When a garden is a reflection of a life, it deserves to be more than just an afterthought to a lawn.
I first met Ruth three years ago, when she was looking for help sprucing up her planting beds and advice on how to deal with the gophers that arrived like clockwork from the open space behind her home. After listening while Ruth pointed out plant after plant that had been grown from a friend’s cutting or received as a gift from someone special in her life, I started wondering why she was limiting herself to a narrow planting strip only a few feet wide wedged in at the edges of her lawn. Her plants and the stories behind them were far more interesting than the tired patch of sod that dominated the back yard.
Although she wasn’t actually looking for a garden design, almost without thinking I interrupted her to say “let’s replace the entire lawn with garden.” And five minutes later I was sketching out ideas.
Ruth’s design is inspired by the classic concept of a stroll garden. This design style first became popular on English estates in the 18th century. Merging garden and landscape, the stroll garden consisted of a peripheral path intended for leisurely walking that showcased garden views, water features and groupings of trees and shrubs.
Fortunately an estate is not required as the concept is easily adapted to a more modest scale. In Ruth’s case, we divided the yard into a garden beds intersected by meandering gravel paths.
This not only turns the garden into an experience, but it cuts it down into chunks of planting areas, making choosing, planting and maintaining each ‘mini-garden’ much more manageable. The pathway widens to accommodate the existing lawn tree, a perfect solution to integrate a mature tree into a new design when overly enthusiastic roots do not allow for under-planting. Two or three broad stepping stones twine a few feet into each bed, which simplifies maintenance and encourages visitors to examine favorite plants more closely. Berms or mounds not only vary the topography; they also provide the improved drainage so many California natives and Mediterranean plants prefer.
Ruth has what I call a plantsman’s garden, where preserving individual specimens is more important than creating a cohesive palette. Similar to a lawn, the pathway acts as a unifier, and I added bronze foliage plants like Phormium ‘Bronze Baby’ and Heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist’ and a sprinkling of grasses to tie the beds together. I quickly realized keeping Ruth to a strict planting plan was hopeless, as between our first meeting and the garden’s installation nine months later, she’d purchased or been given at least a dozen plants. It turns out there is something freeing about shaking off the yoke that a strict adherence to a color palette can create, and I happily planted her beloved yellow rose bush within shouting distance of its small, hot pink cousin across the pathway. Both roses are cherished momentos of friendship and garden highlights in the spring.
Fortunately, we were both in agreement that pollinator plants were a priority, so hardy favorites like rock rose, Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ and achillea are scattered throughout the garden.
Ruth’s children and grandchildren are grown, which made her decision to remove her lawn a little easier, but a design like this works for kids and dogs as well. Although I would choose a smoother path surface than gravel, curving pathways make great play spaces for games and tricycles. For older children, why not give them their own garden bed, to plant and care for as they choose?
After all, if Ruth Bancroft can celebrate her 100th birthday by gardening, and my friend Ruth can enthusiastically redefine the definition of a suburban back yard in her eighties, surely the rest of us can be a bit more adventurous when it comes to re-imagining our gardens.