Inspiring San Francisco Gardens

Whilst we visited 12 gardens in the San Francisco area, the majority of which were private and all were beautifully maintained, there were 3 which I really found inspiring.

The Mechanics Garden

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This was the first garden we visited and I expect there are similar gardens in London and any city.  We arrived at an old style apartment block, entered the foyer and wondered where on earth we were going.  Down some stairs as if we were descending to the basement or laundry, down a corridor and there up ahead through an arch way greenery beckoned.  We entered what can only be described as a green cool oasis.  The planting was predominantly sub-tropical; lush and plentiful.  The large trees already in the garden space had been utilised to provide an overhead canopy and under planted with shrubs and smaller plants.

Whilst the planting was great it was the nick nacks and ornaments that I found inspiring.  In nooks and crannies there were sculptures giving focal points and drawing the eye in.  However, we are not talking about shop or gallery bought art here but art that has been created from, for want of a better word, junk.  I think the current trend is to call it ‘upcycling’.  A strange sculpture which reminded me of a prehistoric rib and spine turned out to be part of an old engine block.  Instead of a path made from uniform paving there was one created from random bricks, slabs and other things.

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To add interest to a wall an old fireplace had been utilised.  Not only does this break up the expanse of the wall but it provides a surface on which to display smaller plants and nick nacks at eye level.  In another location there was an old cupboard used for the same purpose.

This approach, for me, was fascinating.  By incorporating the various statutes and ornaments the plants no longer took centre stage they had been moved to the background, creating a backdrop to the owners various junk finds and adding a whole new level of interest.

Rebecca Sweet’s Garden

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Rebecca’s garden was the closest we came to what you could term an English garden with its neat lawn and borders.  However, whilst beautiful, this is not what I find inspiring.  Like the first garden mentioned it was the additions to the garden that I found fascinating.

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Rebecca too had a fireplace on which she displayed various bits and pieces.  There were also a table and cupboard in the work area which looked too beautiful to work on and put my work area to shame.  However, the inspiration I took from Rebecca’s garden was how she displayed her succulents.  Large shallow pots planted up with collections of succulents were placed around the garden and like the bits and pieces in the first garden, they drew the eye in and made you stop and focus.

Keeyla Meadow’s Garden

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Keeyla’s garden was like an injection of energy and blew me away.  This  is not a garden where the rules of design are obvious, with focal points, vistas etc.  This is a garden where colour and the diversity of plants is celebrated and showcased to a degree that I  think even Christopher Lloyd,  that well known proponent of colour, would be outdone.

It was fascinating to see the plant combinations which I think are only possible due to the Bay Areas climate.  A foxglove, a shady woodland plant for me, was sitting just below a Kangaroo Paw, a tender plant for me which has to be overwintered in the greenhouse.  There was every colour in the rainbow all mixed up together – none of this tonal shades, colour borders or complimentary colours.

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Amongst the plants, again, there was sculptures and pots.  They are all Keeyla’s own work since she is a well-known artist.  Again like the planting they are quirky and exuberant; challenging all your preconceptions of how to use colour.

For me this garden showed me that you could throw away the rule book and you could plant and grow whatever you wanted, bearing in mind of course the plant’s growing requirements, and with a little bravery you could create a celebration of colour and plants.  I learnt that you shouldn’t be afraid of combining colours that instead you should give it a go and see what happened – throw caution to the wind.

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These three gardens were my favourites of the trip. I learnt that you should feel free to plant what you want, how you want.  I learnt that to add an extra dimension to the garden you should add sculpture, ornaments call them what you will but that these do not have to be expensive works of art.  You can create the same, if not better, effect with random items you have acquired and which often will have more meaning and significance to you.  I learnt that you should give thought and consideration to how you display the smaller plants and that they looked better when displayed together rather than a random collection of small pots, as I have. But most of all I learnt that  creating a garden should be fun, it should be seen as an opportunity to showcase your interests and be an expression of your character.

Your garden should be a celebration of who you are and what you love.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. These do sound inspiring. Design is all well and good, but going with what you love can often make a garden more special and exciting and fun to explore.

  2. gail says:

    Wonderfully inspiring gardens! I have seen Kylee Meadow’s gardens in a few magazines and love seeing them through other gardener’s eyes. I like her “break the rules” rule and wonder if what helps it work is that there is not just a patch here and there but, exuberance everywhere. Now off to find more found objects for my garden. gail

  3. Jennifer says:

    In my backyard I have a space 4′ by 50′ that isn’t covered with an asphalt driveway. Of course I didn’t know this when we bought the place. Sigh. Anyway I’m now using VegTrugs to grow veggies and I’ve planted some raspberries and grape vines. Next I’m going to pull the hostas – which are at least 5′ in diameter and line the drive – out by their nasty roots and put something I want in their place. I had a garden in Michigan that was 40 x 150 feet in one area and 30 x 40 behind the house. It was full of antique roses, perennials, Japanese maple, almond tree, potatoes, a composter, ornamental grasses, a bench and a fountain. I had all white shade plants between the two apple trees at the back of the house yard and a 8 x 25 plot for veggies and cut flowers. I had flower beds built up around the deck and a whole bed of coneflowers entering into the main garden. We sold that place – sadly – to move to the country on PEI, Canada. I have missed that garden every day. I’m here in Maine now and I’m staying so these ideas about knick knacks and fun sculptures really help. I’ll be sticking soil and plants in them . . . . .

