This historic Piedmont legacy garden was designed in the late 1920s by renowned landscape architect Thomas Church, and built by local artists George and Alice Coutes. The Church design included a beautiful stone pathway that meandered up the hillside, seven fish ponds, and a series of rock gardens sheltered by ferns and rhododendrons.
By the time the Hamblys bought the home in 1975, the garden had become unruly. Ivy had conquered the fern beds and had also overrun mature trees to a height of 30 feet. The drystack stone walls had decayed into precarious piles that threatened to tumble at the slightest provocation. Stepping stones of various heights and angles challenged visitors to climb the hill without injury. During the wet season, the hillside became a swampy mess, and the owners had to lay down boards to walk through the garden. Even the family cats had trouble getting around.
Hoping to restore the 1920 garden design, the couple hired us to collaborate with them. Working closely together on the look and feel of the restoration, we labored over a five-month period to create a new garden with an ancient soul.
The client wanted the garden to look like it had been there for hundreds of years, yet we were placing new stone and mortar—and mortar always gives away the age of a stone masonry project. So we designed walls that concealed the supportive mortar behind the stones, and included intentional masonry gaps that were later filled with colorful plantings. Inspired by ancient stone terracing that Chris encountered on a visit to a remote part of Kauai, we also built artificial flaws into the walls and fit the stones around existing tree roots to give the appearance of a garden that had settled into place organically over time.
35 tons of fieldstone and 25 tons of cobblestone, salvaged from San Francisco streets, were used in the project. (The cobblestones, native to Chile, were originally used as ballast for the wooden sailing ships that used to dock in San Francisco).
Consistent with this philosophy of providing modern performance within a timeless patina of age, we installed a carefully concealed irrigation system in the garden. Areas of deep shade and full sun created microclimates that had to be considered in irrigation and plant selection. In certain sections, low precipitation rate pop-up rotors created the sensation of gentle rainfall and mist.
A subtle, modern lighting system was artfully placed within garden beds to add to the magical atmosphere. Using specimen accent lighting mixed with moonlighting suspended from tree branches, we created a luminous nightscape, full of mystery, but also very safe to navigate after dark.
The owners were enthusiastic plant people, and at the very beginning we knew that we wanted to dig up and save every plant that we could for replanting. The crew carefully extracted mature rhododendrons and ferns that had been barely surviving in the nutrient-depleted soil, and set up an onsite nursery to keep them healthy and sheltered during construction.
New plants were nestled into the beds that had been liberated from the ivy’s grip, including many varieties of rhododendrons, azaleas, Douglas iris, violets, wild ginger, dogwoods and camellia trees. Kenilworth ivy, a vigorous but delicate-looking flowering perennial particularly suited for softening new construction, was tucked into the small soil pockets built into the stonework.
Working together, we brought the owners’ vision to reality. Beneath the dense green canopy of redwoods and rhododendrons lies an inviting oasis with a pond and waterfall brimming with koi and surrounded by lush banks of cineraria. The garden’s walls and pathways, with foundations that will last for many years to come, refer to its distinguished origins. The new stonework appears to have been there for centuries, each stone carefully placed around the mature plants to reveal its patinated, lichen-encrusted surface. It was a challenging project, requiring a balance of sensitive aesthetic restoration and pragmatic construction innovation.
The project won the California Landscape Contractor’s Association Judges Special Achievement Award. The hardscape is constructed to last a very long time, which suits the owners just fine—we planned the paths to be wide enough for them to use walkers 40 years from now. And it’s easy to imagine how it will look in the distant future—like carefully-tended ruins of the ancient past.