Ellen Frank's “tropical dry climate fusion” garden

Last Sunday I joined the California Horticultural Society (CalHort) on a tour of three gardens in the East Bay. One of them was the garden of Ellen Frank, a former president of CalHort. In her own words:
I’ve been in my house almost eleven years and working piecemeal to its present state. It originally had Pfizer junipers all in the front with a narrow race track path around the house.  Inside the courtyard (front yard/backyard) was a lawn next to the racetrack path with a straight wood retaining wall keeping my uphill neighbor’s yard from spilling into my space.  
Troy McGregor [whose garden was also on the tour] gave me a consultation early on. [...] 
My lot is small, something in the neighborhood of 5,000 square feet. Today the garden is a mish-mash of plants, but mainly a tropical dry climate fusion (kind of an oxymoron and that is why I have such a problem watering). You can’t confine a plant person to one type of plant, and I’ve gone through my phases of plant collecting, but at the moment, I have succulents, bromeliads, a little collection of begonias (mainly taking over the kitchen), and my dry collection by the street with South African bulbs and some California natives.
Ellen's words struck a chord with me, seeing how I also combine plants from a variety of geographical and climatic areas. “Fusion” may not seem like a big word, but it's become an important concept for me. That's why I'm always eager to see what kinds of plants other gardeners choose to combine, and how they do it.

Front garden. The driveway is on the right. The opening/passageway you see in the 2 o'clock position leads to the back garden.

Ellen's lot is near the top of a hill, with views of the Martinez harbor. The area you see in the photo above was covered with junipers when Ellen bought the house. Now it's a mix of native and climate-appropriate shrubs and trees as well as a patio with a low wall enclosing it.

Plantings along the driveway (right)

A simple, yet brilliant idea I'm totally going to copy: old XL-sized drill bits as sculptural elements

The curved metal panel with the house number covers the electric meter and circuit breaker boxes. It was made by Ellen herself after she took a welding class. I love the design. 

Agave stricta (-ish) and Trachelospermum asiaticum 'Summer Sunset'

First patio "room"

Rocks hand-painted by Ellen decorate many containers

Ginkgo, toyon and protea—three totally different plants from three continents, yet they look great together 

Protea (not sure which species/cultivar) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

A particularly vibrant flapjack (Kalanchoe luciae)

This may not be everyone's style, but seeing art in a garden always brings a smile to my face because it reflects the homeowner's personality

Intimate seating area in front of the house

The metal table caught my eye immediately. I thought Ellen might have made it herself, but it turns out she bought it at Orchard Supply Hardware of all places (OSH is closing its doors by the end of the year in case you haven't heard).

Seating under a majestic olive tree. This area is around the side of the house; the Martinez waterfront is off to the left.

The gravel path you see in the photo above leads around the back of the house into the back garden. But we'll enter the back garden through the passageway you saw in the first photo at the top of this post. The garage is on the right, the house on the left.

I wish more houses had a covered passageway like that. It's a great space to shelter plants from the elements.

Many bromeliads are right at home in a place like this

More garden art amid lush foliage

Chimney flue liners are a great way to add height

This epiphyllum flower was a big surprise
A vibrant mix of foliage plants 

I didn't even realize this bird is made of spoons and forks until somebody pointed it out

This was my favorite plant/art combo

Weeping persimmon tree

There's always an agave somewhere!

Wide-angle view of the back garden looking toward the house. The passageway we used to enter is on the left.

Snowy River wattle (Acacia boormanii) and more agaves.

Tree euphorbia (formerly Euphorbia lambii, now Euphorbia bourgeana)

Mosaic stepping stones. If you follow the gravel path I pointed out in the photo of the olive tree, you enter the back garden through here.

Crystal ornaments in the tree catching the sun

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum) and Farfugium japonicum 'Giganteum' behind the pond

Different angle

Another Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'

Leaf-print stepping stone and Neoregelia

Metal orb decorating the native-grass "lawn"

Ellen's garden is unique. It's a reflection of her personality and style, and therefore entirely her own. It doesn't matter if not everybody loves the plants or decorations she has chosen. This isn't a public space that has to appeal to a wide range of tastes; it's Ellen's, and hers alone. I love it when a gardener throws all restraints over board and expresses herself so fully. All of us should be more footloose and fancy-free!

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  1. I couldn't agree more: "I love it when a gardener throws all restraints over board and expresses herself so fully. All of us should be more footloose and fancy-free!" Plus having visited over the last few years it was a real treat to see how she'd bent every inch of her lot to her footloose, fancy-free will .. and in the falling-down season no less!

    1. That's great to hear. Looking forward to visiting Ellen's garden again down the line.

  2. I like this. It is fresh and stimulating. It says: my garden, my way.

  3. Lots of great elements! Seeing an agave at the edge of a pool seemed strange, but it's better than what grows at the edge of my pond! (Also: XL drill bits in that style are called "auger bits")

    1. I know! We don't associate agaves with water. I love seeing surprising agave combinations for that very reason.

      Auger bits! Always good to know what something is called. I often refuse help at the hardware store simply because I don't know what the proper name is of the thing I'm looking for.

  4. It's clear she loves plants. I really liked the snowy Acacia, which isn't a variety I can remember seeing before. The covered passageway is perfect - wide enough not to be claustrophobic and well adorned with wonderful plants.

  5. Agree completely about covered walkways/breezeways -- best-of-both-worlds spaces, outdoors but with level, dry surfaces. Even nicer with a comfortable place to sit, as Ellen's has.

  6. Glad to see you were practical and went on a garden tour instead of another plant sale, lol.

  7. Fun mix of choice plants--my kind of garden.


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