Historical Landscaping in San Lorenzo Valley

The history of our area is fascinating. Being a gardener, I’m especially interested in the landscaping and plants that surrounded homes in earlier times. A friend of mine lives in a home off Hwy 9 in Ben Lomond. Her house was built in 1960 replacing the original cabin-style home from the turn of the century. In a tour of the property I learned some of the history of this beautiful area.

Pictures of the property from 1937 show grapes, fruit trees, a pampas grass and flowers bordering the clearing for a flag pole. One of the original Gravenstein apples is still producing. A horseshoe pit figures prominently in the yard. You can see the sparsely forested  Ben Lomond mountains behind the house.

Fast forward to 1960 when the present ranch style house was built. According to a neighbor who’s family has lived in the area for decades, The Bird of Paradise was one of the prized plants installed at that time and has survived many a winter, blooming spectacularly this year. Other plants that have lived in the garden for over 40 years are Cecile Brunner roses, camellias, daphne, Atlas cedar, hawthorn, yew and interior live oak.

The current steward of the property is a fellow landscape designer and has created a personal arboretum. She took me on a tour pointing out favorite trees and other additions she has made since 1987. I’ll start with the trees.

In full bloom is a 20 ft Himalayan flowering dogwood which has sported its huge white petal-like bracts for over two months now. Each flower is over 3" across and makes quite a show. The fruit is edible for birds. Another prized tree is her Fernleaf Fullmoon maple, which at 25 ft is tall enough to be underplanted with red flowering currant and hydrangeas. Sweet violets cover the ground along with a large stand of omphaloides. Resembling forget-me-nots this groundcover doesn’t reseed itself from those pesky, sticky seeds that used to stick to her yellow lab Banjo and cat Toby.

In another corner of the garden grows a Drimys winteri, commonly known as Winter’s Bark. This evergreen, slender tree has aromatic mahogany-red bark and leathery 5-10" long fragrant leaves. Small clusters of jasmine scented, creamy white flower appear in winter and spring. Underplanted with a black calla lily, columbine, coral bells and mimulus it makes quite a statement.

Two clematis, a burgundy Ernest Markham and a purple jackmanii grow over the arbor framing a white picket fence. A woolly blue curls blooms happily in a barrel along the driveway. The veggie garden, complete with a well-dressed scarecrow, guards the ripening San Marzano paste tomatoes as well as boysenberry, blueberry, artichokes and citrus.

On the way to the frog pond, we pass her collection of lacecap hydrangeas, fuchsia, foxglove, more omphaloides, ribes, campanula and a large butter-yellow flowering kerria japonica. A 22 year old native western azalea also claims a spot in this border next to the hachiya persimmon.

Back at the pond, the Pacific tree frogs are mostly quiet this time of year. Mating season is over and there is little reason to attract the attention of potential predators. She informed me that the frog population varies from year to year and has noticed that 10 years ago the frog chorus started about March but now mating starts earlier-about Christmas time.

Surrounding the pond are native stream orchids, appearing mysteriously here and there in the garden, ferns, blue oat grass, loropetalum, hellobore, polemonium and fuchsia thymifolia. Anemone, aucuba, ribes and a yellow rhododendron contribute color and texture as the season progresses.

We ended ours tour at the back garden. A border of Chinese ground orchids, spice bush, wax myrtle and rhododendrons surround the red fescue lawn allowed to grow long gracefully. Sitting at the table, nibbling on bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes and enjoying a glass of wine, we speculated what it might have been like to garden back in the early 1900’s. From the pictures it looks like it was very different than gardens today.


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