You have to hand it to authors Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner, when they choose a subject for one of their handsome books that transport you to the gardens of a particular region they are not drawn to homogenous places. Take their Gardens of the Garden State, published in 2014 and covering the gardens of New Jersey, an area Lowry and Berner describe as having a complex topography with mountains and hills carved by glaciers, rich flat farmlands, and an extensive coastline.
Now they give us Private Gardens of the Bay Area, a collection of 39 landscapes curated from the more than 100 gardens they visited in and around San Francisco over nearly two years. From the majestic large-scale estates of the Peninsula, to the tiny, quirky gardens of urban San Francisco and the wine region’s enclaves, Lowry and Berner give us exclusive peeks into the personal landscapes of a wide variety of Bay area residents. Their undertaking is greatly enhanced by the evocative photographs of Marion Brenner, a gardener herself, who has been taking pictures of California gardens for more than two decades.
Here’s a closer look at two of our favorite small urban gardens in the book:
The center strip of Nash’s fully functioning ribbon driveway is a showcase for succulents and a variety of thymes. Although a portion of the garden is necessarily hidden when the car is in residence and occasionally a flower will get decapitated when an auto pulls in, this complex assemblage of succulents provides a startling pop of beauty in a totally unexpected place.
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the beautiful city of San Francisco, you probably remember huffing and puffing your way up and down its formidable hills, which present daunting challenges to garden designers as well as pedestrians. Add the city’s penchant for cool, foggy summers and mighty winds, and you have a mind-boggling collection of microclimates and engineering conundrums. However San Franciscans are a creative group and have embraced their hometown’s eccentricities, frequently using them as design elements.
Lowry and Berner discovered the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley are home to an enthusiastic cadre of gardeners who delight in filling their small front yards with distinctive plants often gathered on travels to exotic places. A case in point is the Chris Carmichael and Terry Stein Garden in Oakland where even the hell strip in front of the house has been turned into a tropical display.
Carmichael recently retired from the University of California, where he was the associate director of collections and horticulture, so it is no surprise that this garden would be densely packed with unusual specimens. They include a huge Podocarpus totara, an evergreen tree native to New Zealand which can grow to nearly 100 feet in height. It is flanked by a pergola covered in wisteria and a Passiflora membranacea vine, two frequently over-vigorous growers which have been tamed to form a leafy and inviting frame for the front door.
There is a tendency to label a book this large and this beautiful with the somewhat dismissive term “coffee table book,” implying that it is attractive to look at but not so interesting to actually open up and read. However, Private Gardens of the Bay Area is the fascinating result of its authors dedicated research and thoughtful selection. It offers an engrossing and informative prospective of properties mostly hidden from public view that reveals the impressive array of gardening styles in the Golden State.
N.B.: Tour more of our favorite Bay Area gardens: