Maybe that melodramatic poem is a bit overstated, but the elements of wind, wave, and salt that lash the Sonoma Coast certainly do challenge the making of a garden—at least, a garden in the traditional sense. Bashford’s focus on the crashing surf omitted the incessant winds that also lash the bluff and everything that grows on it—as I learned in designing a garden at The Sea Ranch several years ago. The process has been both instructive and humbling as I experienced important lessons at the hands of the wind gods.
The property, perched on a bluff above the crashing surf with spectacular views up and down the rugged coast at The Sea Ranch (TSR), included an existing house that had been remodeled badly and did not serve the new owners’ needs. The property was situated on the north (windward) side of an old, declining hedgerow of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa)—a Sea Ranch signature. A fenced garden between the existing house and the hedgerow was lush with mature specimens of myoporum (Myoporum laetum), a beautiful white, tree-like ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Snow Flurry’), ferns, and a few other plants; all were sheltered by the house from the strong and incessant winds that sweep down the coast. A few straggly cypresses grew atop the bluff.
The existing structure was torn down and replaced with a new house and garage designed by architect Ted Smith, AIA, who has long been familiar with the building tenets of The Sea Ranch Association (TSRA). The new, two-story house was located in roughly the same position as the previous one. To help break the wind, a new garage was sited on the windward side of the front driveway and connected to the house by an arbor-covered walk. The fenced south garden was similar in size and location to the original garden, sitting between the tall house on the windward side and the cypress shelterbelt.
A large excavation was necessary to remove the original foundation; a platform of highly compacted gravel filled the resulting hole to support the new structure. The gravel extended five feet into the landscape on all sides of the house, thereby reducing the potential plantable soil depth to only six or eight inches. A complex web of drainage and other underground utility lines laced the landscape. As with most new construction, the soil, though naturally friable, was heavily compacted, and all existing vegetation had been removed.
The Conceptual Plan
Working closely with the clients, I prepared a plan for a garden of California native plants that incorporated several outdoor sitting areas: two decks attached to the house and two flagstone terraces, one on the bluff and one in the lee of the existing screen of small cypresses on the west side. TSRA requires that any plants outside fenced areas be native plants that relate to the region’s four landscape zones: bluff top, meadow, foothill, and forest. Within courtyards or behind fences, non-native plants that are visually compatible with the landscape character may be planted. Few houses at TSR have well-defined gardens; landscapes usually comprise volunteer or seeded native grasses, a few scattered, coast-tolerant shrubs, and, where appropriate, a few cypresses or shore pines (Pinus contorta).
My clients wanted a natural, yet carefully designed landscape and enclosed garden. Most of the landscape was either within the fenced garden or along the bluff top hidden from public view. The small cypresses on the bluff were pruned to afford better views of the coastline. Screen plantings of shrubs and young cypresses in front of the house were planted to serve two functions: screen out a neighbor’s house and screen the client’s fenced guest parking area and utility enclosure from the street. Based on clues from the previous garden, the side garden was designed to be a quiet, flower-filled garden with a bench situated out of the wind. Low-growing, colorful perennials would highlight the two sitting areas on the ocean side. Elsewhere, a meadow of suitable native grasses would reflect the native grassland but with a more controlled selection of plants.
One significant limitation was the shallow soil over the compacted gravel around the house, where no trees or large shrubs could be planted. Three-foot-square wooden planting boxes were constructed without bottoms to accommodate two vine maples (Acer circinatum) in sheltered spots against the house. More vine maples, flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) and tall cultivars of ceanothus were incorporated into the side garden.
A filigree screen of flowering currants lining the walkway under the arbor added depth to the entryway and defined the walk. A dense planting of shade-tolerant herbaceous plants lined the other side of the walk at the base of the house.
To reflect the informality of the setting and harmonize with the colors of the house, gray flagstone paved the walkways, sitting areas, and deck aprons; brown crushed rock was used for the casual paths.
In a fortuitous stroke of luck, landscape contractor Scott Graf, of Floriferous Landscapes in Sea Ranch, was hired in 2005 to both install and maintain the landscape. Scott’s intimate knowledge of the coastal conditions and his skill in planting and irrigation have proven invaluable we refined the garden over the years.
The Reality of Ceaseless Wind
After almost four years and a number of refinements, the garden has begun to stabilize. Plants that failed were replaced; in some cases the replacements, though carefully considered, performed poorly and have also been replaced. The coastal winds, for much of the summer, lash the site with incredible force and in unexpected patterns. The house, garage, and fences altered the winds so that they battered areas thought to be sheltered. The considerable pruning of dead wood from the decrepit cypress shelterbelt resulted in an unintentional opening of gaps for the wind to surge through—even though the trees are on the leeward side of the property. In the side garden, the building and fences forced the wind into tunnels or vortexes, severely burning even such tough coastal plants as silk tassel (Garrya elliptica) and wax myrtle (Myrica californica), and decimating the taller ceanothus (‘Ray Hartmann’ and ‘Snow Flurry’), vine maples, and flowering currants.
In front of the house, simple grassy mounds of Molate fescue (Festuca rubra ‘Molate Blue’), reinforced with silk tassel, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and ceanothus (on the left) and cypress (on the right), blend the new landscape into the adjacent meadows and screen the parking area, garage, and neighbors’ house. All of the shrubs have experienced tip burn but have gradually filled in to create a windsheared “critical mass” that has accomplished the intended screening. Several cypresses had to be replaced, but the new ones have now become established in front of the garage.
