The Right Plant in the Right Place


Written By: Robyn Roehm Cannon

Rudyard Kipling wrote: “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.” And anyone who gardens seriously knows exactly what he was talking about. It seems that there is never any rest for those intent on achieving a garden that is harmonious throughout the seasons, with good bones for the winter and cast of ever-blooming perennials and annuals to add drama and color to lovely summer days. Like children and pets, most plants require you to pay attention to them, so it helps to determine which plants are worthy of your time and energy before you bring them into your garden “family.”

Planting Trees for Posterity

The basic structure of a garden begins with trees, but be careful to select trees that will not completely shade your garden within a decade and that provide more than one season of interest, with fruit, flowers, unusual bark, or dramatic fall color. A top pick is a dogwood, Cornus kousa, for its delicate form and late bloom followed by summer fruit (inedible but pretty) and food fall color. Consider Japanese Stewarta (if you live in zones 7-9) for beautiful bark and small white camellia-like flowers followed by magnificent autumn foliage, or Japanese maples (both the Acer palmatum and dissectum varieties) for their airy vase-like form and elegant leaves. The Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is a classic evergreen tree that brings structure to the garden with its shiny green leaves, deep reddish bark, and huge fragrant, pure white flowers that bloom twice a year. ‘Little Gem” is perfect for smaller spaces.

Filling the Borders

There are many things to consider when selecting appropriate plants, including succession of bloom time, different heights, and leaf texture. There are a variety of different greens, from the palest lemon green to dark, glossy green, with new emphasis on chartreuse green and variegated foliage. Mixing and matching leaf sizes, shapes, and colors for maximum effect in your plantings and working with opposites on the color wheel for eye-pleasing combinations.

Peonies, iris of every variety, and roses – especially the Jackson & Perkins variety ‘Double Delight’ or the magnificent climber ‘Sally Holmes’. Next, alliums, hemerocallis, lilies, and daisy-like flowers from single to double white shasta to Echinacea, red and yellow gaillardias, rudbeckia, and chrysanthemums for the autumn. Mix in ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and white Japanese anemone and you are taken through the whole gardening season. Add spires like deep blue delphiniums, Lupines, and even spiky yuccas, if you live in zone 4. Don’t forget phormiums (zone 8-10) and especially look for the ‘Maori Queen’. When sunlight shines through the plant, it glows a rosy amber – gorgeous!

Gaining Height and Structure

For architectural height and drama, the splendid Cimicifuga ‘Pritchard’s Giant’, which adds fabulous late season bloom with fluffy white flowers on long dark stems – terrific in the back of a border. If you have shade, add Fatsia japonica, and if you have a lot of space and perhaps a pond, plant the magnificent Gunnera manicata. It common name is ‘Dinosuar Food’ and you’ll understand why when you plant one. If it’s happy in your garden, there’s no stopping it.

One of the most valuable plants for a shady garden is the hydrangea. There are many varieties from which to choose, but oak-leaved and lace caps are two favorites.  For smaller beds, choose ‘Preziosa’ – it will stay more compact and has three full seasons of color. Also look for newer varieties, which bloom on new wood and can be easily pruned each year.

Something Soft and Fluffy

Smaller flowers that add a final dimension to your garden include salvias, phlox, astilbes, verbena (especially the vibrant ‘Homestead Purple’), and silver Artemisia “Powis Castle’. If you live where lavender does well, it looks beautiful frothing into the pathway at the front of the border. If your climate is too wet or cold, nepeta is a good substitute.

Annual Addictions

Welcoming your perennials back each season is like a visit with old friends, but every garden needs some annual help to keep things really interesting when flowers begin to fade or are between bloom cycles. Each year, there seem to be more and more annuals to choose from, and the color and dramatic bloom they bring for an entire season cannot be duplicated. Vibrant colors like orange, hot pink, and chartreuse, offset by pure white. If your garden is sunny, plant cosmos. If it is shady, plant impatiens – either the bedding kind or New Guinea, which requires a bit more shade and water. Look for coleus – the varieties are endless and provide gorgeous counterpoint for impatiens in shady gardens. Giant ‘Kong’ is hot pink and chartreuse; another beauty is ‘Inky Fingers’. Each provides great texture and interest in pots or beds.

