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