The arbor-covered walkway along the house has been a big success. Native ground covers of wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregona) have filled the shady strip, complemented by lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum var. aleuticum). Flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum ‘Claremont’), underplanted with foothill sedge (Carex tumulicola) and Douglas iris, now provide the intended screening between the walk and driveway.
Vine maples, planted in what seemed to be protected areas left of the front entry, soon defoliated and have had to be replaced, ultimately with shore pine and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), both of which have performed better.
The Not-So-Protected Side Garden
The most surprising effects of the wind occurred in the fenced garden on the south side of the house, where the previous lush garden had been. The wind pummeled the garden from all sides—from the front of the house through the arbor, around the rear (ocean) side, and over the house, hitting the fence below the shelterbelt in a downward force that smashed plants at its base. The southwest rear corner (nearest the ocean), planted with silk tassel and a few currants, was especially hard hit. A succession of replacement plants, including shore pine, have all failed. As a last resort, non-native Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) was planted and has succeeded so far. A colorful bed containing coral bells (Heuchera cultivars) and blue bedder penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus) was soon obliterated, because of wind blasting downward as it hit the fence. Some of the flowering currants and ceanothus suffered severe windburn.
At the eastern end of the garden, plantings surrounding a teak bench have met with mixed success. Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica ‘Eve Case’) have reached a critical mass, though wind-sheared at their tops, and now provide a backdrop for the bench. A colorful mix of Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), and sea thrift (Armeria maritima) has filled in around the edges of the flagstone terrace.
Against the house, giant chain ferns (Woodwardia fimbriata), dwarf Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium ‘Compacta’), and ‘Eve Case’ coffeeberry are thriving out of the wind. Along the path, a ground cover composed of sand-dune sedge (Carex pansa) backed by foothill sedge has formed a soft, grassy surface for the client’s two little dogs. Clumps of California fescue (Festuca californica) grace the edge of the deck, their soft plumes gently waving in the wind.
Success Atop the Bluff
On the ocean side of the house, the landscape of meadow and sitting areas has been a great success. The meadow of Molate fescue, planted with plugs at eight-inch centers and intensively weeded, has filled in rapidly to form a billowing foreground to the coastal views.
The two flagstone seating areas have become attractive places to relax and enjoy the views. Gracing the edge of the terraces is a thriving mix of tough seaside plants: Douglas iris, seaside daisy, sandhill sage (Artemisia pycnocephala), hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa ‘Shell Beach’), and low-growing Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay’. The wind-protected north patio contains more color with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), sea thrift, Douglas iris, and several grasses such as ‘Shell Beach’ hair grass and Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis). The small cypress windbreak has been reinforced with wax myrtle, silk tassel, and Ceanothus gloriosus var. exaltatus ‘Emily Brown’. A broad band of ‘Anchor Bay’ ceanothus aligns the top of the bluff, linking the two sitting areas.
One problem that baffled me was at the base of the walls of the house, on the ocean side, where the meadow grasses were beaten down in a band extending six to eight feet from the house. As the wind hits the walls, it plunges downward, smashing the plants. The grasses here have finally been replaced with a combination of dwarf coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’) and sandhill sage; adapted to coastal bluffs, they seem able to stand up to the wind. Wind was not the only challenge. With all the deer at Sea Ranch, we had to install stout black plastic deer fencing to keep them from the bluff top area. TSRA does not approve of visible deer fencing, but we were able to add fencing to the south of the wooden property-line fence and hid some fencing in the grove of small cypresses behind the garage and out to the top of the bluff. Some intrepid deer still managed to clamber down the steep side of the bluff and up into the meadow. Most of the plants are not particularly palatable, especially as they mature; coffeeberry has required protection for a long time. We anticipated a gopher problem, but such has not been the case—yet.
A garden is never really done. That is why the term gardening describes a process, one that is ongoing. In such a harsh environment as California’s north coast, the process can be daunting. With patience and perseverance on the part of the client, the designer, and the maintenance crew, stability can eventually be achieved. Nowhere is the phrase “nature abhors a garden” more a reality. Working with nature, however, it is possible to achieve the semblance of “garden” by capturing the essential character and quality of the surrounding natural landscape.
A note from the clients says it all:
I wish you could be here to see this gorgeous view; the light is just coming onto the not-so-small grass plugs and the place is literally singing with all the attention. We can’t believe our eyes when we look over the beautiful garden you designed for us. It truly surpasses anything we could have envisioned; you have put the wrapping and ribbon on the most beautiful package anyone could have dreamed of . . . For two people who don’t know one darn grass from another, there was no way we could really envision what you had in mind . . .
And that is why we make gardens!
Lessons Learned from a Coastal Garden
As with any landscape project, we learn from experience. (That is why it is called landscape architectural practice!) Here are some key lessons from this challenging coastal garden project:
- Observe wind patterns carefully after all buildings and other structures have been built, with as many site visits in as many conditions as possible. Annotate a plan, diagramming wind currents using a hand-held anemometer, or simply with flagging tape to illustrate the patterns.
- Observe plants in other similar environmental situations nearby.
- Plant from one-gallon containers (five-gallon containers at the largest). Patience will be rewarded, as the smaller plants will more easily acclimate to the site conditions.
- Plant in fall, if possible, just before the winter rains.
- Reduce summer irrigation after the initial period of establishment (about one year); harden off plants in late summer by reducing irrigation.
- Avoid fertilization that will promote rapid growth.
- When raised in the incubator-like protection of a nursery, even plants known to be tolerant of coastal winds will struggle when first planted; cages of wire fencing and shade cloth may be required for the largest plants.
- If a mature windbreak is present, retain even the old dead branches, which can be nearly as important as live ones in buffering the wind.