Some Handy Tips

Before you plant, it’s a good idea to have your soil analyzed by your local horticultural extension service so you know what it’s lacking. Then, amend it now for great results later on. Plant several of each flower you select – three, five, or seven is a good number. Have a color scheme in mind: Consider making a garden of only green and white or blue and yellow for a fun challenge. Take it slowly. It takes at least two years before your garden will start to fill in. So be patient and enjoy the process.

Harmony and Style in the Garden


Written By: Robyn Roehm Cannon

Chicago-based landscape architect Brian Kay gets right to the point when it comes to talking about garden designs. Kay and his gather, George Kay, with whom he’s been designing residential landscape since 1979, collaborated on the book Makeovers: Your Guide to Creating a Beautiful, Logical Landscape, in which they share professional strategies for creating outstanding yards and gardens within practical limitations.

Good garden design principles are timeless. What is the difference between landscapes that are uninspired and ones that are great? The designers contend that the differences are functionality, proportion, and a sense of belonging.

But how to achieve it? There’s no need to guess. Here are some simple principles to bear in mind as you embark on your landscape renovation:

Focus on function. How do you use your yard? Answering this question is the first step in determining how to arrange the hard surfaces and planting areas, so think about your lifestyle. Do you play with kids in your backyard? When you’re walking a visitor to her car, where do you pause for that parting conversation? Remember, “form follows function” is the time-honored essence of design. But even when your yard is functional, it can still be beautiful.

Consider the hardscape. Once you figure out where your walls, patios, and structures will be placed, you’ll be left with planting areas. The subtle balance between hardscape and planting pockets is what creates the sense of meaning in your landscape.

Plan the composition of plants. Which plants are most important? Start with big plants and then move to shrubs, vines, ground covers, and beds of flowers. Shade trees and large evergreens are tremendously important to the vibe of a landscape – they add warmth, depth, and a comforting feeling of enclosure, not to mention a cooling breeze on a hot summer day. But because they take the longest to mature, you’ll want to start with them first.

Strike the right proportion and add depth. Where will each plant thrive? The answer is another question: How big does the plant get? Think long-term when you plant, especially with trees. Avoid planting too close to the house, lest you have to butcher your beautiful tree in a few years. Learn the mature height and width of your trees and plants before you place them in the ground.

Create focal points and enhance views. What do you see when you look out your windows? If you’re on a large property, you may look out on a beautiful wooded area or an attractive open space, which may not require any enhancement. But if you’re on a smaller lot with neighbors close at hand, unsightly views can be plentiful. Rather than planting everything so close to the house that you can’t see it when indoors, arrange your plants to improve your views from inside, and your landscape will look better from every angle.

Match landscape style to your house’s architectural style. Does your home have a distinctive architectural style, such as Greek Revival, Classic Farmhouse, Mediterranean, or Victorian, to name a few? If so, you’re fortunate indeed, as fewer and fewer homes have architectural integrity or style. If the design of your home is symmetrical, it may lend itself to a formal landscape. If it’s contemporary, large architectural or tropical plantings may suit its style. Consider the overall impact of the design – it will be stronger if you’re consistent throughout.

Maintain your privacy. Only you can determine how much privacy you need. Feelings range from “I like being able to see the cars go by” to “I don’t want to talk to my neighbor every time I go outside.” If you plant along your property line, you can feel comfortable in your own space and screen objectionable views. but privacy plantings should be creatively placed to do their job yet avoid sending the message: “Keep out!”

Avoid making mistakes. Unlike the construction of a home, everything doesn’t have to be done at once. Take your time, live in your space, and consider your options as you develop a master plan that can be executed in phases if necessary. The Kay’s book – filled with accessible, practical, and creative tips for a stunning residential landscape – is a great tool to help you achieve your goals.

Unique Rooms #5 – Sweet Sanctuary


Written By: Karen Buscemi

Spread across 5 acres in the tony town of Holmby Hills, California, where legends such as Aaron Spelling, Barbara Streisand, and Hugh Hefner have called home, is a 1950s estate once owned by Gary Cooper. The property, however, wasn’t always this grand. It took the current homeowner’s love for his grounds to inspire him to purchase two neighboring properties and bulldoze the houses, securing him enough land to create a multigarden oasis.

