West of St. Helena in Napa Valley sits a lovely garden surrounding a small house with a large porch and big picture window. I had an opportunity to speak with the owner, Glenn, about how this idyllic spot came to fruition.
Several years ago, Glenn and Anne purchased this home hoping to retire in the next few years. They saw the potential in an outdated but solidly built home in the perfect spot, along a country lane yet close to town.
They needed to renovate the house first, and then plan the garden. They launched their project by hiring a landscape and garden designer to help clarify their vision for the plot. Seven elements of good design guided their decisions. They needed to consider the function, site, hardscaping, microclimate, water management, plant selection and maintenance of their ideal home.
Function: The landscape designer asked questions to help determine which design would best support their interests and needs. Glenn and Anne were asked how they planned to use their garden. Did they plan to entertain? If so, where? Did they have any specific plants in mind?
The couple expressed a desire for an aesthetically pleasing garden that would also be water- efficient, sustainable, friendly to wildlife and care-free. In the front yard, which the public could see, they wanted an attractive landscape featuring plants with color, scent and texture. They also wanted to attract butterflies, bees and birds, and they wanted color in every season. The backyard was to be a place to contemplate, sit quietly, read a book and entertain.
Site: Since guests would park on the street, the home needed a walkway from the street to the front door. The couple parks their own vehicles in the driveway to the left of a house, so another walkway was needed from the front door to the driveway.
Hardscaping: When the project began, California was in the middle of a serious drought. To conserve rain water, a swale (a depression between slopes) and series of berms (an earthen embankment defining the swale) were added to the front garden to percolate moisture into the soil. A fountain was added for birds and butterflies and placed so that it can be seen from the front porch and window.
The backside of the house had several steps and levels. The homeowners decided to make the landscape two levels and use locally mined paving stones on the lower level to the creek edge. To protect the house from water, the paved area slants away from the house and toward the creek. Well-placed potted plants protect people from accidently moving to the edge of the creek.
Several trees were dug up. An olive tree was removed and given away. Two crepe myrtles were moved from the backyard to the front.
Microclimate: The front of the house faces south; the back faces north. With a southern exposure, the front tends to be hot in summer, making it a good site for plants that flourish with little water. The trees and boxwood hedges on both the east and west sides of the front garden create several microclimates requiring differing kinds of plants.
With its northern exposure, the backyard is cool and moist, with little variation in climate. It is ideal for water-loving plants.
Water management: Once the two levels were defined in the backyard, the grass was removed using the sheet-mulching method. In the fall, a plan for watering was devised. The design relies in two drip systems. The main pipes for the back were placed under the paving stones. Glenn chose a meter that he manually adjusts himself according to variations in rainfall and temperature.
Plant selection: As you enter the front walkway, the scent of night-blooming jasmine (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis), English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and mock orange (Philadelphus) greet you. At the base of the porch steps, pots of gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), one on each side, add to the scent. Sun-loving California fuchsia (Epilodium) andmanzanita (Arctostaphylos spp) are among the plants that grow atop the berms that define the natural stone swale meandering through the garden. Both attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.
Below the boxwood (Buxus) are newly planted red-twig dogwoods (Cornus sericiae). In the corner below the porch is Anne's “conversation corner” shaded by the bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Other plants for the back garden include a fragrant flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle'), dwarf hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Bobo') and prostrate rosemary covering the creek bank.
Maintenance: Anne and Glenn can keep up the garden themselves due to the low-maintenance design. When they need help for tasks like transplanting trees, they hire local people.
For an opportunity to be inspired and learn more, you can visit Glenn and Anne's' garden on Sunday, May 21. It is one of six Master Gardener-owned gardens featured on the U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County's “Discover Garden Magic” tour. Purchase tickets online at
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
The process I use is called sheet composting, and it is simply a method of building a compost pile in place. You can not only use this procedure on well-turned vegetable beds but also on a lawn, or part of a lawn, that you would like to use differently.
I gather materials for sheet composting throughout the year so that by fall I have a big pile of clean cardboard. I avoid the type of cardboard with slick sides because it takes longer to break down and contains clay. I also gather dried leaves, newsprint, decaying plants without seeds, some compost and aged chicken manure. In short, I use the same materials you would use in a compost or worm bin.
If you plan to sheet compost in an area that has never been dug, then turn the soil to a depth of two feet. This process aerates the soil so air and water will move through it more easily. If you are sheet composting in a grassy area, then loosen and turn the sod over so it will die. You will build your pile on top.
If I have old vegetable plants still in the beds, I cut them up and leave them in place. I may also put some kitchen waste on top of that. Then I build alternating layers, as if making lasagne. You can use whatever organic materials you have. I usually use cardboard, leaves and newsprint (laying them out in sheets – no need to cut up) or shredded paper. Then I repeat the layers. I top off the pile with aged compost and chicken manure. If my garden plot has diminished in height during the growing season, I may add more clean soil or compost when I construct the layers. I moisten each layer, then wet everything again. Then I cover with a plastic tarp, making sure it is secured on the sides so it does not go flying in the wind.
Watering each level is important because it encourages the microbes and other creatures to wake up and go to work. The red wigglers used in worm composting will start to move in and munch on the foods they love. They especially like cardboard and will move inside the corrugation. They enjoy the glue that keeps the cardboard together, and I often find that the cardboard layer disappears first.
Depending on the rain, you may not have to water the pile during the winter. However, it is a good idea to check the pile from time to time and water again if necessary to keep the layers moist.
In late April or early May, remove the plastic and see what has happened to your compost pile. It should be full of red wigglers and other creatures, and you may see some little white bugs hopping around. These creatures worked the pile for you, so you don’t have to do spring digging. As they worked through the compost, they turned the soil for you.
Sometimes the cardboard or other items are not completely decomposed by spring. I plant in the bed anyway by cutting holes in the cardboard where I want my plants to grow. On other occasions, I have covered the soil with cardboard and cut holes for my plants. This cardboard layer helps conserve soil moisture.
I once sheet-composted a bed in July and covered it with plastic. In late September I removed the plastic and found no trace of the materials I had layered just a few weeks before—only a bed of wonderful soil.
The droppings that the worms leave behind (known as worm castings) are beneficial to plants. They are a mild natural fertilizer containing all the trace elements. Some call these castings “worm gold.” It sells for about $600 a yard. When I plant in the spring, I do dig in some more chicken manure and worm compost from my worm bins.
Napa County Master Gardeners welcome the public to visit their demonstration garden at Connolly Ranch on Thursday mornings, from 10:30 a.m. until noon, except the last Thursday of the month. Connolly Ranch is at 3141 Browns Valley Road at Thompson Avenue in Napa. Enter on Thompson Avenue.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners ( http://ucanr.org/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.