ISSUE 49  |  Haute Holiday

Garden Secrets: What a Landscape Architect Plants at Home

December 07, 2012 12:00 PM

BY Michelle Slatalla

Whenever we feature a lavish, big-budget garden project, we can’t help wondering: What does a landscape architect’s own backyard look like?

Here’s one answer to that question. Northern California landscape architect Pede Pedersen–who designs grand seaside overlooks, formal garden schemes, and terraces that spill down slopes to infinity-edged pools–invited us to visit his home in San Anselmo, a half hour’s drive north of San Francisco. He designed his one-acre garden and built much of it himself (“I’m handy with tools,” he says) over the course of the past seven years. Here’s his story:

Photographs courtesy of Pedersen Associates.

700_pete-pederson-garden-5Above: Eight years ago, the Pedersen family was looking for a house in San Anselmo. “My wife was driving in the neighborhood and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on the land. There’s wasn’t even a road to it, just four empty lots,” says Pedersen. “We bought all four lots. We had to become developers to afford the house we wanted. We sold our own house, bought the raw land, and rented a house for a year while we did it.”

After selling off some of the empty land to a builder, Pedersen ended up with a one-acre parcel on a steep slope. The challenge: “We wanted the house to empty out onto flat terraces instead of decks. I have to be connected to the ground, to walk out the door and be able to walk onto dirt,” he says.

N.B.: We want to see your garden too. Send us photos and we may feature it in a future post. Here’s how.

700_pete-pederson-garden-1Above: “When you build a house, you’re not going to have any money for landscaping. Guess what? The same thing happens to a landscape architect,” says Pedersen. “So the garden has sort of unfolded.”

The first stage of the project was to install infrastructure for an irrigation system and to amend the soil “so we would have the bones to work with,” Pedersen said.

A couple of years later, Pedersen designed and built the gate himself, using western red cedar wrapped around pressure-treated posts. On either side of the path is euphorbia; in the foreground is a Phormium ‘Yellow Wave,’ native to New Zealand. It will reach a height of 4 feet and prefers full sun or light shade.


Above: The property is sloped, so Pedersen established flat spaces and a series of terraced garden beds.”I find that if you have to go up and down more than, say, six risers, you’re in trouble because you’re never going to use that part of the garden,” he says.

All the stone walls have blind joints. “You don’t see any mortar, which shows of the stone very nicely,” he says.


Above: In the garden, Pedersen has created a layered look, with “finer” plants close to the paths and “rougher, coarser, larger” plants behind them.

The ground cover that grows between the stones is rubus, a trailing raspberry that roots itself as it grows, allowing it to creep and seek out water. “It looks best in dappled light,” says Pedersen. “In full sun, the leaf edges can get cooked.”


Above: Pedersen and his oldest son built the bocce court about two years ago. I’s “half size,” he says. “We play a little bocce during the cocktail hour. It’s like playing adult marbles.”

The purple Mexican bush sage is irresistible to hummingbirds. “We’ve got tons of them,” says Pedersen. “The birds are thick up there.”


Above: “Some things became available because of my work,” says Pedersen, who inherited three mature Canary Island date palms from a client who didn’t want them. “I became a home for wayward palms.” The palms were trucked to Pedersen’s yard, where “we needed a crane to get one of them in.”

The lawn is on completely flat areas, and the “garden” is on all the slopes. “It’s a billy goat garden,” says Pedersen. “You need ways to get in and around on the terraced slopes. There are little paths and things eked into the side of the slopes to get you up there.”


Above: Planting the large palm trees made a big difference, says Pedersen. “Mature plant materials really set a tone when you enter a property, and give you a structure you wouldn’t otherwise have in a young garden,” he says. “We placed the palms for both maximum enjoyment and privacy. They have great stature.”

N.B.: We want to see your garden too. Send us photos and we may feature it in a future post. Here’s how.