Writing Samples: Gardens

#1 Flower Gardens, Spring 2008


English Rose: A child-friendly English garden grows up beautifully in Southern California.


In 1993, when Debbie Johnson moved to her house in Mission Viejo, Southern California, she had yard work to do.  “The garden was poor and neglected,” she says.  “The lawn was half dead, there was concrete everywhere and there were hardly any flowers.  No one had lived there for a year.”  Debbie had two young boys—ages six and nine—at home with her, so her initial improvements to the 8,000 square foot yard were child-friendly.

Debbie stripped the yard and had it regraded.  She removed the mass of concrete, adding a small back patio and a welcoming front path.  She then hired a landscaper to put in a lawn for the boys to play on, a few border shrubs for color, and some shade-giving trees, including a bronze loquat and a melaleuca.  “I had little kids and they loved the lawn,” says Debbie.  “As they got older and played in the yard less and less, I got more and more interested in gardening.”  Debbie began going to garden tours to pinpoint her taste and increase her knowledge.

“I wanted a restful garden, somewhere calm and peaceful to unwind after a hectic day.  I like being outside weather permitting and that is possible a lot in Southern California,” says Debbie.  “I also love the English cottage garden style.”  Her desire for an English garden in the hot and dry climate she lived in presented challenges.  The customary English cottage style flowers like snapdragons, delphiniums and foxgloves prefer shadier and moister conditions.  Nothing deterred Debbie, however, who started growing what she loved.

“Though the English cottage style flowers are not typically Southern Californian, I figured out ways to grow them,” says Debbie.  “I kept trying.  If they didn’t work in one spot, I’d rip them out and replant them to find the right spot.  I learned from people who grew what I liked.  I was very determined.”  Almost right away, Debbie saw that she needed more shade trees, because it was simply too hot in the sun to grow the plants she liked.  She added mostly evergreens, such as carrotwoods, Brazilian pepper trees and New Zealand Christmas trees, because they supply steady year-round shade.

“Most people also plant plants too far from each other, so they don’t give shade to each other,” says Debbie. “I take a taller bush like an Indian hawthorn and then put lower things around it.  Grouping plants creates shade and keeps the soil moist, both essential for an English garden.”  Debbie also mulches heavily to keep moisture in her soil.  When rainfall may only be a few inches by mid-summer, keeping every drop of water in the soil is crucial.  Fortunately, the native clay soil retains water well, so Debbie loosens it with sand and silt, allowing water to drain to the plant roots better.  Clay is alkaline and Debbie likes to work with it, for example by adding acidity to make select hydrangeas blue.  Her roses love the clay soil, as does the bougainvillea that does so well in Southern California.

With Debbie’s experimentation, her English garden slowly grew.  “Like decorating a house, I worked a vignette at a time,” she says.  “I originally planted borders and then started taking out more lawn.”  Some of Debbie’s vignettes like the layered flowerbeds are small.   Others are larger with hardscaping, such as the iron gazebo she added in the middle of her yard.  The gazebo has three ‘doorways’ and three ‘windows’ and sits on a paved patio.  A profusion of roses and clematis covers the top.  The hardier sun-loving roses grow on the southwestern side, where the sun spends most of the day, and the more delicate clematis grows on the northeastern side, where the sun rises.  “The clematis likes its feet in the shade,” says Debbie, “and grows up toward the sun.” 

Another special vignette in the garden is the rose walk.  It was a Mother’s Day gift from Debbie’s sons, who are now in their twenties and no longer live at home.  “The boys helped put in the rose walk,” she says.  The rose walk consists of a stone path and three arches laden with beautiful pink Eden roses.  Inviting benches stay shaded from the morning until early afternoon.  For someone like Debbie who loves to be outdoors, the rose walk is yet another perfect place where she can enjoy Southern California’s temperate climate.

“I love my garden,” says Debbie.  “Like raising children, you learn as you grow.  It’s always evolving, but I finally think it’s done.  In the past when I did the vignettes, I used to think next time I can do this or that.  Now I can just relax…and tinker!”



How to grow an English garden in a hot arid climate

-Add shade trees

-Cluster plants for shade and water retention

-Fertilize soil and ensure good drainage

-Mulch heavily

-Work in vignettes and do not be afraid to experiment

-Water frequently


#2 Flower Gardens, Spring 2007


Charm and grace in a cool climate: A simple white and green color scheme gives this small backyard a serene style far removed from its inner-city surroundings.


