Soon after Edgewood Garden was constructed, Andrea Testa-Vought's young son used water and mud to plaster the garden's low retaining walls. Testa-Vought said she would never forget when she walked into her backyard and found mud covering the newly constructed walls that form outdoor living nooks in her garden.
"I just let it go, and eventually about a year later it just melted off the wall," Testa-Vought said, shrugging her shoulders. "You just can't beat that kind of experience for a kid. It's all about connecting with the outside."
That was about 10 years ago. Today Testa-Vought's son is a teenager and no longer plasters the garden walls with mud, but the hardscape elements of the family's unusual garden on Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto continues to inspire people looking to enjoy time outdoors. The garden design is understated yet striking and acts like an extension of the home, an effect carefully thought out by Testa-Vought and landscape designer Bernard Trainor.
Edgewood Garden will open its doors on May 2 as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program, where more than 300 private gardens around the country are showcased for self-guided tours. This year two of the gardens are in Palo Alto -- both on Edgewood Drive -- and a third is in a woodsy neighborhood in Atherton.
The Garden Conservancy chose Edgewood Garden because, as Trainor, one of the designer's helping Open Days Program with recruitment said, "(The garden) is a peaceful family retreat that appears to be comfortable with the climate. It does not feel imported to me and this establishes a look and feeling that makes people feel grounded and at one with this place."
Built in 1999, Edgewood Garden incorporates Mediterranean plants Testa-Vought calls "wacky." Flora originating in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central and South America and Africa decorate the half-acre plot in a zany way that is reminiscent of Doctor Seuss.
"I knew what I wanted as far as attracting the wildlife and it being true to the property," Testa-Vought said. "I didn't want to create New England in Palo Alto."
Most of the garden is off the grid, but Testa-Vought said she hand waters some of the plants on a monthly basis. The garden has no grass, something Testa-Vought said her family has never missed. They have private walled areas, a bocce court and a pool instead.
"Plants are just the icing on the cake," according to Trainor. "You need a good hardscape and a cohesive design to establish the 'bones of the garden' and set the stage for the plantings."
Pulling off this approach, Testa-Vought said, goes back to a really professional design; the structure -- the walls, the seating and even the big trees -- serve as a foil for the plants. Since Trainor initially designed and built the backbone of the garden, Testa-Vought has been able to tailor the plantings as the garden evolves.
Trainor based the garden around the family's lifestyle of eating outside, having friends over and sharing glasses of wine and celebrating the California environment. The garden has a bocce court made from compacted sand and oyster shells where Testa-Vought's kids played when they were young. Now the court serves as a place to set up the ping-pong table and as a dance floor during parties. An outdoor dining area with various edible plants is where the family takes its dinners when weather permits.
A bubbling fountain is another key feature of a Mediterranean garden, and although this came about from an accident, it has become a prominent aspect of the garden. The birds love to feed from it too.
Plants have grown in to hug a Frank Morbillo sculpture near the long pool. Testa-Vought said she never expected to incorporate a sculpture into her garden, but she fell in love with it at a gallery in Berkeley. "It has becomes an anchor in the garden."
Another impromptu feature of the garden is an arbor designed by Trainor that was supposed to guide grapes, but has ended up as a sculpture itself. "Now (the arbor) is more like art," Testa-Vought said.
Trainor said the walls give the garden more "oomph." The separation of space provides the garden with rooms. "There is so much more depth here, and most significantly is the light play. You don't just have the plants but you have the movement of the shadows and the leaves and the walls give us that. They are sort of a canvas for the plants," Testa-Vought said bending down to brush her hand across an acacia from Australia.
"He incorporated different ways for us to be outside and seek out places for us to go and think. ... It's a very restful place. It suits our family's needs."
About 20 years ago, amidst a drought, Testa-Vought and her husband bought a home in San Jose, and the couple was inspired to find a low-impact alternative to the unsustainable, water-thirsty gardening practices so common in California.
Xeriscaping was popular then, Testa-Vought noted, but the designs turned out to be quite ugly during the summer when everything turned brown. "I wanted to do something that didn't need water, but gave a nice look," Testa-Vought said.
As a young girl she took great pleasure in working in the garden with her grandfather, but hadn't delved too far into gardening until she moved to Palo Alto and met Trainor.
Trainor's early landscape design experiences in Australia and Europe lent him what he described as "extremely inquisitive eyes (to) observe the genius of the place, connect with the architecture and respond to the personality of each client." His methodology also explores space and light in the garden.
Trainor said his design for Edgewood garden was different from any project he had worked on at the time because it went beyond the water-guzzling lawn model that is an epidemic in the United States. "Andrea gardens appropriately to this region (through plant selection and using fewer resources). So many others bring the 'baggage' from other places that are mostly not in tune with this climate," Trainor said.
Although it's not necessary for her type of garden, Testa-Vought said she spends considerable time puttering around her backyard. "It's my passion," she said.
Testa-Vought said she hopes people can leave her garden "with some tiny taste of what they can do without having to buy something and adding gallons of water each day, to give people an idea that there are other ways and other plants."
What: The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program self-guided tour
When: Saturday, May 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Two gardens in Palo Alto and one in Atherton
Tickets: $5 admission to each garden; children under 12 free
Info: Begin at 1474 Edgewood Drive, Palo Alto, for directions to other gardens. No reservations required. Visit www.opendaysprogram.org.