Cor-Ten Zen

Cor-Ten Zen was one of the properties I visited as part of the 2013 Marin County Open Garden Day organized by the Garden Conservancy. Here is the description from the official program:

When asked to dream up a retaining wall design for the front garden of this Kentfield residence, designers Davis Dalbok and Tim O’Shea created a bold solution that would modernize the vernacular of the entire landscape, including the architecture of the home itself. Two ‘slices’ of Cor-Ten ribbon, with twelve feet of separation and a twelve-degree cant, were installed to visually support the steep slope. Counterbalanced by a large circular steel portal -- or ‘moongate’ -- to the garden beyond, the elemental, Cor-Ten themed design soon expanded to capture the car gate, an original mailbox design, chimney cover, a column at the front entry and, thin, weight- appropriate cladding over the garage door. Eventually, it was decided to circumscribe the entire house with a bold, perforated band of Cor-Ten steel.



The program goes on to say:

At the entry, scrappy trees were replaced by a mature stand of creamy yellow Bambusa  'Robert Young', sculpted mugho pines, Liriope ‘silver dragon,’ and, as counterpoint, a huge, naturally formed stone basin from Bali was core drilled, then plumbed, to create a kinetic water feature. The water disappears into a field of smooth river stones, then recirculates from a tank hidden below. The moongate is nestled into specimen coral bark maples, select bamboos, sasanqua camellias, and an understory of black and green mondo grass, Liriope and baby’s tears. Plantings in the rear garden include magnolias, native and varietal maples, rhododendrons, weeping conifers, grasses and bronze troughs filled with cymbidium orchids. A winding path leads one down to the pool terrace, where yet another garden awaits discovery.

This description had really peaked my interest, and I had been hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. How could I be when the featured plant next to the front door was one of the most beautiful bamboo varieties of them all!


The buttery yellow culms of Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’ were visible from the entrance to the property at the top of the hill and drew me in the way a streetlight attract moths.


This stand of bamboo is impeccably maintained. Together with complementary plantings that include philodendrons, liriope, ferns and coleus, it creates a serene vignette that fits perfectly into the Asian-influenced landscaping theme.

Note: Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’ is a running bamboo. It needs to be properly managed to prevent rhizomes from escaping into areas where they’re not wanted.


Aside from the bamboo, the biggest focal point in this part of the property is a large water basin that resembles a giant abalone shell. According to what I overheard, the homeowner hand-picked the rock in Bali.


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Normally I’m not fond of fake animals in my landscaping but I had to laugh when I spotted this snake. A nice touch of humor!


Check out the shoots from the ‘Robert Young’ bamboo!


Massive planters near the garage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a weeping Blue Atlas cedar next to a Dasylirion longissimum!

When I finally pulled myself away from the bamboo and water basin, I took a closer look at the Cor-Ten accents. The retaining wall mentioned in the official description begins at the top of the hill near the entrance gate where I was delighted to spot a small grove of Tasmanian tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica).



As it continues down the hill, the wall gets taller and assumes an increasingly rakish angle.


I love how the two ribbons of Cor-Ten overlap slightly…


…and how they are connected. The round opening in the connecting piece mirrors the much larger moon gate nearby…


…which forms the entrance to the backyard.


Another band of Cor-Ten extends all the way around the house between the ground floor and second floor.



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All light fixtures are made of Cor-Ten as well.

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Another weeping cedar behind the house mirrors the one next to the garage in front.


This is a multi-million dollar house yet the architecture never seems grandiose or pompous. The house blends seamlessly and harmoniously into its surroundings.

The top level of the backyard is dominated by the most sculptural trees I’ve seen in a long while. They create dappled shade that is cool and inviting. The sitting area in the next photo was my favorite spot in the backyard.



Bronze containers filled with cymbidium orchids add a lush exotic touch.



Benches along the top level of the backyard offer seating galore—and sweeping views of the canyons beyond.



Walkways on either side of the yard lead to the lower level of the backyard where the pool is located. The fence on the western edge of the property is lined with bamboo that continues the vaguely Asian theme.







Outside the pool house I found two espaliered podocarpus underplanted with lamium and colorful coleus. Beautiful!


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Another poolside vignette I liked was this planting of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra).


But the most spectacular sight at the pool level were several purple smokebushes (Cotinus coggygria) in full “smoke” mode. The effect is caused by billowy hairs attached to the stalks of the spent flower clusters (the flowers themselves, which appear a few months earlier, are tiny and insignificant).




Looking up at the house from below, I spotted one of my beloved Matilija poppies. The plantings on this hillside were quite young; they will need another few growing seasons to really fill in.


I was a bit disappointed not to find more succulents. This hillside would have been a perfect spot to grow all manner of agaves, yuccas and cacti. But I quickly realized that succulents might have been too jarring juxtaposed with the planting scheme selected by the homeowners.

Which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t give it a try if I were to magically inherit this house. Yes, I could see myself living there but I’d need a second job just to pay the property tax!



  1. So that explains the unique name but...

    Wow, what a property! The plants and landscaping is gorgeous!

    Is the property tax in this area exceptionally high or is it because its a large property?

    1. Property taxes in California are based on the assessed value (1% of the original sale price plus any local levies). Values are reassessed periodically but taxes cannot increase by more than 2% annually. So this $4 million property would have property taxes in excess of $40,000 a year.

  2. I'll take it! Well, perhaps after I win the lottery.

  3. I'll have to pick your brain about the retaining walls when I visit. We could do something similar here!

    1. From all the episodes of Grand Designs Australia I've seen, it seems that Cor-Ten is very popular in Australia. I think a Cor-Ten retaining wall in your backyard would be fantastic. The next time you're at the Royal Botanic Garden, check out what Jamie Durie did with Cor-Ten in the succulent garden.

  4. Lol ! that's a year salary to some people. So beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I knew I am missing something good when I did not go on the tour.

    1. I think the Marin County tour was even better than last year. Check for tours in your area.

  5. Wow, I would love to have a garden and a swimming pool as these. Thanks for showing. I loved the moon gate.

    1. There was something magical about stepping through that moon gate. I felt like I was entering a secret realm.

  6. It's a goal of mine to incorporate more steel and circles into my own garden -- great inspiration!

    Although the 'Robert Young' bamboo at the entrance is spectacular, it's a bit jarring next to the house color -- at least to me. A green-culmed variety might have been better, or black if it were more upright.

    Beautiful tour though!

    1. Alan, color is so subjective. I actually *loved* the buttery yellow of the Robert Young against the paler yellow of the house. But then I've always wanted a yellow house (unlike my wife).

      As for incorporating steel into your garden, that's a big yes! I'd love to do that--if only I found an inexpensive way to do so. But then, maybe Cor-Ten is cheaper than I think? I must confess I have no clue as to cost.

  7. This was the garden I skipped, I decided to only visit two of them. I think I would have preferred the Vista Garden so I guess I made the right choice. Reading those descriptions in the book can steer one wrong upon occasion.

    1. The descriptions in the official program are so flowery, it's often difficult to know what to expect. I go by keywords like "bamboo," "succulents," etc. rather than the exact wording :-).

  8. No money spent there! Spectacular setting as well. You are right that bamboo is gorgous, & individual vignettes like the cedar & dasylirion are wonderful, but did it all hang together that well?

    1. For me, it did hang together--barely. I would have preferred a stronger Asian influence to establish a more solid context for the water basin from Bali, the moon gate, the bamboo and other obstensibly Asian elements. But the stunning location made up for a vague lack of grounding.


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