Peeking into private gardens | May 25, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 25, 2012

Peeking into private gardens

Annual Garden Conservancy Open Days program allows visitors rare view of homes

by Bryce Druzin

"Design is all about solving problems," landscape architect Debby Ruskin said during a tour of the Lincoln Avenue Garden, which will be opened to the public on June 2 as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days.

Dedicated to preserving exceptional gardens and encouraging public appreciation for them, the Garden Conservancy showcases private gardens each spring. In addition to the Palo Alto garden, the local Open Days tour includes two gardens in Atherton and one in Portola Valley. (The complete list is included in the Open Days Directory, available at local nurseries, and online at

Ruskin began designing the garden in 2005 at the same time the historic house, originally built in 1897, was being remodeled.

Her challenge: maximize the lawn size for a family with four children while leaving enough room to accommodate a swimming pool, vegetable garden, play structure and outdoor living room with fireplace.

The result is a rounded, triangularly shaped lawn ringed by small, dwarf boxwood shrubs with a wooden play structure on its left, vegetable garden in the back, and pool and covered sitting area to the right.

"The lawn was pushed to the edges, leaving enough planting space to be pretty," she said.

Besides its unconventional shape, the lawn has a small raised area that Ruskin designed for practical and sentimental reasons.

The small hill serves the purpose of obscuring a small structure that houses pool equipment, but it was also inspired by Ruskin's childhood memories of playing on a neighbors' lawn that had a raised area.

"That was an ode to my childhood, thinking the kids would have fun doing somersaults," she said.

A winding brick path goes around the entire lawn, something Ruskin included specifically for the four children in the family.

"Little kids just seem to love being able to go all the way around the outside of things," she said.

Ruskin said her client wanted to grow food for her and her family, so fruit trees and edible plants proliferate in the garden.

Pots with rosemary sit next to a pair of lemon trees that flank the back-porch stairs, which are mirrored by two lime trees across the lawn adjacent to an arbor entrance leading to a vegetable garden.

Pear trees are used for practical purposes as well, serving as a screen to provide privacy for an outdoor shower located on the side of the garage and outdoor living room area.

One of the biggest challenges Ruskin faced was posed by a three-story multi-unit building that looked down into the back yard. She needed to find a way to create a screen that would provide privacy but not cast too many shadows on the adjacent pool.

Ruskin's solution was to plant a row of upright European hornbeam trees along the edge of the property. She chose them because they are fast growing, narrow, and have a thick branching structure that provides adequate screening even when they lose their leaves in the winter. Six years after planting them, she's pleased with the results.

"To have something go that tall in such a narrow space is awesome," she said.

A neighbor's oak tree on the left side of the backyard posed potential complication, as oaks are particularly sensitive to being over-watered. Instead of plants, Ruskin placed the play structure underneath the oaks tree cover.

Ruskin said her goal in any project is to have the garden fit the home.

"You want the outside to feel that it's cut of the same cloth," she said.

One way Ruskin tried to achieve this was to use what she called an "axial design." She positioned the back lawn so a line runs through the front door, back door, entrance to the lawn and arbor that leads to the vegetable garden.

A second axis, defined by a brick path, runs left to right between the outdoor fireplace and a bench swing, a personal favorite of Ruskin's.

"While they're not real active ... people seem to enjoy just sitting and having a nice chat," she said.

Ruskin said her design philosophy can be found in the title of the late landscape architect Thomas Church's book "Gardens are for People."

"That's the biggest thing that attracted me to this field, is trying to create beautiful spaces for people to gather in," she said. "Now everybody's so busy, it's nice when you really have to sit down occasionally."

Ruskin said she particularly likes the Garden Conservancy Open Days because many of the attendees share her passion and love for plants.

"It's not a social affair so much as it is a horticultural, educational affair," she said.


For more Home and Real Estate news, visit

What: Garden Conservancy Open Days garden tour

When: Saturday, June 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: four gardens in Palo Alto, Atherton and Portola Valley

Cost: $5/garden; children 12 and under free

Info: or 888-842-2442 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST to order booklet; allow at least seven days for delivery.

Editorial Intern Bryce Druzin can be emailed at