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Garden Visit: At Home with Photographer Caitlin Atkinson in Santa Cruz and Nevada City

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Garden Visit: At Home with Photographer Caitlin Atkinson in Santa Cruz and Nevada City

August 25, 2021

For years I’ve marveled at (and been envious of) the work of photographer Caitlin Atkinson who captures gardens, interiors, and still lifes with a serene, dreamy, almost ethereal feel. She is a master of capturing the sun as it shines soft and warm, as it creates glowing halos around plants, highlighting and hugging simultaneously.

Most recently Caitlin photographed landscapes for the book Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, written by Jennifer Jewell, that spotlights innovative and inspiring gardens in the West. Caitlin’s work, of course, involves almost constant globe-trotting, but when she is able to be at one of her own homes, either in Nevada City or Santa Cruz, you can find her digging and tending her own patches of dirt.

 Caitlin Atkinson at Home
Caitlin Atkinson at Home

Both Caitlin’s gardens have different styles as they react to different climates and settings. The Nevada City one, in the foothills near the Yuba River, is, as Caitlin describes it, “more of a subtle color story.” One area of the garden consists mostly of blues and is situated in a very sunny, dry, and hot spot, and she also has a fescue meadow that she continues to seed and plant into. “The drought has more of an impact here, along with the risk of fires.”

The Santa Cruz garden, on the other hand, is a beach cottage with more colorful plantings. And even though the garden gets sun all day, the proximity to the ocean creates a very mild climate. “The hardest things to work with there are the sand for soil, the wind off the ocean, and the salt air,” shares Caitlin.

Join us for a closer look at her two gardens.

Photography by Caitlin Atkinson.

Nevada City Garden

&#8\2\20;Everything I plant has to be low-maintenance, very tough, deer-and bunny-resistant, plus like where it lives or it will not make it,&#8\2\2\1; says Caitlin. Both gardens started slowly and continue to evolve that way as well.
Above: “Everything I plant has to be low-maintenance, very tough, deer-and bunny-resistant, plus like where it lives or it will not make it,” says Caitlin. Both gardens started slowly and continue to evolve that way as well.
Caitlin decorates her porch with pots purchased from Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. Agave &#8\2\16;porcupine&#8\2\17; fills most of them, while a Clematis armandii vine frames her forest view.
Above: Caitlin decorates her porch with pots purchased from Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. Agave ‘porcupine’ fills most of them, while a Clematis armandii vine frames her forest view.
&#8\2\20;My work often gets incredibly busy right when you might be the busiest in the garden, so I often do not get to do much in the garden. It can sometimes turn into a real wild scene, but mostly things are left to their own devices with a little maintenance when I can,&#8\2\2\1; says Caitlin.
Above: “My work often gets incredibly busy right when you might be the busiest in the garden, so I often do not get to do much in the garden. It can sometimes turn into a real wild scene, but mostly things are left to their own devices with a little maintenance when I can,” says Caitlin.
This simple concrete bird bath attracts mostly acorn woodpeckers. Caitlin adds, &#8\2\20;Of course robins, seasonal finches and hummingbirds are in the garden, but they are not so much at the water.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: This simple concrete bird bath attracts mostly acorn woodpeckers. Caitlin adds, “Of course robins, seasonal finches and hummingbirds are in the garden, but they are not so much at the water.”
The fire pit set on gravel belonged to Caitlin&#8\2\17;s grandfather, who was a landscape contractor on the peninsula. &#8\2\20;It burns logs,&#8\2\2\1; Caitlin shares. &#8\2\20;So I don&#8\2\17;t use it in the summer because of the fire danger.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: The fire pit set on gravel belonged to Caitlin’s grandfather, who was a landscape contractor on the peninsula. “It burns logs,” Caitlin shares. “So I don’t use it in the summer because of the fire danger.”
Caitlin started by adding drought-tolerant plants and has transitioned to more California natives due to their low maintenance and water needs, the fact that they look more appropriate, and their importance for pollinators and other wildlife.  &#8\2\20;One of the biggest changes I have made is in collecting and starting my own seeds from local plants. In Nevada City, I have started plants like the bush lupine, foothill penstemon , yarrow, milkweed, etc.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Caitlin started by adding drought-tolerant plants and has transitioned to more California natives due to their low maintenance and water needs, the fact that they look more appropriate, and their importance for pollinators and other wildlife.  “One of the biggest changes I have made is in collecting and starting my own seeds from local plants. In Nevada City, I have started plants like the bush lupine, foothill penstemon [the purple flowers, pictured], yarrow, milkweed, etc.”
A cool-toned field of Festuca &#8\2\16;Siskiyou Blue&#8\2\17; and &#8\2\16;Elijah Blue&#8\2\17; bow to the bold Agave americana.
Above: A cool-toned field of Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’ and ‘Elijah Blue’ bow to the bold Agave americana.

Santa Cruz Garden

A boardwalk made from recycled redwood fencing leads to the sunny front door. Caitlin rents her Santa Cruz cottage, but she still tends to it with the same care as if she owned it. &#8\2\20;I think a lot of people don’t garden when they are in rentals, but it is really worth it, even if just starting with a few seeds!&#8\2\2\1;
Above: A boardwalk made from recycled redwood fencing leads to the sunny front door. Caitlin rents her Santa Cruz cottage, but she still tends to it with the same care as if she owned it. “I think a lot of people don’t garden when they are in rentals, but it is really worth it, even if just starting with a few seeds!”
&#8\2\20;In Santa Cruz, I have been working to incorporate coastal bush lupine and Artemesia, which are on the coastal dunes nearby.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: “In Santa Cruz, I have been working to incorporate coastal bush lupine and Artemesia, which are on the coastal dunes nearby.”
A low-maintenance but still striking collection of Agave attenuata, Leucadendron &#8\2\16;Pisa&#8\2\17;, orange-hued Stipa arundinacea and silvery Helichrysum.
Above: A low-maintenance but still striking collection of Agave attenuata, Leucadendron ‘Pisa’, orange-hued Stipa arundinacea and silvery Helichrysum.

For more drought-tolerant gardens, see:

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