A San Luis Obispo garden reconnects to its Craftsman character and the land it sits on

Why would you want an East Coast garden in a West Coast town? Jeffrey Gordon Smith, a Baywood Park, California-based landscape architect, believes we should cherish our own unique heritage.

Take his renovation of a garden in San Luis Obispo, California.

The house had a “certain Martha’s Vineyard charm” before its redo (click thumbnail image below left).

But it was fighting its architectural style and ignoring the beautiful surrounding scenery instead of borrowing the landscape as a backdrop.

Using stone, plants, and paint, Smith restored the Arts and Crafts character of the house and visually tied the garden to the tawny hills behind it. 

The front yard

Smith began by removing the picket fence and digging up the yard. He then elevated the garden’s base, placing it behind a front retaining wall.

“Presenting the garden on a pedestal like this is very typical of the Arts and Crafts era,” Smith explains.

Next: Tying it together 

To create the illusion of a dry-stacked wall, which also would have been typical of that time period, he used recessed mortar to hold the flagstone (Lincoln Multi) in place.

To match the new front steps, the concrete ones near the front door were replaced with more flagstone, which Smith also used to create flanking piers.

He then suggested the house’s new paint colors, which pick up tones in the flagstone.

Though the garden looks natural, almost wild, there’s order built in. Except for the existing locust tree, the two sides of the yard are symmetrical.

Even the biennial tower of jewels ― the showy, red-spired Echium wildpretii dominating the garden ― is carefully managed to maintain the balance. 

Next: The backyard 

The backyard

To visually connect the backyard to the front, Smith faced the existing block wall with flagstone and added a second, higher retaining wall along the back property line. “Bringing in an additional level always makes a garden more interesting,” he says.

A shallow water channel divides the garden neatly in half, echoing the front yard’s symmetry. The water bubbles up from a bowl, spills into a small, circular pool, disappears under stone, reappears as a narrow rivulet, then continues flowing down to a wall, where it spills into a reservoir hidden under the new deck. (See more inspiring fountains)

To accentuate the runnel, some flagstones along it were positioned bottom side up. “The flip side of the stones are sometimes darker,” Smith explains. “And with Lincoln Multi, this is especially pronounced.”

Senecio and snow-in-summer edge the channel. Mexican weeping bamboo and Pittosporum tenuifolium add screening and soften the perimeters.

Despite its inherent drama, the garden has a calming effect. “There is a Zen-like feel to it,” Smith says. But it’s California all the way.

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