The project, Baroda Garden, was commandeered by Mark Rios and his landscape architecture team at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, based in Los Angeles, and took eight years (as the properties became available) to complete.

The journey begins on the drive up to the house, past a long retaining wall used as an entry art piece covered with a series of abstract sculptures telling the story of the site and the gardens that occupy it. The entire perimeter around the house, which sits transparently on the site, among the design scheme, has this abstract, graphic feel, with a pastoral lawn and defined gardens with minimal plant varieties in geometric forms,a long pool, and two ponds – one with a modern waterfall, the other a smaller-scale koi pond – topped off with a moving sculpture that allows participation with the artwork. As a complete makeover of the original owner’s gardens, which Rios says hadn’t been maintained over the years, the designer took care to keep the spirit of the original garden.

The more rustic areas have narrow gravel paths, rocky trails, and winding stairways that guide the walker around the property, passing bamboo garden, a dense arroyo garden with eucalyptus trees, a California succulent garden, a camellia and azalea garden, and a California grass garden. Along the way are a number of unique sitting areas to spend an afternoon.

A viewing terrace with wood decking hangs over the arroyo and is encased in lush wisteria. The secluded terrace looks back on the house and original gardens.

All the hillsides, which go down to the arroyo, are filled with succulent gardens, featuring different kinds of native California plant materials. And sitting areas are locate here , too, in minimalistic settings on gravel that lets nature take center stage.

And the surprising leisurely area comes at the garden farthest from the house, where a vintage Airstream trailer acts as a garden folly, inviting the walker inside to rest, eat a meal, or enjoy a glass of wine.

Rios says the various resting spots are essential for a garden journey.

Rios says his favorite part of the property is the ability to have so many varied experiences in one place.

Formality in Today’s Garden


Written By: Robyn Roehm Cannon

Some people believe that formal gardens are suited only to sites on a grand scale – it is just the opposite. Whether they are intimate and complex or simple and streamlined, small formal gardens have one thing in common: They have a terrific ability to provide your-round interest and are surprisingly easy to maintain. The added bonus: A formal garden transcends the whims of fashion. It never goes out of style.

There are so many options open to those who wish to create a formal garden today. One of the most exciting is the opportunity to use garden statuary and water features to provide a focal point or framework for the design and add a feeling of vitality to a garden space.

For centuries, statuary and fountains have anchored formal baroque parterres, intricate herb knots, potagers, topiary, and rose gardens throughout Europe, thanks in great part to work done by statuary makers in the London-area factory Eleanor Coade, which operated from the early 18th century through the middle of the 1800s.

Fortunately, today’s landscape architects and designers have myriad choices for garden art the looks aged, although it is new. One of the West Coast’s largest suppliers, Lucca Statuary, in Seattle, Washington, specializes in hand-cast concrete pieces that are custom-finished with muriatic-based penetrating stains originally designed for floors.

But it is not enough to have beautiful product from which to choose. Unless it is carefully and thoughtfully placed, garden statuary and fountains can look sorely out of place – like a bad collection from the movie set of My Big Fat Greek Wedding – or worse, like they fell from the sky and landed haphazardly in the middle of the front yard. Conversely, gardens designed around beautiful statuary are restful places to be, no matter what the season. Here are a few important considerations for using fountains and statuary in your garden.

Building a garden without structure is like writing a sentence without punctuation. If you are starting from scratch, build the bones of your garden before you plant. The hardscape is the most important element – paved areas on which to put furnishings and walls to give your garden structure and privacy. Always pick your fountain and your architectural garden ornaments first, and then design your garden around them.

Adopt the European principle of using every inch of space and living in it to the fullest. Look carefully at your yard. Right now, you have untapped space potential waiting to be reclaimed. For example, a narrow side yard can be transformed into a charming classic allee with Italian cypress and roses, with a tiny fountain at the end of the path.

Courtyard gardens emphasize privacy. You may already have natural hedges or fences that define your space. If not, you’ll want to add hedge material. A soft green wall is the perfect backdrop for a bubbling fountain or an exquisitely planted urn.

Don’t be afraid to place large decorative pieces in a small garden. One magnificent architectural garden ornament used as a focal point is more effective – and more classic – than a collection of small unrelated items that add up to a lot of visual clutter and confusion. Edit your garden decor in the same manner as you would edit an interior room. Think of statuary as a piece of fine jewelry for your garden. Less is more – more elegant, more impact to the eye.

