each of the items on the list has restrictions that often affect the design in some, often crucial, way. Note, for instance, your street light locations, because their harsh brightness can absolutely ruin the cozy ambiance you’ve tried so hard to create for your new patio. Doni has one in her alley that shines all over her back yard and into the house. Good for security, but wow, do we need screening!

Don’t forget to check with your local building department. You may not be allowed to put a high wall around the front yard to create your private Tuscan courtyard.

When you make your own lists, you may find that what may seem like a difficult situation, such as a really steep slope (hard to build a patio there!), may be the perfect opportunity for something else – like a waterfall, a feature naturally found on slopes. Keep an open mind. It’s about analyzing your lemons and deciding whether you’ll be making lemonade, lemon pie, lemon Jell-O, or throwing it all out and going with apples.

As they say – the beauty of design lies in finding expression in restriction. Isn’t that lovely? Reminds me of a poem by Marianne Moore: Nevertheless you’ve seen a strawberry that’s had a struggle . . . (Click on the title’s hyperlink for more.)

Like all sites, Doni’s has some restrictions with which we must deal. It is a flat, urban lot in the historic Garden Tract area of Redding, California. The front of the house faces south – hot! Storm water drainage is difficult because of the lack of sloping ground.

Privacy is a challenge – neighbors are close by on both sides, although an alley in the back gives some breathing space there. At least there are fences on three sides, but some are in poor repair. The lot is narrow – just 54 feet wide – but a good 142 feet deep. Altogether, that’s just 7,668 square – a nice size for one person to maintain.

The Pink House came with an in-ground freeform pool (not kidney shaped, not rectangular) set at an angle in the middle of the yard. The pool’s concrete deck covers probably 90 percent of the area back there. In fact, there’s a lot of old concrete and uneven brickwork throughout the property. The side yards are paved for walkways, and the driveway takes up almost half the space out front.

OMG! I’m making it sound horrible! Yet, there are many good things about this site. Number one in my book is the HUGE oak tree that straddles the side property line and provides bountiful shade. Someone has kept this tree in good shape over the years. Large trees like this one are literally priceless and nothing can replace their presence. The neighborhood is filled with them.

Except for a few perennials that Doni wants to give to her contractors, there aren’t too many plants worth saving, other than some nice little lemon trees, and a lovely old mock orange (Pittosporum tobira) with its whorled leaves and orange-fragrant flowers.

Then there’s the Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) in the front yard. Doni is reconciled to keeping it because it adds shade. I can see it as a “sentry” with a lot of character, greeting people as they make their way through the new front courtyard to the front door. Like most trees, it will dictate/inspire the planting design all around it because of its dominant size, bold leaf texture, and prominent position. With its specially chosen horticultural companions, it will look like it was meant to be there.

As you plan your garden, include in your inventory of existing conditions all those plants that you would like to keep. Then, endeavor to preserve them during the construction process. Don’t rinse the paint equipment out around them, nor the cement mixer. Mature trees will need protection from heavy equipment or trenching within their large root zones. Proximity to engine exhaust pipes can burn their leaves off. Continue to provide summer water at the same level they have been used to. And don’t create a layout that piles a foot of soil on top of their roots and be surprised when they slowly suffocate and die.

Any existing plants that don’t blow your skirt up should find new homes. Don’t keep them just because they’re there if you really don’t like them, or if they are causing significant problems like blocking walkways. Landscapes are not eternal and plants do wear out, lose their usefulness, or get ugly – just like sofas. If you need to, get out the proper tools and commit floranasia (a great word invented by my garden helper Michael Thomas), then get on with the new stuff. As the pictures show – we have some cleaning out to do at the Pink House!

Look for our next question –  “When?” in an up-coming installment of this series, PHC – The Garden.

Karen McGrath is a professional garden designer working out of Redding in the foothills of north central California. Her mission is to bring people outside, which she accomplishes by designing custom-fitted, outdoor spaces for their homes. She also volunteers her time and expertise at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Redding, CA. Reach Karen via email at kmcgrath@charter.net, or at (530) 222-4277. Check out her website at karenmcgrathdesign.com.

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is a professional garden designer working out of Redding in the foothills of north central California. Her mission is to bring people outside, which she accomplishes by designing custom-fitted, outdoor spaces for their homes. She also volunteers her time and expertise at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Redding CA. Reach her at kmcgrath@charter.net or at (530) 222-4277. Visit her website at karenmcgrathdesign.com.
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1 Response

  1. Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    I loved this article. I just became a first time property owner and I'm overwhelmed by the possibilities and challenges. What seems simple is complex, and your piece demonstrates that. Thank you.

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