Snazzy gardens come in all shapes and sizes, formal and informal. To locate this year's six stand-out gardens, Laurie Callaway, who's chairing the Gamble Garden spring tour on April 26 and 27, along with Barbara Brown, knocked on close to 100 doors.
One gem among her findings is a very adult, formal garden in the Southgate neighborhood in Palo Alto. The owners had lived there for more than 20 years; now the children were grown, a two-story house replaced the one-story neighbor and water-wasting lawns were definitely on the outs.
What they asked Lisa Brown and Dorrit Kingsbury of Brown and Kingsbury Design, Menlo Park, to do was to incorporate fountains and urns, boxwood hedges and low walls to create defined garden rooms on their 7,500-square-foot corner lot.
Today, instead of a gentle slope leading to the front door, one walks up three steps onto a brick pathway. The entry is framed by a pair of large urns; that pattern is repeated throughout the garden, mostly in pairs, but sometimes in threes. Some are filled with white roses that will eventually climb above the front windows.
A low wall wraps around the front and side, with vinca minor planted in front and rotunda folia along the side. The plants extend above the low wall; from the outside, the shrubs provide privacy; from the inside, one can see greenery above the fence.
Inside that fence, the front yard no longer slopes, but consists of two "rooms." To the left is one of just a few small grassy areas, lined with white blooms: delphiniums, camellias and low-growing begonias, along with a large urn filled with white hydrangeas.
To the right, one follows brick stepping-stones to a bench, with shaped boxwoods (either round balls or pointy obelisks) that function as a living sculpture garden.
That aspect of the garden appealed to the owner "because when flowers aren't in bloom I wanted it to look good," she said.
"And (the owners) can have fun with seasonal plantings," Kingsbury, who served as the principal designer, added.
Continuing up the brick path one encounters caged doves (named Snowy and Marshmallow) on a raised brick pedestal, surrounded by more shaped boxwood. The front wall now encloses the white birch trees that were formerly part of the front yard.
Along the side of the house is an outdoor kitchen, which was expanded and refinished, and now includes a pizza oven. The mahogany side gate is new, mirroring the style of the front door.
A highlight of the renovated garden is the replacement of the back veggie garden with three stone fountains against the back fence, surrounded by thuja -- an alley becoming an allee, according to Kingsbury. What Callaway calls a "shrub on a stick" -- English laurel standard -- now lines the back fence, offering more privacy from the tall neighboring house. "It's a nice plant because one can maintain it, both in height and width," she added.
Today a patterned brick path extends behind the house, with dwarf mondo grass growing in a swirling pattern in the cut bricks. Against the house, an espaliered Honeycrisp apple was added, and at the end, a mural was painted by the owner's sister.
Maintenance of the garden is pretty straightforward, Kingsbury said, with most plants on a drip-irrigation system and just small amounts of lawn. To retain the distinctively sculptured shapes of the boxwoods, a team comes in two or three times a year, spending about a day and a half.
For each garden on the tour, a list of noteworthy plants, garden tips and "Do Not Miss" items is included.
Other gardens on the "Down the Garden Path" tour include:
* Mediterranean Splendor: Note the hand-made tiles, a tree house with a pulley system, cypress metal artwork by a local artist and transformation from a child-oriented play area to an attractive entertaining space (Toni Heren Garden Design, Tim Reimer Landscape);
* Modern Inspiration: A recently remodeled home with an artistic, functional and emotionally appealing garden. Note the green, orange, gray and black ornamental grasses, black bark mulch and black granite fountain (Maia Highsmith and Gabriel Lopez, Special Gardens, and Heidi Schwenk, homeowner and industrial architect);
* English Garden Extraordinare: Inspired by the formality of English gardeners, the homeowners used a heritage oak as a focal point for a grand garden that was still kid-friendly. Note the miniature cottage, cobblestone that once paved the streets of San Francisco and a water trough in the play area (Cocos Landscaping, Emery Rogers and Associates Landscape Architect and Jackie Gray, Merrivale Design);
* Do-It-Yourself Edibles Paradise: A bare space was transformed into an orchard underplanted with daffodils in the front yard, and rebar trellises and architecturally designed chicken coop in back (Jonathan Stoumen, architect);
* Palo Alto Grande Dame: This garden was designed to enhance the California Tudor architecture, with eye-catching colors and textures, space for a dog and child's play. Note the sculptural stone balls, hammered copper gate, living fences and sculpture (Adam and Megan McAboy, Notable Gardens).
In addition to the six gardens, Gamble Garden itself is the site of a plant sale and marketplace with plant-related gift items. Pre-ordered box lunches prepared by CafeŠ Primavera are available.
Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: "Down the Garden Path," Gamble Garden Spring Tour
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27
Where: Six gardens in Palo Alto, including a marketplace, plant sale and lunch at Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto
Cost: Nonmembers $35, members $30 in advance; $40 for all on days of tour; lunch tickets are $15 (must be ordered by April 22)
Info: 650-329-3752 or Gamble Garden