If you have a larger piece of property or an expansive yard, think in terms of unifying your space into a series of garden rooms. Walk your property and determine that places from which you are most likely to observe your garden or a special view – or the place where you would like to entertain guests. Then plan these areas as outdoor rooms, each with its own architectural garden ornament as a focal point. Consider using a pair of urns on pedestals to create an entrance to a space. By connecting the newly defined spaces with a path, you can move from one special venue to another.

Stand in your windows and observe your garden from the inside out. We spend a good deal of time looking at our garden from inside, during months when it is too cold, rainy, or snowy to enjoy it outdoors. So make every window view count by creating small vignettes centered on a piece of statuary. The addition of low-voltage lighting will create a dramatic effect after dark and make your outdoor space seem like an extension of your interior.

Classic garden statuary provides a delightful detail in garden design. It makes a small garden space seem important, and it makes a case for the year-round pleasures of formality, which easily can be adapted to a contemporary lifestyle. With careful selection and placement, and by building your plants around your pieces, your garden can look as though it has been there forever. That should be inspiration indeed.

Allies and Enemies of Your Garden

When maintaining a healthy garden space, it is important to learn to distinguish between insects that are beneficial and harmful bugs that might infest growing plants.


For a healthy atmosphere that is conducive to growth, good insects are imperative. To persuade beneficial bugs and animals to take residence in and around your garden, provide them with several sources of food. The majority of advantageous creatures eat soft-bodied pests that can harm your plants. Other ways to catch the attention of good bugs include planting an herb garden and adding flowers that are rich in nectar and pollen.


To keep the deadly insects out and the healthy bugs in, remember that harmful bugs like to live where everything is a mess. So keep your garden and its surroundings clean and free of debris. If you find you are still faced with an onslaught of enemy forces, try organic pesticides. These harmless sprays are rich in herbs and natural oils that will force the enemy bugs to retreat, leaving your garden to safely grow in harmony.

Garden for Your Climate

When beginning a gardening project, it is important to consider the climate zone in which your home resides. The United States National Arboretum is a great resource for garden planning according to climate; visit for more information.

Included are helpful hints for plants that will thrive in your specific climate as well as how to read those tricky nursery labels. Keep in mind that no matter where your garden is located, you can control the atmosphere if necessary by adding artificial heat or light.

In colder climates it is important to start your plants off indoors a few weeks prior to the final frost of the season. Then transplant them outdoors into your garden after the weather has warmed. Certain plants thrive in colder climates, so check with a nursery specialist or read the tag on the plant; often this is the easiest way to gather information about a particular species.

For atmospheres that receive a consistent amount of sunlight year-round, focus on planting greenery that thrives in heat and sun, unless you are able to alter your environment through the use of a greenhouse or indoor planting.

Gorgeous Gardens – #5 Vision of Paradise


Written By: Phil Wood

When Gary and Kerri Wood purchased a 40-year-old home in Seattle on a bluff above the Puget Sound, they knew that they wanted to update a tired landscape. The previous owner’s taste ran to expanses of lawn, a sprawl of junipers, and gumdrop-pruned trees and shrubs. The new owners envisioned a garden with year-round interest, bringing in the look of an exuberant meadow framing the dramatic view of the blue water and majestic mountains beyond.

In addition to its timeworn appearance, the garden did not function well. The existing outdoor patios were miniscule. Extending the paving made them more spacious. The old and new concrete was covered with Arizona flagstone, which matched the existing stone on the exterior walls of the house. One terrace, just off the kitchen, offers a view o both the garden and the sea. Sheltered from the prevailing winds by the house, it offers a comfortable spot for outdoor dining.

The warm pink tones of the sandstone were carried into the garden as stepping-stones. The same stone is used on garden walls, including one that surrounds an aboveground spa, giving it a custom look that blends it into the garden.

The spa required privacy from neighbors. The dense foliage of plume cypress (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’) provides both the screening and winter interest. The feathery green foliage turns to bronze in the winter, emphasizing the seasonal change.

The many mal-pruned plants in the garden were either removed or allowed to escape from their straight jackets into more graceful shapes.

