Touring Exceptional Gardens

Recently, I wrote about the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, which provides tours of exceptional private gardens. Since then, I visited two clusters of four private gardens south of the San Francisco Bay area.

Some gardens were the product of devoted gardeners who were pleased to dialog with the visitors about their gardens and specific plants and other features. These homeowners clearly enjoyed hands-on gardening.

Other gardens were the products of the designer, the installation contractor and the maintenance crew. The homeowners were more clients and admirers and satisfied with owning a showcase.

Here are some highlights of these tours.

  • A narrow, south-facing side yard with espaliered fruit trees next to the house and raised beds along the fence. Efficient and productive use of a space that is often wasted.
  • Espaliered Apple TreesA cluster of sixteen raised beds of Corten steel, each about five by ten feet, with four-foot aisles. Major commitment to growing edibles and ornamentals.
  • An outdoor dining room with seating for twenty-four, on a brick patio under an arbor of pollarded plane trees (Platanus × acerifolia). Nice
  • Dining Room for 24 Guests, Brick PatioA twenty-foot tall weeping Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca ‘Pendula’) next to a koi pond. (I must remove the five-foot specimen that eventually will outgrow its space in my garden.)
  • Weeping Atlas CedarA sharply sloped area at the back of the property with a twenty by forty foot children’s play yard on stilts, a zip line and a newly planted vineyard. Good use of a difficult part of the landscape.

Many visitors focused on individual plants, particularly those in current fashion, e.g., Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’ and R. ‘Spice so Nice’ growing on a fence, several Oakleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quericifolia), a large Matilija poppy (Romney coulteri), and a great number of ornamental grasses.

The benefits of touring private gardens also include seeing combinations and swaths of selected plants, examining the design of ornamental borders and studying the overall layout of the landscape, including hardscape features and garden art. There is much to learn from other people’s gardens.

For info on future Open Days, visit

Exceptional Gardens

Avid gardeners have a small number of valuable champions. Among them are public botanical gardens and arboreta, and private residential gardens of exceptional quality.

The Garden Conservancy is an organization that works to make exceptional residential gardens accessible to the public. This non-profit organization was established in 1989 by Frank Cabot, a distinguished American gardener who passed away late last year.

The Conservancy conducts two primary programs, as follows:

The Garden Preservation Program

Here, the Conservancy identifies exceptional gardens and works to help them survive and prosper. It has extended its assistance to some ninety gardens, to date, supporting their transition from private to non-profit ownership and management. The Conservancy has continuing relationship with sixteen gardens in the United States, of which two are in northern California.

One of these is the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which is in fact the first garden of the Conservancy’s Preservation Program. This is a forty-year-old, three-acre garden of succulents, the long-term project of Ruth Bancroft (b. 1908) who continues her interest in the garden. The garden is managed by a non-profit organization, which maintains a regular schedule of days for public visits. For more information, visit the website

The other Preservation Program in California is the Gardens of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay. The prisoners and staff of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island developed the gardens originally; they are maintained today by a partnership that includes the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. Admission to the gardens is free of charge, but visits involve a private ferry that does charge for its services. For information:

These two gardens are interesting and memorable destinations for daytrips by Monterey Bay area gardeners.

The Open Days Program

The Garden Conservancy also facilitates access to many additional private gardens, which are selected by the Conservancy for inclusion in its Open Days program. This program offers self-guided tours to private gardens during the spring, summer and fall months. The organization groups gardens in clusters within a given area, for the convenience of visitors. Visitors are welcome at any time within the announced schedule; the admission fee is $5 per garden. The Conservancy offers the Open Days Directory, a national publication that lists Open Days and participating gardens with garden descriptions, open hours, and directions.

This weekend, for example, includes Open Days on Saturday, June 2 for a cluster of four gardens in the San Francisco Peninsula area (Atherton, Palo Alto, Portola Valley), and on Sunday, June 3 for a cluster of gardens in the Telegraph Hill area of San Francisco.

For information on the Garden Conservancy’s programs, visit

More: Return to this page after June 2, 2012 for notes from the Open Days gardens of the SF peninsula.

California’s Best Public Garden

My recent travels included an April Fool’s Day visit to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino (near Pasadena). I visited this extraordinary garden before, but not for several years, and was pleased that it continues to develop and to delight.

The Gardens, spread over 120 acres, include numerous thematic areas, several of which are “world-class” gardens: some oriented to geographical regions (Japan, China, Australia, etc.), some focusing on categories of plants (roses, palms, cacti & succulents, herbs, etc.) and others emphasizing garden-related topics (Shakespeare Garden, Children’s Garden, Jungle Garden, etc.) Something for every gardener!

