6 Ways to Amp Up a Natural Setting

See how a modern home went wild around the edges in a hat-tip to its creekside setting

Johanna Silver
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A study in contrasts

For years, Marleen Zwiers had a design crush on a modern home in her Menlo Park, California, neighborhood. Then one day, a friend called: “Your house is for sale!” That afternoon, Zwiers and her husband, Arthur van Hoff, put in an offer. The house, built in 2006, had the minimalist aesthetic Zwiers loved, but the backyard—which edged a creek—presented a challenge. The existing ho-hum lawn wasn’t working, but landscape architect Keith Willig didn’t want to mimic the creek area either. “There’s no way to duplicate a natural setting,” he says. Instead, he played it up through contrast. He used structural plants and extended the home’s architectural geometry into the yard, loosening up the design toward the perimeter. Now Zwiers’s crush extends to the yard, which changes with the seasons. “The succulent blooms come and go; the grasses get big seed plumes,” she says. “It feels like a work of art.”

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Creekside setting

The 7,342-square-foot garden runs along the San Francisquito Creek on a diagonal. The main deck is just outside the family’s living room, with a path leading to a more open gathering area around the corner.

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Form & function

Lacy-leafed birch trees provide privacy for the master bath; asparagus ferns (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’) are planted
underneath. Agaves (Agave ‘Blue Glow’) in the circular bed are widely spaced to allow for growth and show off their structural shapes.

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Breaking barriers

Willig tore out the fence between the garden and the creek to open up the view, making the garden feel much bigger. He then extended the black slate floor inside the home to the outdoors and laid an ipe wood deck flush with the slate. The orange accents pop against the earthy backdrop. “I support orange in the garden,” he says. “It’s not too hot or too cold.”

Montego sofa, chair, and cocktail table, .

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Low water, high impact

At the outer edge of the yard, Willig blurred the line between the garden and riparian habitat using a range of water-wise perennials and ornamental grasses. These include tall blue-green Euphorbia characias wulfenii (in back); green and yellow variegated Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ (creating a fountainlike effect in the middle); and compact bronze P. ‘Jack Spratt’ and Carex tumulicola, which forms mounded blue-green tufts at the bed’s edge. “I’ve yet to turn on my sprinkler system this year,” says Zwiers.

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Soaking in style

A wood-fired portable hot tub is tucked into a nook in the corner of the garden outside the couple’s bedroom. “We can almost step into it right from our room,” says Zwiers.

Dutch Tub, for stores.

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Graphic materials

A wide path filled with taffy gravel winds around the beds, dotted with concrete pavers that look like cross sections of eucalyptus logs (from San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Gardens). Tightly packed rosettes of Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ and Mexican beach pebbles fill a rectangular bed. Succulents and cactus stand out against the home’s cedar siding.

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Stylish lounge

A mix of casual seating surrounds an in-ground firepit in the most secluded part of the garden. Situated under the canopy of an existing eucalyptus, it's the perfect place to enjoy some piece, listen to bird calls, and, at night, roast s'mores. Fermob's orange Sixties chairs add a playful touch, echoed by the decorative ceramic globes nestled together in the planting bed. Grouped together, wooden stumps are sculptural when not in use and double as stools or beer-rests for gatherings. Unifying the wood, a lounge chair awaits anyone looking for relaxation.


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