New beds were sculptured out of the lawn. Gary was reluctant to part with any of his greensward because he like to entertain nieces and nephews with an egg hunt in the yard on Easter. Room was left for that as new beds were added slowly over time. Now he appreciates the richness the new plants bring.

The plants soften the boundary with the neighbor and were chosen to stay low to the ground so that they won’t grow up into the view. New plants were also selected to give a variety of foliage texture and color as well as bloom, and a combination of both deciduous and evergreen leaves so that many of the plants have a winter presence. The plant selection leans toward low water use. Even though the Pacific Northwest has a reputation as a place where it rains all the time, summers are quite dry. Choosing plants from other wet-winter/dry-summer regions assures that plants will flourish with little water once established. Those regions include the Mediterranean, South Africa, Chile, and Australia.

Lavender, native to the Mediterranean, explodes with rockets of purple bloom in the summer, and the silvery leaves add year-round texture, repeated by other silver-toned plants, including blue oat grass, looking like a soft sea urchin. The orbs of globe thistle (Echinops ritro) sit atop foliage that continues the silver theme.

The intriguing flowers of Jeruselum sage (Phlomis russelliana) parch on the stems to form tiers of soft yellow. The seed heads that follow last all winter, slowly fading to from blond to brunet. Picking up on the yellow theme, cape fuchsia (Phygelius xrectus) from South Africa covers itself with lemon-colored tubular flowers, showy from midsummer until fall.

The pink crepe-paper flowers of Lavatera luxuriantly drape themselves all along the stems, resembling a miniature hollyhock. Euphorbia offers evergreen texture, with leaves radiating cleanly out from the center of the stem and showy green flowers in spring. Another perennial with marvelous foliage, Phlox paniculata ‘Nora Leigh’ has green leaves edged in cream that echo similar tones, including the variegated foliage of a creeping ground cover, Moonshadow euonymus.

The pink and white flowers of Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) bloom all summer. The low mounds of this little perennial, spangled along the front of the border, have the ability to tie the whole composition together. Shrubs bring blooms too. The pink buds of Korean spice bush (Viburnum carlesii) open to white clusters of scented flowers. Hydrangeas flower in the shade on the north side of the house along the path that leads up to the upper patio. Hostas flourish at their base, adding bold leaves and delicate summer blooms.

Rhododendrons are indispensable garden plants in the Northwest. They need a bit of extra water to get them established. Rhododendron PJM brings purplish-pink flowers in spring, blooming when the foliage still has the mahogany color it develops in the winter. Its compact size, to 4 feet, allows it to fit well into the borders.

Ornamental grasses express the wind t hat often blows on this exposed site. Grasses also add fine linear texture to contrast with other leaf shapes. The seed heads of Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) turn golden in the fall and stay attractive through the winter. Looking like the topknow on an English sheep dog, the mounds of golden variegated Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Aureovariegata’) flow gracefully among the shrubs and perennials.

A stepping stone path wanders through one of the beds and t hen widen to a paved circle to provide a passage and also structure to the composition, giving a backbone to the exuberant plants.

A friend describes the garden as a flow between heaven and earth, between clouds and water. They have achieved their vision of paradise.

Gorgeous Gardens – #4 Twenty-Three Years in the Making


Written By: Carolyn M Runyon

Lush tropical gardens are the dream of many gardeners, but only those who are fortunate enough to live in warm, wet, tropical climates have the opportunity to create them. Glenn Sahara is one of those fortunate ones, and he has created an astonishingly beautiful, exotically colorful garden – one full of dense foliage and exceptional blooms. Sahara lives in the perfect climate for such a garden – the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii, where there is an average rainfall of 140 inches annually.

Sahara moved to Hawaii from Berkeley, California, and his garden has been 23 years in the making.

The ground is made up of volcanic rock and required special preparation in order to grow plants.

Sahara did all the design and actual landscaping himself.

Most of the plants were purchased from nurseries within the state of Hawaii; however, Sahara notes that his best sources have been from the private gardens of fellow plant collectors.

The design of the garden developed on its own.

Sahara admired the many beautiful gardens he saw in Hawaii but found that often they were monochromatic with lots of green tones.

Sahara created a little rain forest with flowering plants, dangling epiphytes (a plant that uses its roots to anchor itself to another plant, tree, or rock), and exotic fragrances wafting in the tradewinds.

