Dry Garden Poetry

The clients had been living on a sloping two-acre site for over 20 years and were ready for a new chapter. Their desire was to re-envision the way they lived on the land and felt their traditional stucco home enclosed by a tall solid wall cut them off from the full extent of the site and the distant view to the Monterey Bay. The new strong concept of arranging contemporary buildings to create a series of outdoor spaces did just that. Careful study of the site, and its topography and coast live oaks woodlands that rimmed the meadow, drove the siting of the buildings. While the original house was set into the lower meadow, the new compound was set high on the property to look across the meadow to the bay and engage with the edges of the oak woodland.

The landscape architect worked closely with the architect, interior designer and client to create a compound of small contemporary buildings that each opened onto the land and combined to define a series of outdoor spaces. With hot summers and pleasant winters, the exposure and aspect of each outdoor room was keenly considered to provide sun when desired and shade when needed. The floorplan of the house and its program in effect doubled in size with the addition of these key outdoor spaces. 

Central to the design is a courtyard space created by the placement of the buildings. The residence anchors the complex on the southside with two smaller buildings set to the north: the art studio and garage. A covered loggia encloses the eastern edge with filtered light passing through the lacy filigree metal screen. The final defining element of the courtyard is an 8’ eggplant-colored stucco wall with a blackened steel box spilling water into a basin with water-washed stepping stones. This space, called the Summer Terrace, is a refuge from the heat. Along with cooling sounds of falling water, four 25’ tall olives were set to offer shade. Limestone pads and steps ground the dining patio at the house level and work with the grade as the art studio and garage step up the hill. Between the two small buildings is a vegetable garden and lounging nook in a 12’ tall stucco folly. A small cooking area with a Tuscan grill is tucked away behind the fountain wall. Cantilevered off this wall is a long, reclaimed timber. A place to rest, its rustic character complements the materials palette of decomposed granite paving, board-formed concrete and stucco walls. 

Continuing up the hillside, a pathway of monolithic limestone steps with gravel landings climbs to one of two hot tubs on the property. This one, set under the oak for shade, is positioned to look over the Summer Terrace and its buildings to the long and distance view of the Monterey Bay. Taking advantage of the south facing aspect, this hillside is planted with a range of fruit trees forming an informal orchard. These trees along with ornamental grasses and native plantings provide a landscape buffer between the Summer Terrace and the secondary garage and guest parking above.

The design of the house connects the Summer Terrace to the Winter Terrace through pocketing glass doors. Long monolithic limestone steps lead down to the sun drenched patio. A firepit of boulders emerges out of the terrace rimmed by water-washed stone and accented by boulders for seating. Here the reflected heat off the building walls sets up ideal conditions for cactus and succulent plantings. Palo verde trees frame views from the large patio without interrupting views to the meadow below. The grade of this terrace and garden is supported by a series of stacked water-washed boulders. The boulders overlap vertically and horizontally to make for a more natural transition from the house to the meadow below.  A dry planting palette furthers the desert-like feel with four types of grasses, native buckwheat and coffee berry along with kangaroo paw and Leucadendron as the bank meets the meadow of native grasses.

Through thoughtful site design, this new interpretation of the site and its buildings sits lyrically on the land. Responding to a range in microclimates, the planting varies to adapt to each and create distinctive garden spaces throughout the site to create complex experiences for the homeowners and their guests.

Other landscape architecture offices involved in the design of landscape: Bret Hancock

Photography credit: Marion Brenner

Project location (For publicly accessible projects please include exact address. For Private gardens place write Country or State): Santa Cruz Mountains, California, United States

Design year, completed: 2020

Year Built: 2020

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