Indoor-Outdoor Living in San Rafael
Garden schemes that will help you get the most out of your backyard.
Photos by Nick Vasilopoulos, Gary Yost and Michelle Lee Willson
Face it. If Californians didn’t invent this whole indoor-outdoor living concept, we should have. We are consummate experts at finding all sorts of ways to enjoy every inch of our landscapes. That’s not surprising, given that we in Marin occupy some of the most prime real estate in the Golden State. But what if a garden is just a little too hot, too shady or too steep to fully enjoy? The following three landscape installations, along with the talented professionals who created them, offer clever ideas and inspiration to get you around any outdoor challenge.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
When David and Paige Hirschkop bought their San Rafael property in 2004, they loved the “bones” of the midcentury house and the sunlight that washed over their spacious garden. With a view of San Pablo Bay from the front, an embrace of open space in the back, and a swimming pool on the side that took advantage of both, they thought, what’s not to love?
Well, three things, to be exact: the house, the garden and the pool. “It was all a disaster,” Paige now says with a laugh. “It needed a lot of work.” They remodeled the home first, and then, just over a year ago, gave the grade its big makeover.
“The main thing is we wanted to use the outdoor space and we wanted it to be fun,” she says.
The fun starts with the swimming pool. Once kidney-shaped, it now has clean, modern lines, a built-in hot tub, a trio of splashy water fountain spouts, and a Dolphin waterslide that travels down through the landscape before depositing adventurous swimmers into the water. A solar cover keeps the pool clean and safe and controls evaporation.
But as in any garden with all that glorious sun, creating spots of respite from the rays was essential. “Kids like sun but adults like shade,” Paige says. “I personally want shade and we wanted comfortable places where people could relax and enjoy being outdoors.”
Geoff Hall of Sentient Landscape, who along with Outer Space Landscape Architecture helped create the garden, agrees. “Full sun gardens provide so many options and opportunities,” he says. “They are where we grow many of our fruits, nuts, berries and veggies and a wide variety of pollinator-friendly native and drought-tolerant perennial flowers.
“Sometimes, for people to enjoy a full sun garden, one needs to create a little shade,” he adds. Besides trees, “trellises covered in vines like table grapes or fragrant star jasmine, simple umbrellas or shade sails are some ways of creating instant shade in full sun gardens.”
In their garden, the Hirschkops chose primarily the convenience and attractiveness of fabric shading. Sunbrella material draped over a custom shade structure, for example, provides instant relief from the sun for those who want to gather or lounge around the fire pit. A cantilevered Tucci umbrella protects diners while they enjoy meals at the dining table; another Tucci umbrella can be popped up in the shallow end of the pool, providing shade to those who want to linger in the water; and still other umbrellas are ready to be deployed wherever necessary.
The quiet backdrop to all this poolside fun is an array of drought-tolerant plantings with a low-key palette, such as Grevilia “scarlet sprite,” which attracts bees and hummingbirds; the golden-orange-blossomed Lantana “radiance”; and “swan hill,” the non-fruiting variety of olive trees. Potted annuals, strategically placed around the seating areas, provide unexpected pops of color in red and orange.
Once a “disaster,” the Hirschkops’ new garden gives them a beautiful new space to enjoy. “We like to entertain and this garden gives us the space to do it,” Paige says. “The kids use it all the time. I just wish we had done it when they were younger.”
MADE IN THE SHADE
Who says gardening in the shade has to consist solely of planting favorite standbys such as ferns, rhododendrons or azaleas? Not Jori Hook, principal of Jori Hook Landscape Architects in Mill Valley. In fact, her view is that the bright side of shade gardening is just that — the bright side.
“The beauty of a shade garden is, ironically, the quality of light,” Hook muses. “Light is so important to almost all of us that even when walking, we stop in our tracks for gorgeous light. That usually doesn’t happen in full sun.”