One of my favorites, the Japanese Garden, was closed through spring 2012 for renovation. A nearby part of the world was represented, however, by the new Chinese Garden, “Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance,” which was opened in 2008. This a spectacular garden includes twenty-four poetically named features, e.g., Love for the Lotus Pavilion, Isle for Welcoming Cranes, and Bridge of Strolling in the Moonlight. Already fascinating for its specimen plants, architectural design and scenic views, it is still evolving with support from numerous donors.

My companions for the day, a Master Gardener and spouse from Tuscon, were most interested in the Desert Garden, which includes cacti, succulents and other zerophytes. It is unquestionably one of the world’s finest gardens of its kind, with specimens of more than 5,000 species from many continents. The garden began in 1907-08 with a half-acre of cacti and succulents from Mexico, and by 1981 grew to its present ten acres.

The Desert Garden includes sixty plant beds, with areas dedicated to Old World plants, North America, the low southeastern part of South America and South Africa.

One plant I found intriguing was the Chilean Puya alpestris, related to the young Puya berteroniana (“Blue Puya”) in my garden. This succulent produces “six- to ten-foot flowering spikes of metallic, deep turquoise flowers highlighted by vivid orange stamens in summer.” The Huntington’s large collection of these “otherworldly” plants was not in bloom during our visit, but it had numerous stalks with buds ready to open. Fortunately, there were many other plants in bloom for us to enjoy.

We also toured the historically oriented Rose Garden, which has nearly twelve hundred species and cultivars on display. Our visit was early in the season, but many roses were already in bloom, providing a generous sample of the species and hybrids of the much-loved rose.

There are other fine public botanical gardens and arboreta in California, but the Huntington Botanical Gardens is larger, more diverse and better maintained than any others that I have visited.

If the opportunity arises for you to visit the Los Angeles area, schedule at least a day to visit the Huntington Gardens.


The full name of this impressive resource is The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. As the name indicates, the site includes

  • A research library of some six million rare books and manuscripts in British and American history and literature, including an exhibit hall where visitors can see such literary treasures as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum,  an enormous (“double elephant”) folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, and much more.
  • An extensive art collection, displayed in three buildings:
    • The Huntington Art Galley has on of the finest collections of European art in the nation;
    • The Virginia Steel Scott Galleries of American Art include American art from the colonial period through the middle of 20th century; and
    • The MaryLou and George Boone Gallery hosts changing exhibitions.
  • The Botanical Gardens, with their many thematic areas, over 120 acres.

There is much to see and appreciate. While you might visit “The Huntington” primarily for the gardens, include some time to see its library and art resources as well. Here is the link to The Huntington’s website, where there is all the information you will find useful.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

At least one gardener has been motivated by my recent recommendation to learn the botanical names of plants in your garden. Wendy in Monterey wrote, “We’d like to turn over a new leaf and start learning the names of our plants. Can you recommend a book that would help us—with color photos, scientific and common names, and maybe a paragraph about the plant. We live in Monterey CA and have a variety of shrubs, trees, grasses, perennials, annuals, and rocks! Many thanks.”

My immediate recommendation is to get the 9th edition of Sunset’s indispensable reference, The Western Garden Book. This very recent publication includes hundreds of additional plants and illustrates plants with photographs instead of line drawings.

Finding a good information source is just the first step toward progress. Here are three ideas to make learning plant names more enjoyable.

1. Understand how plant names relate to other plant names

Plant names include two basic parts: genus and species. For example, Ceanothus griseus is the name for the Carmel Ceanothus, a native of the Monterey Bay area and one of dozens of species within the genus Ceanothus.

A given species might include varieties. In this case, we have Ceanothus griseus, var. horizontalis, with the common name Carmel Creeper.

A species or a variety within a species might include cultivated varieties, called “cultivars.” These are natural variations that have been selected for propagation because of their desirable features. The Carmel Creeper’s cultivars include ‘Yankee Point’ (narrower leaves and darker blue flowers) and ‘Diamond Heights’ (yellow and green variegated leaves, pale blue flowers).

Every genus also exists within a family. The genus Ceanothus is one of more than 50 genera within the Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae). A family relative of the Ceanothus is the Rhamnus californica, the California Buckthorn or Coffeeberry.

2. Accept the reality that plant names change.

Taxonomists change plant names on the basis of DNA analyses and other methods. They either combine or separate genera (or other categories). Our current example, Ceanothus griseus has been changed recently to Ceanothus thyrsiflorus var. griseus.

Changes reflect refinements, so don’t fret!

3. Appreciate the meaning of plant names.

Many plant names describe a plant’s appearance. The genus name Ceanothus comes from the Greek “keanothus,” that referred to some spiny plant, and the species griseus is the Latin word for “gray.”

Some plant names refer to the plant’s discoverer. For the plant Salvia karwinskii (Karwinski’s Sage), the genus name comes from the Latin salveo, “I am well,” and the species name refers to the 19th century German explorer Wilhelm Friedrich Karwinsky von Karwin.

