Pacific Northwest Flair

Randy and Karen Allen have been reworking their San Luis Obispo home since they moved in 15 years ago. Outside, the plot of their future garden bided its time. Karen is a real estate professional with Century 21 Hometown Realty, and she gained inspiration for her potential garden while showing homes to clients. “I kept taking note of gardens I liked, and every time itseemed to be a Gardens by Gabriel creation,” she says, laughing.

Though they’re both originally from California, Karen spent many years farther north--in Alaska, Washington state, and Oregon--where her tastes came to center around the Pacific Northwest’s curling chartreuse ferns; rain-slicked olive-green leaves; and looming moss-lined trees. “I miss the northwest,” says Karen, “and I wanted to recreate a piece of it here.” Such water-hungry greenery is scarce in our dusty Central California climate, and as Karen puts it, “Having that much green would have been impossible with our southwest-facing property.” 

The Allens’ corner lot sits atop a curvy hillside with a view of both Madonna Mountain and Bishop’s Peak. Endless rolling hills of grey-blue and sage green greet their eyes from the distance. Their birds-eye-view deck oversees the landing of planes, the setting of the sun, and the slow advance of coastal fog. The Allens hoped to bring the surrounding natural softness to the upright angles of their home. “We like manicured wildness,” says Karen, “and orderly disorder. We wanted an English-style garden with Northwest flair.” “Without the English-garden water needs!” adds Randy. The challenge was to create the lushness of the Olympic National Forest with the plants of our Mediterranean palette.

The first step: A steep 20- by 100-feet slope was the canvas on which we were to paint the Allens’ landscape. Given the degree of their hillside, the terrain was nearly unnavigable at the start, so improving its functionality with locally-sourced stone became top priority. To build stability, we created steps off of the existing concrete walkways, and tapered them into tiers of stony pathways through the garden. The Allens’ rock fulfills two functions: One, to provide access for garden maintenance, and two, to guide water into the ground by softening and directing its descent into the soil, thus reducing run-off in our rainy months. 

Because Randy and Karen love natural materials, we used as many as possible in the structural construction. We installed a natural arbor from the dense, durable trunks of expired manzanita wood, and trailed purple passion flower vine up its limbs.

Hardscape in place, the next step was the planting. The plan was to layer textures to create softness; experiment with color to create depth; and space plants closely together to create a feeling of natural abundance. The resulting interwoven grasses, California natives, and drought-tolerant perennials create a thick, natural feel. Brightly-colored coreopsis, echinacea, and kniphofia all compete for attention. The exposed retaining walls, exterior walls of the home, and garden lattice are now softened and enhanced with trailing calylophus, vining Black-Eyed Susans, and delicate indigo trumpet vines. 

The hillside is alive with color and texture now, the plants having tamed the hillside from a raw slope into a lush landscape.“Everyone loved watching the process unfold,” says Randy. “People who used to speed up this hill drive more slowly now, to take in the garden.” The garden’s Mediterranean components harken back to the overflowing abundance of the Pacific Northwest, in a manner that’s satisfying to Karen. As her garden grows in stages, she enjoys watching the patches of mulch grow smaller and smaller. “Life is about choices,” she says, “and we keep choosing to have fun. For us, that includes our garden.”

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