Research before restoring a historic California landscape

Research before restoring a historic California landscape

by Nan Sterman

You've bought a lovely old home in a part of the city with wonderful historic properties. After carefully updating the structure, you are ready to consider the garden. What now?

When it comes to landscape, many homeowners simply tear everything out and start again. Not so fast, says Cathy Garrett, landscape architect and principal at PGAdesign in Oakland, Calif. For 27 years, Garrett has worked on historic landscapes and is often called upon to help with historic residential properties.

For example, Casa Amesti in Monterey, Calif. is an 1830s adobe that epitomizes Monterey Colonial architecture. In 1918, interior designer Frances Elkins purchased the property, restored the building and designed what became a classic garden. Today, the property is operated and maintained by the Old Capitol Club.

Some years back, the club approached Garrett for help in determining how a garden that once functioned perfectly with the home now had drainage problems. Garrett's research revealed that over the years, biomass had built up to the point that the garden elevation had raised. Water drained toward the home rather than away from it. "It was a non-historic context that lead to the garden's historic preservation," she says.

Your property may not have quite the history, but it's still worth considering. "The condition of a garden can be quite poor, but if its integrity is true to its original concept, then you can do a lot with it," Garrett says.

San Diego landscape designer Kate Wiseman of highly rated Sage Outdoor Designs found exactly that situation when she updated the landscape of an early 20th century Prairie-style home in San Diego's historic Banker's Hill. The landscape was in disrepair and new owners wanted to update the spaces to meet their family's needs, including a new outdoor dining area.

Wiseman surveyed the property with an eye that remained true to the original concept. There were wonderful mature trees, but holes where other plants had died. In addition, Wiseman found poorly done updates and additions from previous eras.

"The front garden had a high stucco wall added to it, probably in the 1970s," Wiseman says. "To meet code at the time, it had to have openings. [The previous owners] built in some wooden louvers that were terrible." In addition, stair and patio overlays of buff-colored flagstone were incongruous with the architecture's sleek lines and smooth white stucco.

Wiseman removed the wall louvers and topped the stucco wall with a cap that fit the era. Aged herringbone brick replaced flagstone. Mature trees were pruned, while new plants filled in empty spots. The final product is a beautiful, classic home with an equally classic landscape.

"Do your homework - look in your own neighborhood, at the physical elements and what is already on the ground," Garrett recommends. "Look in books and magazines to see what came with the house at that time. Why did they use that material?

"When it comes to restoring the landscape, people can build on their historic world or create an entirely new world," Garrett says "Either way, understanding that historic world is critical."

Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She's a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her yard.

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