  4. Helen–I’m intrigued by the steps in the first photo of Keeyla’s garden. Are they poured concrete?

    All these gardens are beautiful and inspirational. I especially like Rebecca’s vignette of succulents with the plants’ fresh green foliage against the texture and color of the silver-gray cans and pots.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Marian
      I’m afraid I have no idea about the steps as I didn’t notice them until I looked at my photographs. We hardly had any time at this garden so we rushed aroun going oh and arh and then left 😦
      However, given that Keeyla seemed to have made everything else in the garden I would guess that she made the steps out of concrete

    2. Alison says:

      I did get a good look at those cool steps, and I’m reasonably sure they are poured concrete, that was set into a wavy form. That wavy feature appeared in a few other spots as well.

  5. Alison says:

    This was a very colorful garden, with lots of interesting artwork (not to my taste, I can’t explain why). It was a lot of fun with a great sense of exuberance. I also loved Rebecca’s garden and the Organic Mechanics Garden. In my garden, I have both found objects and garden art that I bought at art shows. I love both.

  6. Cathy says:

    The edge of those steps have the form of corrugated iron roofing, so I am guessing (from what I can see) that she has used sections to mould the concrete to make the patterned edge.

    Thanks for showing this selection of gardens, Helen – as including random objects is very much part of the way I garden I was pleased to hear how much the concept appeals to others. Even in winter when there is less foliage and flower interest these ‘objets trouvé’ will still draw the eye. Great recycling projects too.

  7. I love your way of summing up your fav’s and what you learned from them, breaking rules is always a good thing (gardenwise) in my book!

  8. Truly inspiring, I have to agree. The energy in Keeyla Meadows garden just radiated. It was like the color wheel gone wild.

  9. Pauline says:

    Three very different gardens each showing the personality of the owner. I liked all the colour in the third garden showing us that we don’t have to be so restrained with colours. I think we can all learn from each garden that we visit, this is what is so wonderful about garden visiting.

  10. zora read says:

    I love the idea of upcycled art in the garden and am trying to incorporate a lot more into my own garden near the coast. I already have a lot of pots and am forever looking for inspiration on pinterest and hometalk and other websites for other ways to introduce character into the garden. These gardens look truly inspirational.

  11. Kris P says:

    Thanks for posting this and your other 2 posts on your trip to SF. I began blogging at the very end of 2012 and was tempted to join the Fling this year as SF is relatively close (I live in Los Angeles County) but family issues prevented this. I appreciate your honest overview of your experience/adventure. I’ll definitely consider joining in the fun next year. I’m sorry the temperatures ran so high in SF during your visit – even as a Californian, I wouldn’t have expected that in the Bay Area.

  12. Very interesting to read your reactions! By inspiring, do you mean gardens that made you think: “Wow! I’d like to do something like that!” If so, then I would offer a slightly different three: Nichols, Dudan, and Organic Mechanics. I did like all the gardens, but in different ways. Some were exciting, but not something I would like to see around my own home.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jason
      Yes thats what I mean by inspiring – they inspired me to consider new ideas, approaches etc

  13. Peter/Outlaw says:

    The SF team did a marvelous job of choosing a wide variety of garden types for us to enjoy. Thanks for your post about your top three!

  14. Wonderful Helen…I love the garden art from found or cherished items…I also love the Meadows garden as I have tried to do this with much of my back garden…it is fun and I love seeing the colors pop…

  15. I’m just now able to read about the gardens (no internet where I was vacationing this past week!!) and am so happy to see my little paradise was included in your post! I was so sorry to have missed the other garden tours, so I appreciate your post. And it was lovely to have met you, too, as brief as it was. I only wish our weather was a bit more welcoming! 😉

  16. Hoov says:

    Very interesting comments about the gardens. I enjoyed them all. I think I got a different lesson on Keeyla’s re: colors–I thought there was careful grouping of colors in Keeyla’s garden–for example the isolated corner to the left of the studio was all acid green and purples. For such a small and exuberant garden, it is difficult to isolate any one area very much.

    Yes, Keeyla said the stairs and some of the containers were also poured concrete, colored with iron sulphate. Since she also builds gardens, she has the luxury of her crew to help her now and again in her own garden.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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