Under the Sea, High in the Hills

This past Saturday I toured three gardens in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. Each garden was unique and warrants its own post. I took plenty of photos and though I tried to edit ruthlessly, I still have plenty of visuals left to show you.

I’m going to start in reverse order, with the garden I visited last. Dubbed “Under the Sea, High in Hills,” this garden is located outside of Kentfield in a rural area consisting of upscale country properties.


In the Open Days Program, it was described as follows:

One could not surmise the creative genius at play behind these fences and gates. It’s only well inside the property that one sees horticultural mayhem unfolding. Sculptural replications of plant forms by Bay Area artisan Marcia Donahue seem innocent at first glance, until one realizes that the ‘plant forms’ actually portray an underwater scene and the players are crab claws, sea anemones, and clustered barnacles. The aquatic theme is replayed bordering the swimming pool, but on a grander scale. Vertical drifts of Donahue-fashioned ‘kelp’ tangle with real plantings of cylindrically leaved bird of paradise; the line between reality and fantasy blurs further in the understory plantings. Are you scuba diving in the tropics or taking a stroll through the fabulous succulent drifts of the Ruth Bancroft Garden? Designer Davis Dalbok also created a rare palm and cycad garden for the client. Here, Marcia’s creations play with a very blue Mediterranean fan palm and with the sublime palm cross, Butia x 'Queen Palm'. A "grove" of the Dr. Seuss-like “waggy palm” is underplanted with huge vriesea imperialis and large-scale tropical bromeliads. There are also many forms of citrus, pomegranate, and datura, set within the context of classic, cloud-pruned California live oaks, sculpted to reveal spectacular views of Mount Tam. A well-established jacaranda ‘holds’ the center of the garden with its bountiful masses of exotic, deep purple flowers. There is a respite from all the fun and madness: an elegant and secret Moroccan dining terrace, replete with finely pierced pendant lanterns and furniture fashioned in a souk workshop in Marrakech.

As I walk up the long steep driveway, I see nothing of the underwater theme. In fact, the first thing that catches my eye is this stunning dogwood in bloom:


The house itself is mostly hidden behind trees, but it seems enormous.


To the left of the front door I notice this rock bowl filled with delicate sculpted pieces resembling sea anemones and other critters you’d expect to find in the ocean.


A short walk through the house affords glimpses of the dining and family rooms liberally decorated with pieces of art. I decide not to linger inside since I came for the garden. My first impression: lots of succulents.




Specifically, succulents picked because they bring to mind underwater flora and fauna.


Tucked in between the succulents are many sculptures ranging from small see anemones to tall sticks resembling kelp.




These sculpted pieces remind me of carnivorous pitcher plants:


Something else I notice right away: Beautiful planting containers made of rock and hypertufa (?). The selection of succulents, especially heavy on aeoniums, makes my heart beat faster.






I typically loathe moon cactus—those grafted cactus balls in bright neon colors that look like cheap plastic—but I totally get the underwater reference in this shallow metal bowl. I actually like the bowl itself a whole lot. I’d probably suffer sticker shock if I knew how much it cost.


Wherever I look, there are pots and urns I’d love to have. I think the kumquat is perfect in this distressed urn. At least I assume it’s distressed; who knows, it could be a hundred years old.



Until now my eyes have been focused on the plants and objects in the garden. But as I reach the edge of the property I look out beyond yet another series of stunning succulent planters and catch glimpses of the hills beyond. This place must be very quiet at night, and the sky full of stars city dwellers never see.


Peeing around a corner, I find a semi-hidden patio with a big surprise. Vertical succulent walls on three sides. Again, the plants were clearly chosen because they mirror the shapes of ocean dwelling creatures.



The walls are made of Woolly Pockets, a popular material for this type of application.


While I’m not the biggest fan of swimming pools—I always think of how I would hate the maintenance—this one does appeal to me. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a dip to cool off. I wonder what would happen if I just jump in? Would they call the police to have me hauled off?




