Garden Tips | April 11, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - April 11, 2014

Garden Tips

Modifying your living canvas — one step at a time

by Jack McKinnon

I give my clients homework. Why? Because of Johannes Vermeer. Ever since I saw "The Lacemaker" painting at the Louvre in Paris I felt I had a lifetime of homework to do. Vermeer knew how to see what most artists of his time were not able to yet.

As appreciation of his work became more focused and evaluated by experts, more and more was revealed about his techniques of painting his subjects (mostly women). Not only was he learning new ways to paint he was teaching the world how to look and see. This is what I am trying to do in the garden. I am learning to see what gardeners are doing differently and in more effective ways and passing that information on to my clients and to you, readers of this column. What we all get to do is to pay close attention and do our homework.

Coco Chanel was like this, too. Coco (originally Gabrielle) wanted to make hats differently than the ones women were wearing in France. The flamboyance and wide brims seemed too much for her. As she tried new creations and designs the style caught on. She later became famous for her simple but very stylish haute couture.

In landscape design the possibilities are infinite. Rules are just rules until you know them and then you can try to design your garden any way you want. The patterns of most gardens are going to change in time, why not instigate change and take a risk? Put water-needing plants in your drought-tolerant garden? Or put a succulent in your lawn. How would that look? How about having to look over a hedge in order to see a colorful ground cover like Erigeron (wild daisies)?

This month's tips will hopefully get you started on creatively modifying your living canvas, changing its wardrobe and maybe even shocking a culture into the next big trend.

1. Change one thing in your garden or planting configuration each week. Pull something out and move it, or plant something new and see who notices it first.

2. Check out a new way to be in the garden. Summer is coming; try making a place to lounge using a material you have never seen in a garden before. Recycled materials work great for this because if it doesn't work or your housemates want to evict you, it can be recycled.

3. Try a color pattern change. Go to a nursery and buy six packs of annual flowers of contrasting or complementing colors and see what kind of vibration they set up in your yard. Don't plant them at first, just move them around on the ground and see what it looks like. When you intuitively like a particular pattern, plant them there.

4. Try watering with a shot glass. Try watering with the hose open full blast. See what the difference is in how the plants respond.

5. Juan and Mercedes have had the Ladera Garden Center for 33 years and do a great job. I missed them when I was honoring family-owned nurseries and went by on Valentine's Day to get to know them better. Mercedes talked with me while wrapping flowers for eager lovers. That is personal attention. Visit small family-owned nurseries. There is panache there and the true spirit of garden art.

6. Discover a plant that nobody has. A good place to look is at an arboretum sale, or the Annie's Annuals tables at Half Moon Bay Nursery. Become an expert at growing that particular species. Do homework online; there is plenty of information on just about every different type of plant.

7. If you have a wet, shady garden, create a sun spot. Hint: You can use mirrors. If you have a desert garden, add a fountain with flowing water.

8. Put a male canary in your garden during the day just for the song of it. Make sure it has food and water in its cage. If you don't want a live song bird, wire up some outdoor speakers, hide them in the bushes and play song-bird recordings when you are out there.

9. Throw a party. A party of friends or family always generates garden cleanup and detailing ideas.

10. Visit estates, parks, grand hotels with gardens, roof-top gardens in San Francisco and classic shopping centers like Stanford Shopping Center for ideas to steal. Remember Picasso (or was it Steve Jobs?) said "Good artists copy, great artists steal."

Good Gardening.


The patterns of most gardens are going to change in time, why not instigate change and take a risk?

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687, by email at Visit his website at


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