Design an exotic backyard

A passionate collector transforms her outdoor space into a gallery of worldly treasures. Use her tips to create your own global statement

Bohemian rhapsody

[B { "My most amazing find?The carved wooden Balinese double doors. They contain the exact same colors as other things in my garden and they fit perfectly"}]

photo by Rob D. Brodman

Think of it as a playground for experimentation. "I have a complete fetish for all sorts of plants," landscape designer Vanessa Kuemmerle says of her garden in Emeryville, California. "It's like having an art gallery outdoors with constantly rotating exhibits."

Filled with an eclectic mix of plants ― including a black tree fern that she grew from a spore, bromeliads from a local drugstore, and South African bulbs that she received from friends in the California Horticultural Society ― Kuemmerle's garden is a constant work in progress. Her passion allows her to create distinctly different environments that all work together on her 2,300-square-foot property, where she lives with husband Lee Steinmetz

The front yard is sunny and drought-tolerant, the side yard is shaded and lush, and the private rear courtyard is filled mostly with tropicals in containers. As plants grow and Kuemmerle finds new favorites, she continually adds, modifies, and deletes from her beds. "It's changed a million times," she says, "and I imagine it will continue to evolve."

But it's not just plants that make her garden rooms so captivating. It's the cache of furnishings and decor that Kuemmerle finds everywhere, from nearby salvage shops to markets in Bali: A piece of plywood she spotted on the street now serves as a daybed, with bamboo posts and homemade linens. A Quan Yin sculpture sits at the base of a tree fern. Mirrors, sconces, and other wall accessories further define each space.

Kuemmerle's understated yet visually rich palette ― with shades like sage, lime, charcoal, maroon, and aqua ― helps link one space to the next. "I use a lot of tertiary colors on the color wheel because they're more complex," she explains. Hits of red ― both in furnishings and in flowers ― add to the exotic impact.

 
Kuemmerle finds creative outlets as her landscape evolves. "My garden inspires me when things happen that I wasn't expecting," she says. Last year, for instance, a prominent 5-foot-tall shrub froze and dropped its leaves to reveal a striking branch structure. Instead of pulling it out right away, she celebrated the beauty of its form by gluing on aqua glitter and treating it as a temporary art installation. Now the shrub's seedlings are popping up. "A garden is a living work of art," Kuemmerle says ― the best kind of art there is.

EXPERT DESIGN TIPS

Armed with a degree in fine art from California College of the Arts, landscape designer Vanessa Kuemmerle founded Vee Horticulture 11 years ago. She thinks of her work as designing with a "living palette." Two secrets to her style:

Don't be a plant snob Kuemmerle shops everywhere for plants and accessories, including Longs Drugs and the Home Depot, as well as San Francisco Bay Area botanical gardens and specialty stores. Her favorite go-to place for plant inspiration, pots, sculptures, and more is the Dry Garden in Oakland (510/547-3564). For a good selection of containers, she likes Pottery & Beyond in Emeryville; 510/428-1881. For recycled furniture and accessories, she visits Berkeley's Ohmega Salvage; 510/204-0767, and Urban Ore; 510/841-7283.

Play with scale Use big-leafed plants up front with small-leafed ones in back. And layer the plantings to emphasize a bed's depth rather than its boundaries. "Densely layered plants give my garden an Alice in Wonderland feel ― everything is jumbo," Kuemmerle says.

INFO: Vanessa Kuemmerle, Vee Horticulture; 510/653-7667, Berkeley.

 

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