Variations on a Green Theme

When garden designer Suzanna Porter is working on a design in her Berkeley, California, office, she doesn’t have to travel far for ideas and inspiration. A simple 90-degree turn from her drawing table reveals her own garden. Plants from all corners of the world are gathered here, chosen on the basis of their color and form. Because Berkeley rests in the middle of the USDA Zone 9, Porter and other Bay Area gardeners are blessed with the ability to choose plants from many parts of the world, adroitly mingling tropicals and hardy plants. This allows her to satisfy the cravings of a plant collector and to experiment with plants she may later suggest for clients. She shifts the plantings regularly, so the garden is a constantly changing source of ideas.

The goal of the small (35 by 65 feet) garden remains unchanged, however: to weave together textures and unusually colored foliages and expand the space visually. Her color palette avoids pastels and focuses instead on rust, mahogany, and terra-cotta, with chartreuse and variegated cream colors to offset the intensity of darker shades. The result is a sophisticated blend of color and texture that has intrigue and humor and never forgets that the eye and the weary gardener also need a place to relax and rest.

Although there is a garden —and an interesting one— out in front of the house, the garden behind the house is the focus of Porter’s efforts. A small lawn in the shape of a triangle runs away from the house, narrowing as it heads toward the back of the property. It is a minor part of the overall design, but it acts as a calm and unifying feature at the center of this diverse array of plants. The main axis of the garden follows this wedge of lawn and culminates in a bit of borrowed scenery in the form of a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) planted beyond the property line at the back.

This is the vista from both the office and the deck at the back of the house. Along the two side borders, Porter has also used different chartreuse-colored foliage plants such as Hypericum x inodorum ‘Summer Gold’ and Salvia officinalis ‘Icterina’ to lighten the general palette and create movement, encouraging viewers to explore the garden all along this axis.

While the chartreuse enlivens the view and carries the eye back, plants with dark foliage such as Cotinus coggygria ‘Purple Robe’, Canna ‘Wyoming’, and Heuchera ‘Pewter Veil’ make shadowy pools that suggest a continuation of the space, while acting as a backdrop for plants with brighter foliage. Because both side views have been carefully orchestrated to bring the eye back to the center of the somewhat narrow space (which includes an outbuilding tucked into the left-hand corner), one is drawn to explore the garden at its furthest point.

One striking combination in the back bed last year featured a castor bean plant (Ricinus communis ‘Dwarf Red Spire’) with burgundy stems towering above Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’, whose silky bloom goes from buff to brown, a chocolate-brown coleus, Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’, and Rumex sanguineus var. sanguineus, which bears green leaves veined with mahogany. Lest all these colors get too dark, a cluster of Verbascum chaixii with yellow flowers leads the eye to a chartreuse Sambucus racemosa ‘Plumosa Aurea’. Lightening this scene even further are an assortment of silver-leaved plants along the path’s edge —a feathery Artemisia canescens planted among Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’ and Artemisia ‘David’s Choice’. Somewhere between the rust, mahogany, and yellows of these plants are waves of Agastache ‘Firebird’, a dusty coral shade that is also found in the nearby Mimulus ‘Big Tangerine Red’. The plants in this bed move from a diminutive six inches to the six feet of the castor bean. Waves of color climb up the slightly raised bed, creating a richly textured tapestry.

Although most of the color in the garden comes from unusual foliage, flowers still play a significant role. In late April the robust climbing rose ‘Joseph’s Coat’ blooms lavishly in hues of deep coral to buff, embellishing the trellis over Porter’s office, and nearly all spring and summer the intense red blooms of R. ‘Altissimo’ cover a wire support for the telephone pole in the parking strip at the front of the house. In early spring Hemerocallis ‘Water Witch’ and a copper-colored bearded iris echo the brown tones found in the foliage plants. Later in the season, the bright orange blossoms of several different cannas are repeated throughout the garden. Porter has planted a variegated Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonne’ with orange blooms near a pink-blooming Cestrum elegans ‘Smithii’. Because she pays close attention to the color of the entire —the stems, foliage, flowers, and bracts— Porter gets away with some uncommon mixes. She tells me one day, with a slight twinkle in her eye, that there really isn’t any problem mixing intense pinks with orange.

