Saxon Holt

Maile Arnold transformed a dry slope in Sonoma County into a dazzling flower garden. Her secret? Choosing the right plants

Lauren Bonar Swezey  – November 6, 2004

“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).


Color Makers for Hot, Dry Gardens

Blooming plants

CROWN-PINK (Lychnis coronaria). White-foliage perennial or annual to 2 1/2 feet tall with magenta flowers. All Sunset zones.

DAYLILY (Hemerocallis hybrids). Deciduous or evergreen perennials with grassy leaves and flowers in many colors; grow 1–6 feet tall, depending on variety. All zones.

‘FIREBIRD’ PENSTEMON. Bushy, upright perennial 2 to 4 feet tall with red tubular flowers. All zones (annual in cold climates).

‘IRENE’ TRAILING ROSEMARY. Trailing evergreen bush 1 foot tall by 6 feet wide with violet blue flowers. Zones 4–24.

MEXICAN BUSH SAGE (Salvia leucantha). Shrubby perennial to 4 feet tall with velvety purple flower spikes.

MYOPORUM PARVIFOLIUM ‘PUTAH CREEK’. Groundcover to 3 inches tall with bright green leaves and white flowers in summer. Zones 8–9, 12–16, 18–24.

‘PROVENCE’ LAVENDER. Upright, rounded evergreen shrub 2 to 3 feet tall with highly fragrant flowers. Zones 4–24.

ROSES. ‘Altissimo’, red climber; ‘Joseph’s Coat’, multicolored (red, pink, orange, and yellow) climber. All zones.

SALVIA GREGGII. Evergreen shrub to 4 feet tall with small flowers from spring through fall. Comes in many colors. Zones 8–24.

SANTA BARBARA DAISY. Spreading evergreen perennial groundcover, 1 foot tall by 4 to 6 feet across. White or pinkish daisies appear all year in mild climates. Reseeds. Zones: 8, 9, 12–24.

‘SISKIYOU PINK’ GAURA. Long-blooming perennial to 3 1/2 feet tall with rose pink flowers. All zones.

TEUCRIUM FRUTICANS ‘AZUREUM’. Evergreen shrub 4 feet tall by 5 feet wide with dark blue flowers and gray leaves. Zones 4–24.

VERBENA BONARIENSIS. Airy, branching perennial with 3- to 6-foot-tall flowering stems topped with purple flowers. Reseeds. Zones 8–24.

V. RIGIDA. Spreading perennial 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall by 3 to 4 feet wide with rough, dark green leaves. Lilac to purple-blue flowers appear on tall, stiff stems from summer through fall. All zones.

Foliage plants

RED-LEAF JAPANESE BARBERRY (Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea’). Graceful, deciduous shrub 4 to 6 feet tall with bronzy red to purplish foliage all summer. All zones.

SMOKE TREE (Cotinus coggygria). Deciduous shrub or tree to 25 feet tall with green leaves that turn red in fall and smokelike flowers. ‘Royal Purple’ has purple leaves. All zones.

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