Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.

A modernist house with a meadow in San Francisco Bay

A modernist house in northern California’s San Francisco Bay Area offered landscape architects Surfacedesign the opportunity to create a series of terraces or courts that lead down from a olive orchard at the entrance, via a series of ascending levels of planting, defined by basalt and Corten steel walls, to a stunning Californian meadow. Photographs by Richard Bloom

Northern California remains one of the world’s most exciting regions for landscape design, not least because it is possessed of numerous clients who want to experiment with naturalistic plantings on a large scale, usually set in a modernist architectural milieu. Surfacedesign is one of a number of San Francisco practices currently riding high on this wave of confidence. At this three-acre rural property outside the small town of Woodside, on the inland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Surfacedesign was asked to create a garden of contrasting character around a new single-storey house complex (designed by architects Olson Kundig) that consists of a number of discrete pavilions arranged on a cruciform plan.

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Villa Pisani Scalabrin
© Jason Ingram

The entrance drive sets up the farm atmosphere, threading through a grove of some 60 characterful, 150-year-old olive trees (a decommissioned orchard, acquired and then transplanted here). These are underplanted with lavender and specimens of the dwarf olive Olea europaea Little Ollie (= ‘Montra’) echoing the canopy above. Then there is a shock: the entrance court is planted up with what is described as a ‘museum’ of cactus and succulent species set amid rocks. There is further intrigue from the sound of water – emanating from a number of raised pools set in the courts around the building complex. Banks of Equisetum hyemale line the pools, set against Corten steel walls with a ridged texture. Near the house the garden is set out in a series of terraces or courts, set on ascending levels, all loosely delineated by means of steps and low walls. Read more about the garden below.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

Terraces of Corten steel planted with Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, Stachys byzantina, Artemisia schmidtiana and Cerastium tomentosum rise up to a micro-vineyard next to the guest house, which forms the last of the courtyard pavilions facing the house.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

Muhlenbergia capillaris Regal Mist (= ‘Lenca’), seen here in the foreground, forms drifts of colour and movement, while Juncus effusus, Juncus patens ‘Carman’s Gray’ and Siberian irises ‘Caesar’s Brother’ and ‘Sky Wings’ line the drainage swale.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

A basalt wall separates the more formal courtyards from the meadow, where Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’, in the foreground, along with Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ and Cistus x skanbergii add long-lasting colour.

Discover the key structural meadow plants

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

The striking modernist house sits in stark contrast to the natural meadow that links the courtyards of the house to the native woodland beyond. Large windows offer the master bedroom on the lower level, wide views out of this mass of colourful perennial planting.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

The swimming pool’s infinity ledge allows bathers a view out over the meadow where the columnar hornbeams (Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine’) create a sense of structure with what the designers describe as their almost human-like appearance.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

Massed Equisetum hyemale is set against Corten walls on either side of a Corten steel gate. The upright nature of the rush mirrors the gate’s narrow but deep pickets, which make it appear virtually transparent when you are standing in front of it but solid when it is seen at an angle.

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

The entrance drive winds through a 150-year-old olive orchard, transplanted to the property. The olive trees are underplanted with rows of Lavandula x intermedia Phenomenal (= ‘Niko) and a dwarf olive tree,  Olea europaea Little Ollie (= ‘Montra’).

Private Woodside garden designed by Surface Design Inc. California, USA.
© Richard Bloom

This section of the ‘cactus museum’, is dedicated to grey-blue and silvery cacti and succulents, including from left Cereus repandus ‘Monstrosus’, Agave ‘Blue Glow’, Agave ‘Sharkskin Shoes’ and Cleistocactus strausii. The wider cacti collection can be glimpsed through the opening.

For more on the best structural meadow plants to have, head to our feature on the best plants for a meadow.

Learn how to design a meadow here.

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Find out more about Surfacedesign’s work at sdisf.com