Harmony in the Garden Blog

Transforming awkward spaces in the garden

I’ve spent the past two years working in my new garden.  And by working, I mean killing myself trying to fix one awkward space after another.

I’ve finally got the upper hand on things (sort of) and just as soon as I can, I’ll share some pics with you.

Above is a teaser of the first bed in my garden that I transformed.  I barely had my things out of the moving truck before I jumped in and tackled this bed.

In the meantime, I thought I’d show a few before-and-after transformations in my clients’ gardens that I’ve recently revisited.

Adios Agapanthus Island

Surrounding this beautiful historic home in Palo Alto was a serene garden consisting of perimeter garden beds that surrounded the lawn and pool.

In the center of the lawn, however, was a giant island of common Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus africanus).  I mean GIANT.

Oh, how I wish I could find the before pic, showing the overcrowded agapanthus, but alas it’s completely vanished.  All I have to show is the day after we ripped them all out (above).

For those of you living on the east coast, I apologize.

I know removing huge clumps of treasured agapanthus seems like a travesty.  But here on the west coast, they’re pretty darn common, they multiply like crazy, and before you know it, they’ve outgrown their space – as was the case here.

Not only did they take up a considerable part of the garden, but you should see how unattractive agapanthus are in the winter when their foliage dies down to slimy clumps.  Ick.

Definitely not something you want as the main focal point of the garden!  So out they went!  Now what?

Seeing as there already existed plenty of lawn, there was no need to add more.  The homeowners both have full-time careers, and currently, have plenty in the garden to maintain, so they wanted something low to no-maintenance (emphasis on the ‘no’).

The solution was to extend the existing entertainment area by replacing the agapanthus island with pea gravel, a gas fire pit, and plenty of casual seating.

We needed to delineate the new fire pit area from the lawn, so in keeping with the semi-formal style of the existing garden, we separated the two spaces with westringia ‘Gray Box’.

Westringia ‘Gray Box’ is one of my favorite boxwood substitutions as it’s also evergreen and maintains a tidy and compact shape.

However, it has the bonus of also being low-water with teeny little flowers in the spring and summer and, it won’t be killed by boxwood blight.

In the surrounding beds, we added white ‘Iceberg’ roses, ‘Meerlo’ lavender, and ‘Golf Ball’ pittosporum.  This variety of pittosporum is another boxwood substitute, naturally growing somewhat rounded in shape with a lovely olive-green color.

Skinny Lawn = Dry River Bed

With a garden on top of a knoll, a view to die for, and all the privacy one could want, it was a shame to have a ho-hum lawn as the centerpiece of the space.

But with grandchildren on the way, we needed to keep a certain amount of lawn in the garden.

Take a look at the before pic (above), and you’ll notice a broken-down, old boardwalk as the main transportation from one end of the lawn to the other.  And should you step off the edge of the boardwalk, you’d twist an ankle for sure due to the 8” drop-off and steep slope.

This wouldn’t do at all!

So, keeping the main lawn intact, we decided to remove old wooden boardwalk and the useless skinny strip of lawn that ran along its far side.

In its place, we created a dry creek bed which was functional in the winter, helping to divert the rain’s copious runoff.

We used natural flagstones as stepping stones to get from the lawn to the hot tub and garden area.

While I normally love burgundy-colored plants, I felt like the ones surrounding the hot tub were too severe in this setting.

I didn’t think they blended with the surrounding hillside in terms of colors and mounding shapes.

We replaced the dark Hopseed shrubs (Dodonea purpurea) that surrounded the hot tub with shrubs that were mounded in shape, in shades of green and chartreuse.

Included in the garden are lots of yellow-flowered bulbine frutescens, coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’, euphorbia, grevillea, various grasses, and the upright punctuation of Flax (phormium).

And best of all, kitty has lots of new places to hide and hunt lizards.

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  • I am the owner of the “Skinny Lawn/Dry Riverbed” garden. Rebecca, can you believe it was in 2007 that we got to work together on creating what remains a spectacular property?! My grandchildren love playing outside on the grass and looking for lizards among the rocks; it’s their favorite place to be when they come visit. And Colonel Pants is still with us, somewhat retired now – which means the lizards have nothing to fear (and they never really did; he’s always been rather lazy!)

    It was great seeing my beautiful garden in your photos, and we are flattered that you highlighted it. Frankly, your photos don’t do it much justice for it truly is wonderful. People are in awe when they step through our garden gate. We love it, Rebecca. It has grown up with us so nicely, and we have you to thank for that.

    • Hello Peggy – I was wondering if you’d find this in your inbox! 😉 And no, I can’t believe it was 2007 – was it really that long ago? Heavens, time flies. I just love that pic of Colonel Pants and am so glad he’s enjoying his golden years among the golden grasses. You’re so right about those photos not doing it justice. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t capture your garden in a simple photograph. Ah well…hopefully it gives people an idea of how great a dry stream-bed can look in just the right place. I have one in my new garden (not nearly as nice as yours – I need Mario up here to help with stone placement)! Sending you lots of love from HOT Granite Bay (supposed to be 104 on Wednesday!) xoxoxo

  • I love what you have done with these spaces!!! Looking forward to finding out more about how you deal with awkward spaces.

  • I love it all, what you’ve accomplished in a short time at your place is amazing…and I love the landscaping projects you’ve done. Well, I almost love it all, BUT, I don’t like the cat hunting lizards. Lizards are so beneficial to our gardens. Have you watched them nabbing flying insects from the air, or eating earwigs in garden debris, or larvae??? I love them.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • I love lizards so much, too! In fact, I had lots of them as pets when I was little (naming them – wait for it – Lizzy #1, Lizzy #2, Lizzy #3 and so on). What I lacked in creativity when naming them, I made up for in creating elaborate homes for them using giant cardboard boxes with lots of ‘trees’ and things for them to feel at home in while they hung out with me for a day or two. I have a zillion of them here in Granite Bay and my favorite are 2 that live in my oak tree just outside of my bedroom. They burrow in an old knot in the tree and will scramble to the very top to hang out in the sun. I had no idea they climbed so high!!! Then, the male (who I named ‘Muscles’) comes back down to do his push-ups on a nearby boulder, impressing no one since the female refuses to look at him. Poor Muscles. Keep trying little fella…

  • i did find your transformations interesting….but as beautiful as the Skinny Lawn – Dry River Bed is. I can’t imagine leting any young grandchildren near the edge of that hill. I couldn’t even sit there. (fear of heights)

    • I can totally see how it looks like that, Joyce, but on the other side of the hill there’s actually a pretty gentle slope – it’s not the drop off it looks like (thank heavens). There’s also a tall fence just below the line of sight that doesn’t show up in the photos that keep the deer out (another thank heavens) that would also prevent anyone from wandering off. And in that space there’s also a series of raised vegetable beds between the edge and the fence. I did this garden so many years ago I only wish I had taken more pics from different angles.

  • Such fun to see these attractive transformations. Can’t wait to see more of your progress at your new home!

    • Thanks Marilee, it’s been a busy two years, that’s for sure. I’ll definitely be showing before and afters of my garden. It’s a work in progress – they all are, right?

  • You’ve done a wonderful job for your garden it looks so nice. We also had an orange cat just like the one in your photo. We called him Marmalade.

    • Hi Sally – thanks so much! Marmalade is a perfect name. The homeowners had the funniest name for this cat – as I recall I think it was Colonel Pants (he had a lot of fur on his back legs that looked like pants from behind)


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