2014 Pence Gallery Garden Tour, Davis, CA (part 1 of 3)

Every May, the Pence Gallery, a non-profit art gallery in downtown Davis, organizes a tour of local gardens. This year the tour focused on six larger rural and semi-rural gardens on the outskirts of town. I don’t think a single one of them was under 1/2 acre. I was excited to see gardens I might not otherwise have access to, but in hindsight I realize my expectations were a bit naïve. Out of the six gardens, only two clicked with me. The others simply weren’t my cup of tea; that’s not a value judgment, simply a reflection of my personal taste.

Today I want to show you the property that acted as the Hospitality Garden. This is where the tour began and where the silent auction to benefit the Pence Gallery was held. The property is located just north of town, and this is the view we saw from the road:


The house itself is contemporary, sleek, and just a bit sterile. The courtyard you see below is dominated by steel-bordered planting beds with a very minimalistic palette: Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), clearly a favorite of landscape designer Pei-Ying Wang, ‘Lemon Thread’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Lemon Thread'), dark purple coral bells (Heuchera sp.), and an 'Osakazuki' Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki') as a focal point.


This is the kind of landscape design you see in a contemporary architecture magazine. I responded to it quite positively, but after spending a few minutes in this space, I was beginning to get restless. There just wasn’t enough variety to hold my interest.





This kind of design looks very nice on the pages of a glossy magazine, but it’s too intellectual for me to satisfy me long term. In other words: I can admire it at somebody else’s house, but I wouldn’t want it in my own yard.


What I did love were the steel-bordered planting beds with ipe decking. Just imagine a row of sculptural agaves instead of the somewhat pedestrian false cypress! This bed screams for Agave ovatifolia, paired with a ‘Sonoran Emerald’ palo verde instead of the Japanese maple.


Another area I liked was the deck by the pond (which itself is under restoration). The view beyond is archetypical Yolo County. In the distance you can see the Berryessa Hills, and the oak and willow trees are perfect in this spot.



Closer to the pool, I noticed this bed newly planted with Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra). As much as I love Hakonechloa macra, I think it’s out of place in an area that bakes in the sun all afternoon, especially paired with the dyed black mulch. This could be a prime spot for California poppies, penstemons, or any number of wildflowers—or succulents!


The pool area was lovely.



I also loved how the Mexican feather grass repeats in different corners of the garden.


The immense main lawn is partially shaded by Chinese elm and hackberry trees.


The best features here are the outdoor kitchen and the fireplace, both topped with soapstone, one of my favorite natural materials for residential use.



This is where refreshment and silent auction tables were set up. I don’t know how many people were there during our visit, but this space is so large, it can hold hundreds. Compare that to our tiny backyard that gets crowded when just ten people visit.


The next photo is emblematic of how I feel about this property. This mono culture of ‘Blackbird’ euphorbia (Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’) and ‘Baby Bliss’ flax lily (Dianella revoluta ‘Baby Bliss’) may sound good from a design standpoint and may even look good in a magazine, but it just doesn’t do it for me in a garden real people live in.


Overall, I liked this garden and I felt comfortable while I was there. However, if it were my property, I’d soften some of the overly designed elements to make it truly mine. And of course I’d plant lots of agaves and other landscape succulents. There is more than enough room for an entire desert garden, which would use a fraction of the water that the enormous lawn uses.



  1. I'd say about half of what they've planted is going to fry to a crisp once the summer gets going- was the landscape architect from the bay area, I wonder? Sue

    1. The landscape designer is from Davis. I agree, some of the plants will not look great come October.

  2. The planting is very regimented, nice hard landscaping though!

  3. Do you think the Japanese maple is new too? It surely isn't going to enjoy the full summer sun, is it? I think I agree with you -- looks good in some photos, but being in the space would feel like a letdown.

    1. Everything looked new. I agree, the Japanese maple is too exposed. It will NOT like baking in the full sun when it gets to 100°F+.

  4. Doesn't do anything for me, either. The LA is obviously not a plant geek--surprisingly many are not--it's all about the hardscape for them.

    1. You hit the nail on the head with what you said about the hardscape. I couldn't agree more.


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