“Thirty years ago there was nothing here but the old walnut tree and some scruffy grass,” says Katherine Johnson of the lush garden she tends with her husband Don in urban St. Paul, Minnesota.  At the time, the couple had never gardened and did not have a clue what to do with the narrow 1100 square foot lot.  They just knew the soil was good, as the area had once been farmland.  In Minnesota, the winters are cold and hard, and the summers, hot and humid.  Katherine and Don were schoolteachers who liked to escape the city heat by taking long bicycle trips.  “When we biked in England in 1977,” says Katherine, “we visited the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle.  We were completely enchanted by its White Garden.”

The first thing that struck them about the White Garden was the elegant yet simple color scheme of white and green.  The Johnson’s garden had so much shade due to the mature walnut tree that they instantly saw how white flowers would really stand out.  “I also thought with white,” says Katherine, “there would be a feeling of calm and unity, rather than busy dots of color all over the place.”  In a small urban garden, this choice proved integral to making the space seem both bigger and more relaxing.  To achieve what Katherine calls “continuity and connectedness,” certain plant species, such as Japanese painted fern and impatiens, are repeated in different parts of the garden.  Katherine also wanted to select plants that varied in shape, texture and height to create interest despite the limited colors. 

The couple set about researching plants, many of them shade-tolerant varieties, knowing they wanted a full garden with blooms from early spring to late fall.  In winter, evergreens and hardscaping could maintain the aesthetic.  On their bicycle trips, the Johnsons continued to visit gardens, keeping lists of the flowers they liked.  The plants were often not available in Minnesota, but local greenhouses gave them suggestions for substitutes.  “Initially it was hard finding white flowers because people didn’t use a lot of white in American gardens,” says Katherine.  She recalls ordering her first plant, white bleeding hearts, through a catalogue.  However, as the years passed, nurseries began to carry more white varieties, including those once challenging to find.  Katherine remains adventurous.  She sometimes orders plants more suitable to warmer climates like white Jack in the Pulpit or star magnolias, just to see what happens, relying partly on the urban heat shield.

The second thing the Johnsons sought to recreate from the White Garden was its formal lines and division into loosely defined areas called ‘garden rooms’.  “If there are plantings all over, there’s a sense of disorder,” says Katherine.  “When you enclose part of a garden into a room and give it certain focal points, it seems larger, especially if the rooms are all enclosed differently.  You don’t see all of one room, just some of it, but the idea is to see all the way to the end of the garden.  It draws you in and makes the view long.”  Don set about defining their garden rooms with hardscaping, while Katherine did the same with plantings.  Sculptures, seating, flowerbeds and fountains became focal points.

“Our garden grew by rooms in a very organic way,” recalls Katherine.  “Don used to sit outside the backdoor and have his morning coffee, so we started by defining a space that lent itself to having a drink.”  This room has a red brick path that leads to a matching bricked patio.  Katherine added more intimacy to the space by partly enclosing it with pruned Alpine currant hedges.  The furniture and umbrella became a focal point in this room that Don and Katherine call the court area.  Beyond the patio table, two yews serve as a portal into another room, while their height adds vertical interest to the garden.  Several such rooms were created by the Johnsons over time, making the garden layered and intriguing, while the sinuous statue at the very back beckons from most angles.

“The garden makes us relax,” says Katherine.  “It’s calming and at the same time invigorating, a transition from the hectic outside world to our personal world.  It’s also something we did together.  The garden gave us an aesthetic outlet, along with the physical.  It even gave us a destination for our bike rides!”  


#3 Water Gardens, Spring 2005


Pretty as a Picture: A Minneapolis couple’s water garden brings them days and nights of tranquility.


French impressionist Claude Monet drew inspiration for his water lily paintings from his water garden in Giverny.  The delicate interplay of water, plants and light led the master artist to create his most serene and restorative works.  In Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis, Steve and Josey Hedberg clearly had an appreciation for what Monet captured on canvas when they chose to install a water garden in their backyard. 

The Hedbergs are not new to water gardens.  Steve has a company that sells the materials for installing water gardens and Josey used to be his dealer.  Teamwork remains an important aspect of how they work.  They conceived of and designed their water garden together.  Then Steve oversaw the construction of the water garden, while Josie selected the aquatic plants.

The water garden consists of two waterfalls that cascade into two streams, one meandering more than the other.  The streams eventually feed into two separate ponds linked by a third stream.  For plants, Josey chose local perennials as much as possible for their longevity and easy maintenance, though her tropical annuals yield showier blooms with brighter colors.  Goldfish dart among the greenery.

Steve speaks passionately of what he considers to be the focal point of any water garden.  “The pond is like a work of art,” he says.  “They use the same components, yet each is different.  People who build them, like any artist, have their own signature.”  Monet may well have agreed.