Gardening at Harbor House Inn means learning how to make the most of the Pacific Coast’s gifts—and challenges
TEXT BY ANN LEYHE PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAXON HOLT
DRIVERS ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY have to continually remind themselves not to become entranced by the spectacular view, lest they find themselves plummeting from the roadway into the ocean below. Up the highway in Elk, California, about 180 miles north of San Francisco, the Harbor House Inn commands its own priceless slice of magnificent coastline, with its sumptuous cliffside gardens backed by the mesmerizing blue of the ocean.
The house was built in the Craftsman style in 1916 as an executive lodge for lumber barons. Designed to entice easterners into buying the barons’ giant redwood, which was milled nearby, it features a lushly paneled main room with fabulous views of the harbor. From this lovely spot, visitors could watch the wood as it was loaded by pulley, mule, and ramp onto schooners moored in the small cove 150 feet below.
Harbor House became an inn in the 1950s; current owners Sam and Elle Haynes bought the inn and refurbished it in 1998. Like the house itself, the gardens—a few climbing roses and grassy sitting areas—needed renovation. The Hayneses had their hands full running the inn, however, so they began looking for a gardener. Enter Barbara Faulkner, who lived nearby and was then working as a piano teacher. Her own private garden boasted lush cottage-style plantings close to the house and a meadow on the site of her former driveway. The Hayneses liked what they saw, and told Faulkner that as long as she didn’t move any driveways (at least without telling them first), she could have full control of the plantings at Harbor House. They’ve been delighted ever since with the direction in which she’s taken the garden.
WINDWARD AND LEEWARD SPOTS
On the oceanside of the inn, Faulkner immediately saw that the drama of the site and the immensity of the brilliant Pacific were going to require the use of a lot of strong color and plants tough enough to withstand the sun, wind, and salt. “This isn’t like gardening next to a lake, you know,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. On the roadway side of the inn, she faced an entirely different environment of little wind and lots of shade. Creating separate plantings that worked together would be a major design challenge.
Visitors come to relax and to enjoy the spectacular view from the inn’s secluded, protected perch above the ocean. Anchoring the space with trees, or even large shrubs that might have blocked the view wasn’t a design option when Faulkner started three years ago. She began experimenting, and came up with a workable approach by using a combination of grasses, perennials, and annuals that stay fairly low, framing the vista while making a strong show of contrasting reds, oranges, yellows, and purples against the brilliant blue of the ocean. A year ago, Faulkner introduced ornamental grasses on the ocean side of the garden. The most successful of these, the bright orange Stipa arundinacea, keeps its foliage year round, adding structure and color, especially in the fall and winter. Guests can now sit in one of the inn’s many weathered Adirondack chairs on a series of grassy terraces between the inn and the ocean and feel embraced by the billowing Stipa arundinacea and S. gigantea, and the contrasting purples of Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’, and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’.
Talking about Design
BARBARA FAULKNER’S introduction of ornamental grasses into the garden at Harbor House Inn has moved the garden from a riot of colorful blooms to a more sophisticated planting that maintains its harmony and interest throughout the fall and winter months. In the autumn, Stipa arundinacea fairly glows when backlit by the sun, low on the horizon. It and other stipas come to life, waving in the breeze and adding a coppery glint just about the time many of the other blooms are spent. The constant moisture in the sea breeze adds sparkle to their leaves late in the day. In order to keep her grasses year round, Faulkner has devised a way of grooming them by pulling out handfuls of leaves at a time, thus creating room for new growth. She realizes that she may need to cut them back every few years, but for now they add so much to the fall plantings as they are that she is experimenting with keeping them from season to season. –A.L.
The grasses are equally important in framing the view from the dining-room windows, where they add continuity down either side of a gravel path that leads to the cliff and, eventually, to the beach below. This path acts as a focal point, both dissecting the garden and directing the eye toward to the ocean. Here Faulkner has used a playful hand with lots of color, adding punctuation marks of snowy Paris daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens). The bits of white subtly echo the waves breaking on the horizon, bringing the ocean into the garden.
