Harmony in the Garden Blog

Designing a garden for Sunset magazine. No pressure!

Sue merge 1

GreenBarA few weeks ago, Johanna Silver (Sunset Magazine’s Garden Editor) reached out and asked if I would be interested in designing a garden for a forthcoming article, with the emphasis on using plants from Sunset’s new Western Garden Collection.

Hmmmm….tough decision.  Let me get this straight, I thought, design a garden for Sunset?  Where I can use any plant I want from their collection?  As many as I want?  That’s like asking a kid if they’d like to spend a few unattended days in their favorite candy shop.

This particular project needed to happen fast, though, so the plants would have time to fill in enough for a July photo shoot.  The challenge wasn’t whether or not I could find the time to create the design, but whether I could find an installation crew who could implement the work within their timeline.  Fate was smiling on me that day, and after a quick phone call to Alan Hackler with Bay Maples, we had a crew who was as excited about the project as we were.

IMG_8183Fast forward a few days, where we all met at the site, located in Albany (right next to Berkeley). The garden belongs to Sue, a photo editor with Sunset, who was in dire need of a garden overhaul.

Sue’s home is darling with its mix of jewel-toned colors and Craftsman-style charm.  But the half-dead lawn overrun with weeds and California poppies certainly wasn’t doing it any favors.

As I do with all my clients, our first meeting involved discussing all possibilities and ideas to help focus our goals.  We ultimately ended up with a wish-list for the garden that included having plants that were colorful, inviting, low-maintenance and low-water.


GreenBarIMG_8187As we continued to brainstorm, the wish-list began to grow, including:  sprucing up the root-filled hell-strip (left), a new irrigation system, incorporating rain runoff, installing a rain-catchment system, a new fence, a pathway meandering through the garden, and finally, a few berms for added interest in the flat, small space.

Oh, and did I mention the garden’s dimensions are a mere 30’x30′?  In a garden this size, every inch has to count.



photoJanet Sluis, the director for the Western Plant Collection, helped find the biggest, healthiest plants she could get her hands on, which was no easy feat as she was busy working the Spring Trials.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Spring Trials, it’s an annual industry event held throughout different locations in California, where prominent breeders and growers display new varieties.  If interested, you can read more about my previous visits here and here.

Here’s where the plants were for the past week, showing off their beauty to industry professionals…

IMG952849And here they are at the end of the Trials, loaded up Bay Maple’s truck on their way from Gilroy to their new home in Albany.

The Western Garden Collection has so many amazing plants from which to choose, it was actually more difficult than I anticipated to decide which ones made the cut.

I wanted the main colors to be burgundy and chartreuse, with pops of color from perennials with a long bloom time.  These colors would complement the colors of the home, creating a jewel-box effect.  Lucky for us, many of the plants in this collection are smaller versions of the originals, making them ideal for smaller gardens.

I’m so excited to see this garden fill in over the next few months and will keep you posted when it’ll make its debut in the magazine.  In the meantime, however, here’s a few ‘during’ pics, with the highlights of my planting list at the end.  Enjoy!

UPDATE – scroll to the end to see the ‘after’ photos!







Here are a few of my favorites planted in this garden:

Loropetalum ‘Purple Diamond’ – grows to a manageable 3′ x 4′

Loropetalum ‘Purple Pixie’ – a cutie pie groundcover that reaches 1′ x 4′

Phormium ‘Black Adder’ – a longtime favorite of mine with jet black foliage, growing to 3×3.

Nandina ‘Lemon Lime’ – a chartreuse nandina that stays green with no red highlights, growing to 3’x3′

Carex ‘Everillo’ – a favorite of mine that I plant in almost all my gardens, as it holds its bright colors throughout the year

Ligustrum ‘Sunshine’ – a privet?  Yep, but not just any privet.  A sterile chartreuse variety that grows to just 5’x4′ and stays evergreen and tidy throughout the year without spreading throughout the garden.

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ – always a fan of the dark green variety, this new variegated version makes my heart soar.  It’s one of the toughest, and most beautiful, evergreen grasses you can use in the landscape.

Lavender ‘Meerlo’ – my favorite lavender of all time (you can read why I love it so much here), with incredibly fragrant, variegated foliage that looks fabulous every day of the year.

Salvia ‘Amistad’ – this larger variety has dark green foliage with giant, deep purple blooms for months on end, grows to 5′ x 4′ and will draw in every hummingbird in the area.

Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’ – I first saw this blooming in a nursery at Lake Tahoe last year, and fell in love with its coral flowers. They’ll look beautiful planted near the maroon foliage of the loropetalum.

Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’ – a slightly smaller variety than ‘Amistad’ with more deep purple blooms.

Digiplexis ‘Apricot’ – another in the Illumination series, the apricot blooms of this perennial is guaranteed to stop people in their tracks.  It looks like a foxglove, but is so much hardier, with blooms lasting from Spring through Fall.


Ready for a mind-blowing update?  I went back after only TWO MONTHS and look how much the garden has filled in!  We’re all so, so pleased with how everything turned out!




