House Calls

I could never be a real garden designer or a landscape architect. I’m not that organized. I can’t think big. Trees that won’t mature for twenty years? Retaining walls? Gazebos? I can’t picture it. I’m one of those one-plant-at-a-time gardeners. I fall in love with a plant, I buy it, I put it in the ground. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

So I’m not a real garden professional, but I play one in my newspaper column. And sometimes people call me and ask me to come look at their garden. Try it; it works. If you live nearby, I’ll actually come over to your house and tell you about some plants I love that you might love too. I guess you could say that I’m more of a horticultural matchmaker. It’s not a bad gig. I even get a column out of it.

Diana Renner Noyes got in touch with me and asked me to come look at her garden in Eureka. Noyes, a chaplain for Hospice of Humboldt County, lives in a gorgeous renovated Victorian that is just calling out for a lively, charming, old-fashioned garden that complements the house’s new paint job. She bought the house from Eureka CPA Sid Noyes, although at that time she did not share his last name. The two found themselves in love and in escrow at the same time; before long, Sid was once again living in the house he had just renovated and sold.

It’s been a few years since they settled into the house and made it their own together. A crisp new paint job—an earthy green, cream, and brick red—made it all the more obvious that it was time to pull out some grass and plant a garden. The house has the same landscaping challenges that any old Eureka house does: an oddly shaped lot with damp, shady spots on one side and dry, windy, bare spots on the other; a few lovely old trees and shrubs that you couldn’t possibly rip out even if they don’t fit with your plans; and poor soil that supports nothing but oxalis and blackberry brambles.

The first challenge was to figure out what colors would look good next to the house. Diana had saved some garden magazine photos; it was clear that she wanted something cheerful and abundant, with climbing roses and sweet peas, but the warm, earthy colors of the house didn’t lend themselves to lots of pastel flowers. There was one small princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) against the house; that gave us our first clue. The flowers are purple, and the foliage is quite striking with its dark green leaves and reddish veins. Even the blossoms themselves have traces of red in them. They’d be bright and cheerful, but in keeping with the house’s natural colors. They could be planted close to the house, but they’d be easy to prune so they wouldn’t damage the trim.

Diana wanted to plant something in the narrow front yard, which sits above the sidewalk thanks to a low retaining wall, so we walked around the neighborhood to see what other people had done. We thought that a garden down the street with heathers in the front looked good; I remembered that Maria Krenek at Glenmar Heather Nursery in Eureka had assured me that heathers come in a wide range of colors, and that some even offer red, orange, and yellow foliage. You can get an assortment with different blooming times so that something’s flowering all year long. There’s also something old-fashioned about heathers that seemed to fit with the house. (Call 707 268-5560 to get in touch with the nursery, and check out the extensive heather garden at Fortuna River Lodge if you’re not convinced.)

It was trickier to figure out what to do in the back. They have a fabulous little space between the house and the garage that would be perfect for a seating area, but what to plant around it? I couldn’t get that brick red color in the trim out of my head, so I suggested adding more Japanese maples to the one Diana had already planted. (Here’s a hint about Japanese maples, by the way: the reason the leaves scorch in summer and the colors aren’t as vibrant in fall is that they are getting too much nitrogen. Give them a fertilizer made just for them—Fox Farm just rolled out a Japanese maple fertilizer—and you’ll see the color return.)

She already had one cherry tree; I suggested putting in a couple more. The red leaves and pink blossoms would be perfect and the simple act of repeating a plant over and over in a garden could make anything look like good design.

What else did we come up with? The velvety red Saliva confertiflora; the crazy red-and-orange striped canna ‘Tropicana’; any of a number of pretty little heucheras in red, orange, and green for groundcovers; perhaps some euphorbia with their showy chartreuse flowers; and some grasses and shrubs with silvery blue foliage.

I suggested a freestanding trellis against a wall so she could plant the sweet peas she wanted, and she had already picked out a great spot to put a fountain and surround it with roses. Go to Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery in Arcata, I suggested, and let Cindy Graebner hook you up with the right roses. (You can check out Fickle Hill online or call Cindy at 707 826-0708.)

We also noticed that a lemon tree that the couple had been given as a wedding present was covered in scale—icky, nasty, scale. Little hard-shelled bugs that attach themselves to the tree like ticks and suck the life out of it. While it’s perversely satisfying to scrape them off with your fingernail, you could spend the rest of your life doing that, so I told her to suffocate the little critters with horticultural oil, an organic remedy available at nurseries. The tree was given to them as a symbol of their love, she told me, so she had to save it.

See, that’s what I love about a garden. It’s intensely personal. It’s about your passions. You can make all the plans you want on graph paper, but when it comes down to it, you just meet a plant, fall in love with it, bring it home, and hope it thrives. In Diana and Sid’s case, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble with that approach.