Real Estate

Green ideas and inspiration

Gamble Garden Spring Tour showcases five extraordinary gardens

After restoring a Category I historical home in the University South neighborhood, the homeowners turned to the landscape. Here they didn't want so much to restore, as to complement and enhance.

The first thing to go was the massive bamboo forest, which shaded the front half of the house and effectively cloaked the home from the street. Next the owners negotiated with the city to remove three 70-foot liquidambars and another three sickly magnolias, which overwhelmed the corner house. The homeowners agreed to pay for replacing them with mature trees.

Visitors on this year's Gamble Garden Spring Tour will be able to stroll through the completely renovated garden on April 25 and 26, along with visiting four other Palo Alto gardens and the Gamble Garden Center.

Contemplating the landscape project, the homeowner said, "It's a whale of a house. We wanted the landscape to lighten and soften ... to be an accent to the house."

Today instead of a front fence, the landscape features a set of low brick pilasters connected by chain swags, mostly hidden by plants.

"It creates a visual barrier, but still open to the public," the owner said.

The pilasters and walkway to the front door are new, but made of clinker bricks to match the old bricks.

Because the home was built in 1905 and much of the planting dated from that era, a lot of thought was given to removing the dying magnolias, while preserving the historic trees. Today there are four oaks and one valley oak, two redwoods, four magnolias, four Pacific Sunset maples and one large palm (one was removed).

The large, 6,000-square-foot house sits on a corner, 18,000-square-foot lot. Facing the symmetrical front, one can spot the balcony extending from the master bedroom, with two olive trees in the corners, miniature, floppy "ollies" and white roses.

At the side are three smoke trees, with boxwoods in large pots. "We chose boxwood because we could make it into a circular shape to offset the angles of the house," the owner said.

The main part of the lot that the family can readily access what they call their "Palm Garden" is to the right side, separated from the front by a barrier of trees. Two Murcatt orange trees arch over a pathway to the side yard, with its large patch of pebbles, rather than lawn. A sculpture by Adam Gale draws the eye to one end.

At the other is the family room that extends from the kitchen. A new brick deck, which looks like it's been there for 100 years, connects to the Palm Garden.

Along the side, Prunus caroliniana (cherry laurel) in both lollipop and column styles offers screening from their nearest neighbors. Two water features off the family dining deck were installed as a further noise barrier.

All along the side is a mostly shady garden with espaliered magnolias, bleeding hearts and ferns. The large Kully Chaha native stones on the pathway match the pebbles in the side yard.

Rather than focusing on native plants per se, the owners and designer, Sarah Warto, of Boxleaf Design, San Francisco, chose plants often seen in California in the past: lots of hydrangeas, grasses, lavender, opting for "more romantic type of flowers," with no big, open-faced blooms. There are many shades of green, a few whites and purples, with a few dashes of orange in pots to complement the house trim.

"It still had to hold up to the heftiness of the house," Warto said.

The owners call the backyard the "wine garden," because it's where the evening sun filters in, making a lovely place to be around 4 o'clock.

"There's no real backyard," the owner said, pointing to a small cottage and the garage at the rear of the property. "The tricky part was making the Palm Garden the private family space, even though it is on the street."

The rear space is gated, mainly for the family dog.

Another driving principle was the owners' love of cooking. A built-in outdoor barbecue is well-used during good weather.

"I'm a cook so I planted what I cook," she said, noting the apples, pears, limes, Meyer lemons, kumquats and traditional lemons, as well as an extensive herb garden at the side.

While working in the kitchen, she can view both plants and water elements.

A cutting garden on the street side offers peonies, delphinium, foxglove, echinacea and dianthus. Through a rose archway one then enters the area for the five chickens, with a coop and a chicken swing.

Four other gardens are on this year's tour, including:

* A Tuscan Retreat, with a grand main living courtyard, custom gate and ironwork and roses (Jolee Horne Landscape Design);

* Modern Meets Classic, with new takes on European design (note the sculpture and ceramic tiles), (Dorrit Kingsbury, Kingsbury Garden Designs);

* Open and Modern, with garden spaces quite public on a corner Professorville lot (designed by homeowners);

* Maximizing Family Play Space, with an expanse of lawn, a pool, fruit trees, veggie garden and rope swing (Debby Ruskin, Ruskin Gardens).

In addition to the garden tour, a plant sale will be held at Gamble Garden Center, featuring Prunus 'Howard Miracle,' Tomato 'Indigo Rose,' 'Iris Jesse's Song' and 'Clematis H.F. Young,' among other cultivars and varieties, organized by groupings -- sun, shade, succulents, iris, natives and edibles. A sale of garden-inspired goods, a silent auction and boxed lunches complete the annual fundraiser for the nonprofit horticultural foundation.

What: Gamble Garden Spring Tour

When: Friday and Saturday, April 25 and April 26, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Five gardens in Palo Alto and the Gamble Garden Center, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $35 for nonmembers, $30 for members, in advance online; $40 same day; $15 lunch ticket (order by 2 p.m., April 21)

Info: 650-329-1356 or Gamble Garden

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at


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