There are several books on the derivation of plant names. An online source is Michael Charters’ website, “California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations (


I have just received my copy of Sunset’s 9th Edition of The Western Garden Book, and it doesn’t disappoint.

I have several previous editions of this very useful publication, so I could attempt a detailed historical analysis of its content, but I won’t because I prefer to address the here and now.

The section on Climate Zones has been expanded to include information for several western states. That broadens the market for the book, but I’m still most interested in the climate zone of my own garden and care little about what’s happening in New Mexico.

Every gardener should know the climate zone of his or her garden, the micro-climates within the garden and the composition of the soil.

The next section, called the Plant Finder, has lists of plants in three categories: Problem-solving Plants, Earth-friendly Plants, and Plants for Special Effects. These sections are valuable guides to the alphabetical list of plants (the book’s main section). Unless you already know the name of a plant, an alphabetical list can be frustrating. The Plant Finder helps the gardener find a plant for a given situation.

The last major section, Gardening, Start to Finish, provides brief landscaping and cultivation information. This is helpful, but a serious gardener will need more detailed information on these topics.

Finally, the book restores the index of common and botanical names. This index was missing from the previous edition, in favor of a novel approach to including common names within the main alphabetical section.

The new Western Garden Book is available through most bookstores, garden centers and (which has the best prices, as usual). I paid for my copy, so this brief review is unbiased, except by my previous reliance on this essential reference work.

Every serious California gardener’s library should include a well-read The Western Garden Book!


Tom Karwin is a Santa Cruz resident; a UC Master Gardener; a member of several garden groups; and board member of the UCSC Arboretum Associates.

Good Sense or Obsession?

Do you know the names of the plants in your garden?

Many gardeners don’t care about plant names, but knowing the names of those in your garden can be helpful.

The common names for plants are useful in the same way that all names are useful: they identify a particular person, place or thing: you can identify and refer to each plant with accuracy. Rather than saying “that plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves by the birdbath,” you can say, “the geranium by the birdbath.” (Another common name for the geranium is “stork’s bill,” referring to the shape of the seed.)

More precisely, you could use the plant’s botanical name: “the Pelargonium sanguineum by the birdbath,” or, in the case of a hybrid, “the Pelargonium ‘Rozanne’ by the birdbath.”

Advanced info: the plant commonly called a geranium is really a member of the genus Pelargonium. The true geranium, also called a “hardy geranium,” is a member of the genus Geranium.

When a friend admires a blossom and asks, ““What plant is that?” and you know it only as “that small plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves,” you can say, apologetically, “I don’t know,” or defiantly, “The name doesn’t matter, I only care that it adds color to my garden.” Either response won’t satisfy you or your friend.

Once you have identified a plant’s botanical name, however, you identify the plant for your friend, look up cultivation advice on the Internet, find in the plant in a garden book, or ask for it at a garden center. And tell the difference between a Geranium and a Pelargonium.

Most gardeners will have difficulty remembering the botanical names of all the plants in a large garden. Some will put plant labels next to the plants as memory aids. This practice can become a “time-suck” because labels fade, become buried or disappear mysteriously.

Also, for some gardeners, plant labels are intrusions on the garden’s natural appearance.

The non-label option is the garden map. This can be a simple sketch of the entire garden or (more commonly) each planting bed in the garden, with plants represented by shapes of various sizes, and with plant names by the shapes or on a numbered list. The simpler the sketch, the easier it is to keep current as plants are added, subtracted, moved or expired.

Several specialized drawing tools can be found on the Internet, either free or low in cost, to make more formal garden maps. Most are simple to use and handy for planning a vegetable garden, but they generate rather stiff-looking diagrams, rather than a picture of an ornamental planting.

Enjoy mapping your garden!


There are several software applications for planning and laying out an edible garden, and a few for designing an ornamental garden (not that veggies can’t be attractive!). Those vegetable garden planners that I’ve seen have excellent information and rather limited graphics. They work best for utilitarian projects, in which efficient use of space is more important than the visual effect.

If you want to plan an edible garden, take a look at this sample of software products (see others online by searching for “garden planner”).

Kitchen Garden Planner by Gardener’s Supply

PlanGarden by

Vegetable Garden Planner by Mother Earth News

A very good (perhaps the best) vegetable garden planner:

WikiGrow by LocalGrow

The best tool I’ve found for mapping an ornamental landscape is the following:

Garden Planner, Version 3.0 by smallblueprinter

This inexpensive application supports drawing an irregularly shaped planting bed (like mine), in addition to rectangular vegetable gardens, and representing plants with unique symbols. Mapping a large and full bed takes time, but this software makes the task much easier than using commercial graphics software, e.g., Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator (and much less expensive as well). I will post the result of my efforts in the near future.