ISSUE 27  |  Summer Bunkhouse

Garden Visit: The Hobbit Land Next Door

January 15, 2016 7:00 AM

BY Michelle Slatalla

I think I probably would have bought my house in Mill Valley, CA, even if Linda didn’t live next door. Or if she hadn’t been the sort of gardener who turns a dusty rectangle of dirt into a mossy enchanted hobbit land. But both things helped.

Before I owned the house, I kept going over to nervously inspect its 1920s wiring and all that dry rot—was buying it a big mistake?—and there was Linda in her sun hat, watering her roses. One day she put down the hose and offered a comment as she surveyed my overgrown front yard: “I can tell that someone who loved gardening used to live in your house.”

That’s pretty much all I need to know about a house to love it. Soon after, my husband and I started cutting back the vines and, like archaeologists on a dig, discovered the skeleton of an old garden underneath: rambling paths and bluebells.

The trick, Linda says, is to find the garden your house is meant to have. When she bought her place in 2008, “it was a brand-new spec house,” she remembers. “The builder had made a path of wood chips and stuck some plants in gallon pots into the hardpan.”

You would not know this now. Linda’s garden has dappled sunlight from an old oak tree and her Japanese maples. There are ferns and hellebores and geraniums and roses: just enough flowers in bloom to tempt little girls to pick posies. “If you want to take photos of the garden,” she warned me the other day, “you’d better get here before my granddaughters. They love nothing more than to make floral arrangements for fairies and other special beings.”

We rushed over:

Photography by Tom Kubik for Gardenista.

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Above: I rarely walk past Linda’s place without peeking over the fence. The first thing she did after moving in was to replace a flimsy gate with a heavy old wood one, and swap out the wood-chip path for flagstones. “I love stones,” she says, and by that she means individually, for their personalities and quirks.

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Above: Among her favorite stones are large boulders covered with lichen and moss, which she bought from American Soil & Stone in San Francisco’s East Bay and placed around the garden.

She mulches with fir bark from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. “You can use it as compost, or as a planting medium, too,” she says.

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Above: The walk from the front gate to the stoop is only about 30 feet, but on the way you go past so much—a hydrangea grove, lemon trees, fragrant roses, Japanese maples, columbine, wisteria, herbs—”that it can take days to get there if you stop to smell everything.

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Above: On the front stoop: potted plants, including daisies and nasturtiums, take advantage of a sunny spot.

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Above: The sprinklers come on in the late afternoon, to the columbine’s delight.

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Above: A panel of rickety old fence (salvaged from the original fence that separated my yard from Linda’s) has a second life as a trellis for sweet peas and other climbers.

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Above: A path beneath an oak tree on the side of the house leads to Linda’s fern garden. On the right: a rose that has no business blooming in such a shady spot.

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Above: And yet it perseveres. The fragrant ‘Pat Austin’ rose can be trained as either a shrub or a climber. Linda is letting hers decide which it wants to be.

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Above: On a hot sunny day (like this one), Linda’s garden feels 10 degrees cooler.

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Above: In back of the house, on a narrow deck outside the kitchen, Linda runs a “plant hospital” for anything that’s ailing. If a garden plant looks droopy, she’ll pot it and put it on a shelf where she can fuss over it until it feels better.

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Above: When Linda moved here the view from the kitchen was bleak, nothing but a tall fence a few feet from the window. “I was quite depressed by it,” she says. “The kitchen was all black granite and stainless steel, very masculine.”

Looking out at the fence, she got an idea: “What might help is some boards from the hardware store so I can put plants on them.”

The result was a few simple shelves made of redwood planks supported by cement blocks. The setup has grown over the years, and now the view from the kitchen window is a crazy quilt of color. Last year Linda installed drip irrigation so she no longer has to hand-water every pot.

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Above: Poppies and succulents.

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Above: A window box is mounted outside Linda’s kitchen window.

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Above: Linda’s front door is guarded by a begonia in bloom. Until those granddaughters arrive.

I spend a lot of time snooping around my neighbors’ Mill Valley gardens. For more of my favorites, see A Modern CA Garden Inspired by the Classics and Rehab Diaries: Rescuing a 100-Year-Old Garden.