In the smaller, more intimate areas of the garden, Faulkner has planted colorful collections that she refers to as medleys. Guests who venture down the beach path will find a planting of the green-and-white-striped gardener’s garters (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Picta’) with deep pink ‘Dorothy Perkins’ roses scrambling in and out. Nearby, a yellow Siberian iris and an intensely orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) interplay with gazanias (a particular favorite of the Hayneses) in shades of copper, apricot, and burgundy from the Talent Mix seed strain.
Near the terrace, an are of the bright pink flowers of a South African ice plant, Drosanthemum floribundum—a remnant from the original garden—reminds many visitors of coarser-foliaged ice-plants like Carpobrotus chilensis commonly used for erosion control on cliffs. It has been left in place because of its reliability and its fine gray foliage, as well as for its punch of pink color. A lower terrace with seating looking out to the ocean is bounded by a hedge of sturdy pink Rosa rugosa and a floor of emerald turf. Here, a container planted with a deep red phormium from the Maori series and a burgundy gazania draw the eye.
Another medley area, backed by the rugosa hedge, overflows with the sweetly scented, pale mauve heliotrope. Poking through are bright points of color from red and white Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus, deep blue bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), glowing orange California poppies, and diminutive yellow-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium californicum). While it’s the scent of the heliotrope that initially attracts attention, it’s impossible not to smile at this cheery assembly of color and form.
On the lee side of the inn is a separate garden, equally colorful and welcoming. Here, plants flourish away from the sea breeze. Since the inn itself is painted a deep burgundy, Faulkner has characteristically chosen brightly contrasting plants. Cinerarias in deepest purples and paler blues are interplanted with Corydalis lutea and still-juvenile Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi). She hopes that the tree ferns will expand the tropical feeling established by a short date palm (Phoenix sp.) that anchors the bed closest to the coastal highway. Against the large palm fronds, finely textured orange Stipa arundinacea cavorts with the saw-toothed leaves of blue-gray Melianthus major, red and orange Ligtu hybrid alstroemerias, and a range of deep burgundy phormiums, which add textural contrast with their simple vertical shapes. Many of the same plants are repeated in the pots lining the stone steps to the entryway.
SALT, DEER, AND SEWAGE
There are plenty of cultural challenges in this seaside location. All the plants must be able to survive buffeting from salt-laden breezes. Deer come regularly to graze on tender new growth, and the soil, surprisingly, is heavy clay. Adequate irrigation is also always an issue in this Northern California Mediterranean climate, which sees almost no rainfall from May to October.
Two years ago, a man-made dilemma presented itself when the septic tank had to be replaced with a new sewage treatment system. All of the beds had to be trenched and new percolation areas found throughout the garden. In the end, the new system, which releases very clean but nonpotable water, was buried near one of the sitting areas that juts out over the cliff, and was covered with a series of raised beds, installed on top of a gravel terrace. Behind these beds, screening some of the mechanical underpinnings, is a weathered fence. After some experimentation, Faulkner has foiled the hungry deer population by planting this area with artichokes, garlic, and cardoons grown from seed. All of the vegetables are used by the inn’s kitchen. The cardoons are repeated in the ornamental planting in front of the inn, blurring the distinction between ornamental and edible.
Surveying her work, Faulkner smiles. “It gives me great pleasure to offer visitors a place of respite, a place to relax,” she says. “I enjoy taking care of them by offering a happy combination of plants in this glorious setting.” It is a measure of her success that the garden at Harbor House Inn doesn’t compete with or distract from nature’s magnificence, but rather enhances the visual riches of this spectacular stretch of Northern California coast. H
If You Go
The Harbor House Inn is located in Elk, California, 180 miles north of San Francisco. For reservations, call 800-720-7474, or visit www.theharborhouseinn.com.