The one-story home is located in a subdivision, but there is no home within sight.

There are a few pieces of statuary that Sahara brought back from trips or that were gifts from friends.

When asked whether he is pleased with his garden, Sahara replies that he is but that he feels that an interesting garden is one that is ever changing.

Gorgeous Gardens – #3 Transcendental Inspiration


Written By: Wendy Tweten

As a child, Cameron Bahnson rubbed shoulders with European royalty and heads of state. As a young woman, she traveled to the Far East to study transcendental meditation. In a little more than two decades, Bahnson – the daughter of a U.S. admiral stationed in Italy – made the acquaintance of Princess Grace of Monaco and became a protegee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the one-time spiritual guide of the Beatles. Then, after traveling the globe, Bahnson came to Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound of Washington and made a garden.

With such a broad life experience, it comes as no surprise that Bahnson brought the world to her backyard. Throughout the formal parterre garden that she developed, there runs a European etiquette with borders as straight as a duchess’s spine and lines that undulate like waves on a warm sea. Leaves shimmer in Mediterranean green and silver. All is contained within a Vastu fence, an outdoor extension of the 4,000-year-old Eastern Indian architectural philosophy of Sthapatya Veda used by Bahnson in the design of her house. The fence serves as a buffer, both literally and symbolically, between the outside world and the harmony of the home. When viewed from an upper-floor balcony, the front garden unfolds like an open book.

A photographer and graphic designer, Bahnson single-handedly designed every aspect of her garden as well as selected and planted every plant. Surprisingly, this expertly designed synthesis of Hindu harmony and Gallic order was Bahnson’s first venture into landscape design. She also devised certain garden features, including European-style fountain block and mortar with a lion-head spout, mounted on a trough she rescued from a nursery back lot.

Bahnson was meticulous in ever detail, down to the ratio of tangerine marble chips to buckskin quartz in the gravel paths. She also experimented to find the best plants for a Mediterranean look with Pacific Northwest hardiness. Carefully edited, the beds retain only those plants most agreeable to organic cultivation and regular shearing: For instance, Bahnson removed the lanky Santolina incana, replacing it with better behaved Senecio greyi. Some of Bahnson’s overall favorites include Ramapo rhododendrons (“a mass purple in spring”), Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’, Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), and the sweet-scented, apricot-orange Westerland climbing rose, that blooms all summer in the sunny back terrace. The Lady Banks’ rose reminds Bahnson of France, where its profuce, buttery blossoms are a familiar sight. Occasionally a plant exceeds expectations, such as the ornamental weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’), whose silvery leaves and small brown fruit mimic that of olive trees.

An allee of eight Enterprise apple trees march in regular rhythm up either side of a large fountain jardiniere to form the axis of parterre. Despite hard annual pruning, the trees are loaded with blossoms each spring and apples each fall. Bahnson sees the fuit as a mixed blessing.

Within the tightly clipped boxwood borders are plantings of Hebe, lavender, arctic blue willow (Salix purpurea), and dwarf rhododendron. Popcorn rose standards rise triumphant from box-edged ellipses. On the paths, strategically placed pots hold brioche-shaped buns of English boxwood and spikes of Yucca re-curvifolia ‘Margaritaville’. Beyond the Vastu fence, the road is screened by a variety of taller, shrubbier plants that include the green and gray silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata).

Warm, bright light is an important component of these gardens. To keep the sunshine coming, Bahnson chose trees that will stay under 20 feet; most are narrow, columnar selections such as skyrocket juniper, Italian cypress ‘Swane’s Golden’ and ‘Tiny Tower’, oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis ‘Blue Cone’), and Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Sentry’).

In the terraced back garden, a steep slope was tamed by rock walls that are in turn softened by boxwood hedging. Bahnson originally intended the 12 slabs of Chinese granite to ascend the hill in one long stairway, but she changed the design to four broad steps, forming a stage for the lion-head fountain. This intimate backyard oasis is filled with handsome species of ceanothus, golden box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’), and golden curly willow (Salix ‘Golden Curls’). Playful boxwood balls appear to have rolled into paths and gardens. In the summer, pots of deep blue agapanthus and salmon-blooming geraniums bring castanets of color to this classical composition.

