A Tropical Oasis in Palo Alto

I was recently invited to do a “refresh” of a property in Palo Alto that I first designed in 2006.

This small garden is used intensively by a busy family of four. There were a few frayed edges, along with opportunities to fill in little problem spots. The homeowners had also decided they wanted MORE. More pots, more fullness, more flowers!

It was incredibly gratifying to see the property filling in so well. When I first saw it, the front was, well, blah. A little hedge garnished the edge of what at some point was a lawn. A tiny pathway cut that tiny lawn in two halves, emphasizing the overall tininess of the space.

This tired, boring house is ready for a facelift!

Tired and boring in 2006.

She had a vision for a tropical paradise, and he had woodworking talent to spare. But the pool contractor had left them with this:



And they were at a bit of a loss. What could they do to solve their privacy problem? With such narrow planting spaces left? And how could they achieve “tropical oasis” in this little low-lying area of Palo Alto prone to freeze? The front was very shady, but the back was oppressively hot.

The Olympic tumbled pavers have held up so beautifully, they're still one of my favorite options for paving.

The Olympic tumbled pavers used for the circle have held up so beautifully, they’re still one of my favorite options for paving.

The stepping stones and circular patio break up the lines of the garden, so the dimensions of the space are no longer the first thing you think about. Instead, the lush plantings spill over the edges and create layers of interest. Adding chairs as a focal point in the front also divert attention from the deeply recessed door.

A tropical oasis in Palo Alto.

A tropical oasis in Palo Alto.

Six years later, this hardly even looks like the same garden! The back is lush and shaded. Here I’ve rearranged all the furniture and added more pots. LOTS more pots. There’s still a gap along the side fence where the homeowners added a king palm a few years ago, which died in the next freeze. The vines along that fence never thrived, perhaps due to the inconsistent irrigation. When I go back in few more weeks, I’ll update with more photos.

Stephanie Curtis, of Curtis Horticulture, walked through the property with me to discuss areas where the irrigation was no longer functioning well, and where an old, beloved lemon tree had died, leaving a gaping opening. Stephanie’s crew maintains the property beautifully, but it was time to upgrade some of the irrigation elements. Irrigation has advanced so much in just six years!

The extremely narrow and unevenly shaped planting areas in the back garden make consistent watering a challenge. Upgrading some of the drip elements to integrated dripper tubing would soak the trouble spots, allowing the plants to fill in even more lushly, fully realizing the “tropical resort” look. Stephanie also knows I like to use organic products and practices wherever possible, and recommended the new Diestel structured compost from Lyngso for the installation.

One of my favorite things about this garden is that, unless I point it out, most people never comment on the lack of a lawn. The garden maximizes functional space for the homeowners, it’s straightforward to maintain, and allows them to put their energy into entertaining and enjoying the pool.

What do you think? Let me know!

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