19 Jun San Francisco Chronicle (Home & Garden)
An author’s garden of eatin’
Designer solves Michael Pollan’s dilemma
turning a problematic yard into a lush retreat
By Tracey Taylor
SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE
(Photos by Mike Kepka/The Chronicle)
Unlike the architect whose house has a perpetually leaking roof, or the cobbler whose shoes need mending, Michael Pollan has a new garden that speaks of a professional who practices what he preaches. For the author and journalism professor – who has almost single-handedly set the national agenda on food production and, in books such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” advocated vigorously for fresh, locally produced food — has a front yard that is at once pleasing to the eye, environmentally responsible and very productive.
When Pollan and his wife, artist Judith Belzer, moved to a new home in Berkeley three years ago, they inherited a garden with good intentions but flawed execution. Sited in front of the house, and measuring barely 600 square feet, its design had attempted to accommodate five separate gates leading variously to the street, the driveway, a bike shelter and a side entrance.
Although a kidney-shaped plant bed had been established, the principal element was a curved pathway that swept visitors in and then directly out of the yard, largely ignoring both the generous front porch entrance to the home and the French doors leading into what is now a beautifully renovated kitchen.
“Circulation was definitely an issue,” says Pollan, who adds that the area is also heavily trafficked. “It was important that we had a kitchen garden, but we also wanted it to be beautiful — it’s where guests come in, and we walk through it all the time to take out the trash or compost.”
While the family hoped the modest, fenced-in yard could serve as a place for social gatherings, there were to be no airs and graces. Belzer in particular stressed that the area should not be too stylized — rather she favored a lush but relaxed setting where the couple, their teenage son and their friends would want to spend a lot of time.
Conceding that it was a tall order, the couple asked Bernardo Lopez,
a Berkeley landscape designer who has earned a reputation for good-looking gardens that do more than nod to environmental concerns, to rethink the space.
Simple, bountiful, beautiful
Lopez began by imposing some structure on the hexagonal-shaped space to delineate areas by function and to improve the garden’s flow. A black basalt stone patio, edged in a crescent of Cor-Ten steel, was laid adjacent to the kitchen to create an outdoor eating area. An existing cement wall was used to anchor a deep recycled redwood bench that provides additional opportunities for sitting or lounging.
Steps from the patio lead down into a courtyard, at the heart of which are three beautiful raised beds crafted in Ipe wood and currently bursting with late-season produce. Sand-colored pathways created with crushed decomposed granite, and edged in steel, lead visitors seamlessly around the beds to the home’s different entrances.
A bench for bags
For those arriving from the driveway, perhaps with groceries, a second redwood bench has been judiciously sited in a spot that provides a convenient place to put down heavy bags. It also creates a demarcated route to the kitchen.
On a late-autumn day, the beds are filled with bountiful peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, chard, kale, mustard greens, broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce and arugula. Lopez says that over the summer, sunflowers and sweet corn plants soared to dizzying heights, as if in competition to reach the sky.Herbs sown in planters supplement those growing in the beds and include basil, parsley and cilantro. Pots of mint, lemon verbena and lemon balm have been placed close to the house for easy access when preparing teas and infusions.
The raised beds have been designed to double as seating, and they surround a central circular space whose centerpiece is a large antique Indian cooking vessel, which Lopez and Pollan bought on a shopping spree in Sonoma.Pollan says they regularly grill food outside now. In fact, he is planning to cook a suckling pig there when a friend and fellow writer comes to town in a couple of weeks. He is also exploring having a rotisserie element tailor-made to augment his chef’s arsenal.Lopez has planted every remaining square foot of the yard with a generous assortment of beautiful, drought-resistant plants. “It was a given we wanted to preserve water, and we chose Bernardo partly because he understands xeriscaping so well,” Pollan says.There are succulents, many of them South African in origin, and several varieties of grasses. Lopez uses repetition in the plants and materials he chooses. He says, it helps to create a dialogue in a garden and convey a sense of cohesiveness.
Stylish in winter, too
He also has an eye for plants that look good year round. “Flowers can come and go in a few weeks,” he says. “But there are many plants whose shapes, leaves and coloring are stunning in their own right.”A few of the garden’s highlights include a chartreuse gooseberry hybrid, Senecio mandraliscae with its distinctive curved finger-like leaves, a Melianthus major with its spiked reddish-brown blooms and lime-hued foliage, several types of Leucadendrons, some saw-tooth-edged Banksias, Eryngium giganteum, or sea holly, from the thistle family and a fleshy Kalanchoe whose home is a striking Cor-Ten steel planter.Lopez showed the same appreciation for the architecture of plants in the way he pruned back the foliage on the lower trunks of two existing climbing plants: a South African honeysuckle that wraps itself languorously over one of the garden’s Craftsman-style trellises; and a lovely wisteria that adorns the home’s facade. He took out a rampant climbing passion flower on the principle that, sometimes, “less is more.”The yard already boasted persimmon and fig trees, and Lopez added an apricot tree that is espaliered in front of a window to provide shade and privacy.
The overall palette is subtle: a blend of silvers and salmons, sages and gray-greens with the occasional shot of muted color such as the icy pink artichoke-like flowers on an exotic-looking protea.”Design is not a nonstop train. We added some elements as we worked and got to know the garden,” says Lopez, who introduced some space that wasn’t on the original blueprint to ensure the courtyard didn’t feel crowded.The result has exceeded all of Pollan and Belzer’s expectations. “We love spending time there,” Pollan says. “And when we have parties, guests always want to linger in the garden—we can’t persuade them to come inside. We couldn’t be happier.”