And if I stretch out in one of these loungers, will somebody bring me a tall glass of ice tea?


I wander down to the lower level where I find this hidden tableau. Clearly these are the pieces crafted in a souk in Marrakesh. I’m glad I know this from the write-up, otherwise I would have thought Cost Plus. Our Cost Plus certainly carries similar furniture and dangly things.


When I take a closer look at the objets on the table, I fight hard to stifle a laugh. But I believe it wouldn’t be polite to lose my composure in such a highly perfected setting.


Walking back up the path and approaching the house from the other side, I see these two spectacular bromeliads. This is a group of plants I haven’t paid much attention to. I really need to find out which of these beauties might be hardy enough to survive our zone 9b winters.




I spot a few more large jars, looking appropriately weathered, tucked away in the vegetation.


They are not completely of out place here, and I think I like them. As with many things about this garden, I just can’t say for sure.


One final thing that catches my eyes is this bowl—this property does have the most beautiful planters—that has been turned into a small water garden. And the centerpiece is a miniature gunnera! It looks exactly like its big brother I so admired last summer on the Southern Oregon coast, just much smaller. Does anybody know what species this is?


Leaving this garden, I’m oddly unsure of what I think of it. I certainly didn’t love it the way I loved the other two gardens (posts to come). There are elements that are truly special, like many of the succulents planters. The pool was fantastic as well. But I’m vaguely unsatisfied. Maybe it was the surfeit of sculptures and objets d’art. In my mind they bring a sense of artificiality and fakeness to the overall garden design.

But ultimately it all comes down to taste, and this just isn’t entirely my taste.

Other gardens I visited:


  1. Great photos in spite of the relentless sunshine..and crapola, that hidden patio was so hidden I never saw it !

    1. Relentless is the perfect word to describe the sun. I thought summers in SF and Marin are gray and gloomy?!?

      The hidden patio with the vertical succulent walls was completely unexpected and therefore a really nice surprise.

      P.S. I enjoyed reading your post about "Under the Sea" at http://gardenbook-ks.blogspot.com/2012/06/hot-stuff-in-marin.html.

  2. Great photos Gerhard! I understand why you weren't too keen, to each their own. They've got lots of nice plants and the garden looks immaculate (perhaps too immaculate, it's very staged).

    Funny enough I've always thought lots of succulents reminds me of 'under the sea' plants/corals, etc. Which obviously this garden has utilised to convey the theme. Looking forward to the next installments!

    1. Yes, they clearly utilized the resemblance of succulents to corals, sea anemones, etc. They definitely had a good designer!

  3. There is much to love there (including so many amazing $$$ succulents!)...although had I been touring with you I would have encouraged you to jump in the pool to create a distraction while I "rearranged" the table-scape...

    1. Great plants for sure. Marin County is aeonium heaven. They seem to grow like weeds there!

  4. Love the succulents but not a fan of those felt pockets. Not particularly crazy about the whole vertical garden fan but that particular growing setup is among the worst in my opinion.

    The Gunnera is probably just a young specimen of G. tinctoria or G. manicata that will probably remain somewhat dwarfed by being in a small container. I just used a G. tinctoria in a 5 gallon pot in a design that looked just like that.

    1. I didn't like how visible the Wooly Pockets were. I guess over the time the plants will hide them. But at that stage, the whole set up looked too artificial to me.

      Great info about the gunnera. Maybe I will try one in a container submerged in water.

  5. I like it, though it is not as beautiful as the one with the rill. And perhaps the silly "believe" stone was a present from a loved one..."Everybody's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another beer"?

    I agree, I could do without the arty things, more plants!

  6. Oh my goodness how wonderful! All that room and such displays. I would have been going crazy! Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'd love to have even half that space for gardening. And since the property was on a hill (like the other two gardens I saw), there are so many possibilities for terracing. Living in a completely flat place like the Sacramento Valley, I'm envious of any property that has different levels.


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