Gardens of the Year: Grand Prize Winner

GOY 64-65

Tapestry On View

Color and texture highlight this landscape creation

DESPITE A DECADE OF CARE, Elisabeth and Bo Matthys’ lawn had become an “ugly brown carpet.” Roots from a row of California pepper trees gradually had stretched beneath it, stealing water from the thirsty turf. “It looked terrible,” says Elisabeth, who eyed the struggling grass daily from the kitchen window of her Poway home. “I wanted a view of something pretty.” 

Two years ago, the retired Belgium-born couple stopped watering. As they stripped the lawn down to bare dirt, they began collecting succulents for a new drought-tolerant garden. Avid “putterers,” they had replaced lawn lining a patio outside the living room but weren’t totally happy with the result. “We needed a plan for this project,” says Bo, a former engineer.

Linda Bresler agreed. The Poway landscape designer was working for a neighbor of the Matthys when the couple initially asked her to help “set out the hundreds of potted plants” they had accumulated. “The garden needed structure,” says Bresler, owner of Living Designs by Linda.

Working with the couple and the plants on site, Bresler shaped the flat 70-by-55-foot plot into curved beds, walkways and a patio open to sweeping vistas north across verdant Maderas Golf Club to the mountains beyond. “Bo and Elisabeth are very hands-on, so I wanted to make a garden they could enjoy and easily maintain,” Bresler says.

The pepper trees stayed; their lacy leaves obscured homes to the west and added dappled shade welcome on hot summer days. So did several palms, but new plants for the most part would be 3 feet tall or less, planted in undulating ribbons for visual interest without blocking the view.

“I love color and contrasting textures,” Bresler says of the resulting tapestry garden that weaves together succulents and other drought-tolerant shrubs she tests in a 2-acre “laboratory garden” around her own home. “I focus on foliage. Blooms are a bonus.”

As the Matthys discovered when they tried to create this effect, it takes what Bresler believes is an “artist’s eye.” “I draw attention to certain plants and repeat them to carry you visually through the garden,” she says. 

Bold plants like inky ‘Zwartkop’ aeoniums, glowing ‘Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia and red-striped phormiums are emphasized throughout the garden, often clustered for impact. Rivers of cool- blue chalk fingers (Senecio) and hot-hued Crassula ‘Campfire’ flow through and around beds. Along with flagstone paths edged in ‘Elfin’ thyme, they draw the landscape together.

Carefully selected exclamation points include the Seussian tree aloe (Aloe barberae or A. bainesii), ringed by crimson-flowered crown of thorns, and the arched yellow-green octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana). “They help anchor the garden,” Bresler says. 

Whether viewed from their upstairs bedroom or a shaded garden bench, colorful plant combos delight the Matthys. “It’s so pretty,” says Elisabeth. “I like that they all come together to create a beautiful whole.”  

One vivid bed sparkles with variegated cream and green ‘Sunburst’ aeoniums, red-tipped paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae), ruffled rosy echeverias and soft chartreuse ‘Angelina’ sedums. Another blends mounds of green-eyed ‘Plum Purdy’ aeoniums, reddish aloe rosettes, bronze pork and beans and cheery sundrops (Calylophus).

Another pairing — ice plant (Oscularia) and Calandrinia grandiflora — surprised the Matthys when they bloomed for weeks earlier this year. “There hasn’t been a month since we installed this garden that there hasn’t been something in flower,” Elisabeth says.

Besides succulents, the Matthys’ garden includes some of Bresler’s favorite drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs. Among them are ‘Petite Butterflies’ dwarf sweetpea shrub with year-round mauve flowers, ‘Little John’ bottlebrush with gray-green leaves and scarlet blooms in winter, variegated Burrow Silver’ euphorbia and dwarf variegated hebe with purple flower spikes.

Many other perennials salvaged when the lawn was removed — agapanthus, pelargoniums and ferns — now thrive beneath the pepper trees. Taking advantage of the shady spot, the Matthys added a vibrant row of bromeliads with burgundy, green and cream striped leaves.

Inspired by the success of this garden, the Matthys are replicating it in a new entry garden and plantings up a steep bank on the south side of the 1-acre property. Much of the new landscape was grown from cuttings snipped a few at a time from succulents in Bresler’s design.

While just a year old, that garden has become a family favorite, the couple says. A recent gathering with their four children and four grandchildren ended on the new patio as the sun was setting. Colors seemed to pop in the waning light and “everyone wanted to be out in this garden,” Elisabeth says. “There’s no doubt,” Bo adds, “having Linda do a plan was the best investment we’ve made.” 

Gardens of the Year: Grand Prize
By: Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand 

Categories: Gardening