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  • Congratulations Rebecca! The garden looks gorgeous already. Thanks also for including the plant list. I’m going to have to look up the lavender, meerlo the next time I’m out nursery hopping. I’m in Placerville and also love visiting High Hand and Prospector’s Nurseries. How fun to think I may see you sometime at one of them. I promise I won’t be a crazy fan, but I am a fan!

    • Thanks, Sara – I absolutely adore ‘Meerlo’. It looks fantastic all through the winter and smells divine. Not a lot of flowers, though, but that’s okay with me since everything else about it is so great. I wish I lived closer to High Hand as I only get out there once a year or so. That place is amazing, isn’t it? And should we bump into one another feel free to be a crazy fan! We’re all a little crazy, aren’t we? 😉

  • Congratulations, what a wonderful project, Rebecca! I hope Sunset appreciates how lucky they are that you said, “yes”. It’s going to be a great article. I’m already having fun following the project. The plant palette you selected sounds easy, dramatic, and lovely. I’m so excited to see the results! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks so much, Heidi. The folks at Sunset have been fantastic to work with, so grateful, so helpful and as a long-time fan I am just so happy and honored to have been asked. It was a win-win, for sure. 🙂

  • I love the rain catchment system…what company makes that? I’m having trouble locating that shape system.

    • Hi Leslie, it’s made by Bushman and Alan provided it. I’m pretty sure Urban Farmer, in Berkeley, carries them. They come in other colors, too – aren’t they a great size to tuck along the side of a house?

  • Ohhh and Ahhh! I cannot wait to see more pictures, I think it is going to turn out beautifully! Do you ever give talks on landscape design?

  • Sadly being in Australia I doubt I’ll ever get to see this Sunset magazine so I hope they’ll allow you to share some pics of it online after the mag has been out for a while. The textures and colours you’ve chosen already look like a beautiful tapestry. Incidentally, just to give the home team a bit of a plug, those two fabulous salvias ‘Embers Wish’ and ‘Love and Wishes’ were both bred here in Australia.

    • I hope they do, too, Catherine! Three cheers for Australia – I LOVE your plants! 🙂

  • Congratulations! I am so happy that your back to doing what you love after such a difficult journey. I love your blog, and your latest book is my new “garden” bible. I hope you get to enjoy this project. Thank you for your sharing your plant lists. I really enjoy when you talk about plants and how to use them. I spent 4 hours last Friday at a nursery in Sacramento color coordinating plants. I picked up the Sunshine privet, and I love it. I was wondering where does your mom shop for her ground covers? Is it Eisley garden center or does she shop in Roseville? I live an hour from Roseville, and I am having trouble finding interesting ground covers.

    • Hi Debbie – and thank you for so many compliments! I’m so happy you enjoy my book (makes me so happy to hear that!) I asked my mother and really, the only true ground cover she uses is ‘Elfin’ thyme that she has Eisley’s order for her. It’s also one of my go-to groundcovers (just ordered 13 flats of it today for a project) as it grows so flat to the ground and rarely flowers (therefore, keeping it short and keeping bees away – good for along pathways where ankles are likely to get stung!) She also love her ‘Tiny Rubies’ dianthus that she found at Home Depot, of all places. Were you thinking of something besides the low-growing ground covers? I know she loves to go to High Hand Nursery (as do I – holy cow, what an amazing place) and Prospector’s Nursery in Nevada City (love that place, too) I hope this helps a little? And lucky you to have found the Sunshine privet – I can’t find it down here at all and wish I could as it’s such a gorgeous plant.

      • Thanks Rebecca,
        I was studying one of the pictures you have of your mom’s garden, and I didn’t realize it was Elfin thyme. The texture looks so great spilling over rocks. I love High Hand too, but I will check out Prospector’s Nursery. I found the Sunshine Privet at Green Acres Nursery, Roseville. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

        • You’re welcome, Debbie. I’m not sure which photo of my mother’s garden you’re referring to, but one of the most popular photos that seems to circulate is one with purple flowering rhodoies with the chartreuse sedum ‘Angelina’ spilling over the rocks – is that it? Prospector’s is really cute and I’ve bought several things there for my own garden – have fun!

  • What a ‘Dream Come True’ opportunity for everyone. To have the well earned respect of a wonderful magazine and to be asked to design and install a garden just for their publication, you must have been grinning from ear to ear after that phone call! Bay Maples had to have been more than excited, too, and Sue… heck, she’s the luckiest of all to have one of your beautiful gardens! Johanna is a very wise woman to have chosen you, Rebecca, to create a little magic for Sunset. I can’t wait to see more!

    • Oh, you know I was grinning, Sheila. The entire time, I felt so honored and so happy to have been asked to help them with this project. We all had a blast and it’s definitely one of the highlights of my year. Thanks for all the kind words – you’re such a good friend. 🙂

      • Hello dear Rebecca,
        what a wonderful opportunity for all of you! and what fun!
        Look forward to seeing more photos. I know you will do a fabulous garden and many, many people will see your wonderful design talents!
        Miss you lots,
        Sabrina Tanner

        • Thank you, Sabrina, I miss you too! Your ears must’ve been burning that day as I was telling Johanna about your unbelievable garden. 🙂


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