While flowers add a seasonal old-world punctilio, the soul of this garden is found in foliage and form. Bahnson appreciates how the predominance of reflective green and silver causes her garden to glow, even in winter.

Gorgeous Gardens – #2 The Secretly Spectacular Gardens of Virginia Robinson


Written By: Robyn Roehm Cannon

Beverly Hills, California, the hillside enclave that sits just above Sunset Boulevard, has long been famous for its movie stars and opulent homes. Its fascinating history dates back to 1906, when the Rodeo Land and Water Company financed the planning of the fashionable community and hired the Olmsted Brothers – landscape designers of the White House grounds and New York City’s Central Park – to lay out its elegant palm-tree lined streets. To this day, they remain highly private.

But there is on notable exception: The historic 7-acre estate of Virginia Robinson sits right in the heart of Beverly Hills, open for everyone’s enjoyment. Ironically, it’s one of the least-known private gardens in the United States, and yet its elegant mix of Italianate architecture, formal European landscape design, and a jungle of a rare tropical and subtropical plants makes it one of the most magnificent – a horticultural fantasy-land for the lucky visitor today.

This legendary estate was built in 1911, after Virginia Dryden married J.W. Robinson’s department store heir Harry Robinson, and the newlyweds returned from a three-year honeymoon to Europe, India, and Kashmir. Virginia’s father was noted architect Nathanial Dryden, who designed their dream home on what was then 15 acres of undeveloped land.

Virginia and Harry moved into their 6,000-square-foot beaux-arts residence in 1912 – the first home to be built in Beverly Hills. Within only a few years, The Beverly Hills Hotel would appear, and neighbors including John and Ethel Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, the elusive Greta Garbo, and many other famous stars of the early American cinema would gradually join the couple and become their friends.

During her lifetime, Mrs. Robinson worked closely with the celebrated Pasadena landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams to build five distinct gardens, dramatically situated around a Mediterranean-style palazzo on a steep, terraced hillside. Each garden contains a rich tapestry of unusual plant material influenced by the couple’s extensive travels in Europe.

To reach the main gardens, visitors pass through the residence and glimpse a view of the gracious formal Mall, built in the character of an English walled garden, with herbaceous borders, manicured lawns, and classical statuary. Pathways lead to a balustrade-flanked swimming pool next to a Renaissance-style Pool Pavilion, added in 1924. On the east side of the Pavilion sits a small rose garden. Roses were Virgina’s favorite flowers, and this intimate space has a charming and abundant collection of old English and hybrid tea roses.

To the west of the Pavilion are the Italianate Gardens, with brilliant views of specimen trees including giant firs and Italian cypresses. Exotics and subtropical plants were Mrs. Robinson’s sepcialty, which she imported and planted on the steeply raked plot. Eight decorative stone terraces connected by brick paths are scented by gardenias and stephanotis and enhanced by secret fountains, ponds, and statuary place whimsically amid densely leafed trees.

In a classical French Potager Garden, vegetables and herbs are planted in pattern. Curiously, bird and monkey cages sit at one end of the potager. The story goes that pet monkeys roamed free for a time, but after biting several guests they were confined to cages, where Mrs. Robinson consoled them with sugar lumps soaked in bourbon before she visited her extensive aviary, filled with exotic parrots and macaws.

The most dramatic feature of the Robinson Gardens is its Tropical Palm Grove. Cool, shady paths wind through a cathedral-like forest of giant ferns, tropical plants, and the largest collection of Australian King Palms in the continental United States, with trunks that soar 50 to 60 feet high. Visitors are treated to a spectacular open-air view of the palm forest by standing on the balcony-like loggia. With no fourth wall and mirrors on two facing walls that reflect the tops of the palms as they wave in the breeze, this amazing vantage point exaggerates a feeling of floating in space, magically suspended above the tree line.

Though she died in 1977, she bequeathed the estate to Los Angeles County in 1974. Today, the garden and residence are operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The property had been neglected and the restoration work has been difficult, without the benefit of knowing Mrs. Robinson or having a formal plan to consult. But, more than 80 percent of the garden has been restored to its original grandeur. Thousands of photographs have been consulted. Fortunately, her last major d’omo (house manager, still living on the premises) has shared important memories about the function, look, and use of the garden during the last ten years of Mrs. Robinson’s life.