"If you're given lemons, you make lemonade," says landscape designer Maile Arnold of the "lemon of a backyard" that she turned into the beautiful garden pictured here. Steep slopes and hard soil made this site in Glen Ellen, California, a gardening challenge. Construction cuts had left a hot, dry bank of white volcanic soil so desolate that it looked like a moonscape.
By choosing flowering plants that tolerate heat, aridity, and poor soil, Arnold was able to create a dazzling "lemonade" garden for owners Helen and Tom McCrea. She knew it would take a while for new plantings to cover the bare slope, so to draw attention away from it, she created drama at its base. First she formed a dry stone wall 6 feet out from the slope's base and filled it with fertile soil. Then she planted it with long-blooming perennials in vibrant purples and reds to echo the house's colorful Mexican interior.
On the upper slope, Arnold experimented with a range of plants to see which ones would tolerate the heat and poor soil. The proven winners? Lavender, Mexican bush sage, Myoporum parvifolium 'Putah Creek', red-leaf Japanese barberry, rosemary, and smoke tree. She planted figs and persimmon trees at the bottom of the slope so their canopies will eventually provide some shade and screening.
Throughout the rest of the back-yard, Arnold planted informal, irregularly shaped beds with billowy perennials. Each bed contains an accent plant, such as a tree or rose, and is surrounded by grass and gravel paths made from decomposed granite.
Two years after planting, the garden is awash with colorful blooms from spring through fall. "The hot, bright, difficult place is now soft and beautiful," says Arnold.
DESIGN: Maile Arnold, Sebastopol, CA (707/823-1373).