Tracking sunlight as it courses through a garden, she is able to observe how intense, how dark, or how splashy it is at different times. “Having almost no sun in a garden is difficult but still doable, just with a smaller plant palette,” she explains. “Once you know the constraints of a garden, your opportunities explode.”
For true garden success, she says, “you really must let the space reveal itself at all times of day and in all seasons. When you tap into the spirit of the place and fully respect the sun orientation and soil conditions, when you really dig deep, everything emerges from that.”
For example, it’s important to consider how one will experience the garden when moving through it, to understand how one’s eye will naturally follow the sunlight or seek the vista or long view. “There is nothing more frustrating than to move into a garden and be stuck with nowhere for my feet or my eyes to go,” she says.
In this particular Mill Valley garden, a generous few acres situated under redwoods with some areas that receive hot sun, Hook’s client wanted unusual plants, ones that would offer seasonal interest, and ones without shiny leaves.
“She’s an artist, she loves the land where she lives and she loves the redwoods,” Hook says. After two small creative arts studios were built on site, “she wanted to feel that land had been returned to nature.”
The key to achieving this was softening harsh lines, avoiding use of concrete paths or patios, and concealing the view of any building.
That’s where the idea of a living roof garden for the lower studio originated. Its planting scheme visually pays homage to the mosaic of native plants one might see while hiking nearby Mount Tamalpais. Planted with sedums, sempervivum, senecio and echeveria, the living roof gives the studio below extra insulation and better fire protection.
Large water-washed bluestone pavers guide the visitor’s step through the landscape, but it’s the careful placement of the bright green plants such as Corsican hellebores or variegated ones, like Japanese forest grass, Carex “evergold,” Heuchera “green spike,” pieris or daphne, that guide the eye.
“This is a gardener’s garden,” Hook says. “There is a delicacy about it, where plants have space for their full expression.”
You have a hill. You have the wind. You need a plan. That was the situation for the owners of a gorgeous half-acre in Tiburon, except they had one more sloperelated issue — poor drainage.
Gretchen Whittier and Kate Stickley, partners at Arterra Landscape Architects, took all of this in when they first surveyed the project. Due to the drainage issue, “when we arrived on the scene, the hillside was being torn up,” Whittier says. “It sloped directly onto the house and the house had suffered water damage and was being repaired.”
Still, the visual appeal of the property with its incredible views of the open lands posed yet another challenge: the homeowners wanted full access to all that beauty.
That meant “they wanted to increase the access to the lower garden and pool, they wanted a seating area to drink a glass of wine and take in the view, and they wanted it to remain open, and not fenced off from the open space,” she explains.
First, though, the poor drainage needed to be addressed. Whittier and Stickley devised a gently curved grassy swale in the center of the garden that redirects water from the hillside away from the house.
A small stone footbridge allows the garden visitor to experience the garden n both sides of the swale.
A stepped path, framed by lavender and both drought- and salt air–tolerant plants, follows the swale as it heads downward. Along the way, remnants of a former rock formation once near the house are now seen along the steps and form the viewing platform, or perch, with a pair of chairs for watching the changing view.
When it came to a planting scheme, the land again played a role. “The homeowners were interested in getting rid of water and wanted the side garden to represent the opposite,” Whittier explains. So, to counter the cool nature of water, she and Stickley chose an intense hot color plant palette, creating a subtle yinyang effect.
The kangaroo paws are the standouts. “They love the climate and really give this garden the bursts of red and yellow,” Whittier says, while the new grasses play with the wind. “Our clients really wanted to see sweeps of moving grasses,” she adds. “Grasses are a great way to see the wind but not have it be destructive to the plants.”
And because the owners wanted to welcome wildlife, including deer, into the space, deer-resistant plants like smoke bush and pineapple guava were purposely planted.
“The clients love their garden now,” Whittier says. “They spend a lot of time on that little perch with the chairs and their teenagers love it, too. They wander through the space and go for lots of walks.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Sun, Shade and Slope”.