Sunset's garden is a botanical tour of the West

Sunset garden tours: The gardens at 80 Willow Road, Menlo Park, CA are no longer open for self-guided walking tours, as we are boxing up our office in preparation for our dual moves to Oakland’s Jack London Square and Sonoma’s Cornerstone. The last date tours were open to the public were October 30, 2015. We hope you come visit us in our new digs! 

Sunset’s headquarters sits upon land that was originally part of a grant to Don José Arguello, governor of Spanish California in 1815. The early-California-style buildings that house our offices reflect that influence. They were designed by Cliff May, father of the California ranch-style home, to bridge indoor and outdoor living spaces. The main building opened in 1952.

The original Sunset display garden was designed by Thomas Church, the dean of Western landscape architects. It included a border that followed the contours of San Francisquito Creek, with distinct areas representing the major climate zones of the West, from the deserts of Arizona and Southern California to the cold, wet areas of the Northwest.

Many of these original trees and shrubs still stand, retaining the regional flavor of the border. But a major renovation in early spring 2000, under the direction of Chris Jacobson and Beverly Sarjeant of Garden Art, brought a fresh new look to the garden.

Trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, perennials, and ornamental grases now show how foliage textures and colors can combine for beautiful effects. Flower color comes primarily from blooming shrubs and perennials. This is truly a garden for all seasons.

The Lawn

The 1.2-acre lawn is colonial bent grass of the Astoria strain. The lawn is kept short, and is used occasionally for concerts, special events, and company parties. It’s irrigated ― as is the entire garden ― by an automatically-controlled irrigation system.

The Northwest

Wet winters and colder temperatures characterize this climate, and plants here must be watered more heavily than in other areas of the garden. Here you’ll see dogwoods, firs, Japanese maples and other woodland plants. Look especially for the many types of rhododendron, including azaleas.

Northern California

The mild climate represented in this section is hospitable to a diverse number of plants. You’ll see a cargo magnolia, which provides sweet scents in spring. Also here are a coast live oak and a valley oak (in the separate plot across the path).

Coast live oak is native to the coastal ranges from Southern California to the Mendocino area; the valley oak, considered California’s mightiest, is a deciduous tree native to interior valleys, Sierra foothills, and coastal ranges. To prevent oak root fungus that can come from overwatering, these oaks are not often irrigated; drought- and shade-tolerant plants beneath them can survive the dry season on only a monthly watering.

Central California

Reigning over this end of the garden are huge coast redwoods that thrive in northern California’s foggy coastal mountains. This zone includes coastal plants as well as plants that do well in the Central Valley’s intense summer heat. The lawn here is mowed into a putting green.

This area is nicknamed the “Monterey Peninsula,” both for its golf associations and because many plants here grow well in the mid-California coastal areas (from San Luis Obispo to the San Francisco Bay Area). Notable plants include various camellias, pines, lavender, penstemon, and grasses.

The Southwest Desert and Southern California

Aridity characterizes Southern California and the Desert Southwest. Gardeners here find inspiration in their region’s native trees and shrubs. For Southern California, that inlcudes Sycamore trees, native to Southern California’s canyons. Plants in the Southwest desert area include cactus, succulents, and certain perennials that will grow under extreme drought conditions, as will the chaparral and other dry-slope natives that also thrive in this section. Note the tall native ceanothus, which puts on a beautiful display of powder blue blossoms each spring.

Test Garden

This 3,000-square-foot area is jammed with the latest plants, devices, and projects we’re evaluating for coverage in Sunset. Divided into four test plots, the garden is an example of how to achieve high performance in tight spaces. Since food crops make up many of our plantings, we use nontoxic pest controls here. We also use unframed raised beds and amend the soil with organic matter before planting. Plant clippings are recycled into compost. More than 50 percent of our garden photography is taken in this area.

The Old Man

This magnificent coast live oak has grown increasingly lopsided chasing the sun, so its heavy limbs are supported with metal posts to prevent the tree from toppling. We’ve replaced the thirsty lawn at the base with natural mulch and bolders: while the lawn around it requires significant irrigation in the summer, mature oaks of this species will not tolerate watering inside the dripline after the rainy season.

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