Northern California Garden Weaves In Couple's Cultural Traditions

Like the couple who owns it, this Woodside garden is a cultural mash-up (he’s a native Californian; she’s from South Africa). In the gloved hands of landscape designer Chris Jacobson, the garden combines plants from both regions in an eclectic way—proving, as Maya Angelou says, that diversity has beauty and strength.
 It wasn’t always this way. The first time Jacobson visited the house he found the five-acre plot dead on arrival, the victim of poor plant choice, bad drainage and overwatering. The designer relocated some of the barely breathing native plants up onto hills, where they thrived in drier conditions. In the lower parts of the garden, he mounded soil in the beds, allowing the water to roll off the gentle slopes. He filled those plots with plants traditional to his clients’ birthplaces and surrounded them with grass because, as he says, “The kids need a place to play and practice soccer—lawns should be for use, not show.”

The rest of the plant choices are more suited for the region’s Mediterranean-like environment, relying on leaf shapes and forms for interest, rather than more thirsty and showy flowers. “We used grasses, reeds and rushes—the whole idea was to create something like a savanna,” says Jacobson.

Photography by Marion Brenner

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for flowers—including English garden roses, which may not be native to South Africa but have deep roots in that country’s past. “South Africa has Dutch and English influences, and that’s really seen in their gardens,” says Jacobson. “We simply wove in those traditions here. We also have some grasses from Asia, a nod to the Asian influence you see here in California.”

The tall grasses set in the expanse of lawn—accented by trees, foliage and a bit of flower color—create a garden that defies classification or pedigree. So Jacobson has come up with a name for it: the New California Garden. “It describes the adventurous spirit in our state’s gardens,” he says. “It’s more whimsical and free-spirited than the gardens you see in Europe or New England.”

This was originally published in California Home + Design's Summer 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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