How exactly does Porter get away with having all the plants any collector might covet and still end up with a real garden —a dynamic artistic expression that also functions as a restful retreat? One of the first considerations, she feels, is the blurring of the property line to give the feeling of a private oasis. Neighbors on either side are a scant 10 feet away at best. Porter developed a layered planting along the edges that both blocks the view and gives those within the garden a feeling that the space is much bigger than it actually is. The neighbors on the west side of the garden have a building that sits on the property line between the two houses. In order to create depth and the illusion of space along this solid wall, Porter collaborated with a local artist, John Oldani, who painted a Rousseau-like tapestry of dark green foliage on the building’s wall. There is only the impression of a painting here, nothing to distract from the real philodendrons and bamboos planted in front of it. Oldani also created a trompe l’oeil of terra-cotta pots in the window of the potting shed at the far end of the garden to extend the illusion.

In addition to keeping the eye from discerning the property lines, Porter has created distinct spaces or “rooms” that are staged at intervals, starting with the seating space on the deck at the back of the house and ending with the potting shed at the southernmost end of the garden. Phormiums and grasses in various hues frame these areas. The first bed near the back deck begins with several variegated plants: Sambucus nigra ‘Variegata’, a variegated oregano (Origanum ‘White Anniversary’), Hypericum xmoserianum ‘Tricolor’, and Cordyline australis. A small water feature made from a ceramic container with a bamboo spout is placed here, its mesmerizing gurgle encouraging lingering on the deck. Just beyond this sitting spot, a large Phormium ‘Sundowner’ defines another room with a metal chair at its center. A small water feature tucked in the border here is made from a simple container with stones inside it and at the base. The water fills the container and creates a subtle rushing noise as it brims over the top and falls into a stone basin. Some observers might miss the quality of a garden “room” in this spot, but Porter has defined a sitting area by laying strips of railroad ties and a variety of dwarf perennials and groundcovers to make a “floor.” The walls are the garden itself, with a golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis) in a pot to add a roof overhead. For years different plants were tried in this pivotal spot with many of them inexplicably dying. When Porter discovered that there was verticillium wilt and oak root fungus in the soil, she decided to try a smaller tree in a container. The larch further distinguishes itself by turning golden in the fall and becoming a focal point almost at the center of the garden, especially in the late afternoon light.

While Porter devotes most of her efforts to this back garden, she still has managed to create a distinctive garden in front of her house. She has developed the streetside parking strip and the small entry garden, as well as the narrow shady path running along the side of her house. The parking strip between the street and sidewalk is a complex composition of color and texture anchored by an Acacia cognata and underplanted with a brick-colored Cytisus ‘San Francisco’ and Canna ‘Durban’ —tough plants that can survive with little attention but still provide a stimulating display.

On the house side of the sidewalk, a hedge of Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pigmy’ separates the front garden and its tiny dry pond —another reminder that this is essentially an arid climate —from passersby. A winding path to the front door is flanked by Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) on one side and the blond, feathery Sesleria autumnalis on the other.

An inner hedge of Hypericum androsaemum ‘Albury Purple’ repeats some of the burgundy of the blood grass and also echoes the terra-cotta color of the house. The planting style of the front garden —a limited number of varieties planted in quantity —exemplifies Porter’s feeling that repeating the same plant throughout the garden never has as much impact as massing those plants in the same space.

Porter’s entry steps are festooned with rust-, salmon-, and chocolate-colored foliage and flowers in every possible texture, planted in fanciful and plain terra-cotta containers.(Some of the more imaginative of these, in grotesque shapes, were made by Porter when she studied ceramics.) Here an ever-changing array of coleus, shrimp plant, ferns, and grasses makes the trip to the front door a slow and delightful journey. At the base of the steps, a group of pots anchored by a large Corokia cotoneaster flanks the entry to a former driveway that now acts as a path to the garden at the rear. With her neighbors’ approval, Porter broke up the concrete that separated the two houses and underplanted a clump of camellias along the boundary with several varieties of hostas, bamboos, Aspidistra elatior, and Iris foetidissima to make a densely shaded, woodsy pathway. A grove of Styrax japonica is planted under the protective umbrella of an Australian tree fern and hints at some of the treasures to be found in the back garden.

Suzanne Porter’s garden is one of the best examples of a new kind of garden art —one created by a breed of designers who also have a passion for unusual plants. Sculpture and art are interspersed with the same care that plants are chosen and placed. There is a constant attention to what each plant can bring to a total design: large plants lend architectural interest, and leaf texture and color rise to new heights of participation in the whole creation. This garden has evolved over a 17-year period and will, no doubt, continue to change. After all, those new acquisitions have to have their moment in the spotlight and it is unlikely that Porter will settle on one final, perfect combination.

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