Small Space Gardens and the Influence of Modernism

Spending as much time as I do with landscape designers, I’ve got small garden spaces on the brain — specifically in areas that are adjacent to the house, condo, or apartment. Many people don’t have more space to work with than a porch or terrace. And if they do have more space, they tend to spend most of their time close to the house anyway. To address these realities, we’ve been talking to landscape designers and architects and listening to their ideas about the best way to design with plants in these areas.

Modern gardens are often little gardens

We spoke with Charles Birnbaum, President and Founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, seeking his insight on gardens that are enclosed by or right next to the house’s architecture. That topic is relevant to one of his areas of expertise: the history of modern gardens. He reminded us of Thomas Church and the other greats of modernism.

“Look at Church’s career, or Garrett Eckbo or Robert Royston. All of them got their start doing small, in-town enclosed garden spaces.”

He noted that, as their ambitions grew, they abandoned those for major landscapes, like public spaces. However, the principles that had driven them early on influenced not just their large projects but the way designers handle small gardens now, seventy or more years later.

The houses and gardens of modernism were designed to work together, to flow into each other. This way, the people living there could experience a connection with the outdoors when they were inside, and the safety and comfort of home when they were outside.

You need a plan

Laura Livingston, a landscape contractor who installed the restoration of Church’s design for the garden at Castro Adobe in Watsonville, California, notes how functional the garden is.

“We followed the original plan closely, based on research done by landscape architect Pam-Anela Messenger. The garden was designed strictly for residential use, but now that fundraising for Castro Adobe is a consideration, events are held in the garden to raise money for the remainder of the house’s restoration,” explains Livingston. “We didn’t make changes to the garden to allow for events, but because it’s such a good garden, it works. That’s the thing about Church, his gardens allowed for so many possibilities for how the space would be used.

Keep it tight

The garden also shows how tightly Church’s projects were tethered to the architecture. Cork oaks that he placed in close proximity to the house are now mature. When you relax on a bench in the garden, you look toward the house and see light filtering through the tree branches.

“It’s clear that he thought about that view, not just the vantage point from the house out to the garden,” says Livingston.

The St. Francis bird bath is placed in the original location, on axis with a path leading from the house to benches. This very simple, elegant garden, first constructed between 1968 and 1972, has all the trappings of a garden any of us would hope to have today. It has trees for shade, flowering plants to tend, places to sit, walk and play — all within a stone’s throw of the indoors.

Small but mighty

Church’s emphasis on the act of gardening is what distinguishes this garden (and his others) from a landscape. It was never meant to be about “low maintenance.” A landscaper herself, Livingston often installs a fairly narrow palette of landscape plants, so she was struck by the detailed plant list (most of which were chosen by Church’s client Mrs. Potter) that she chased down for the installation.

“There are particular varieties of iris that were used, and I was only able to find two or three out of ten, as well as certain roses, narcissus, lavenders, and an apricot tree. Plant names change, patents get lost or expire, and this makes it really hard to track down the varieties,” she explains. “The plan also called for the use of seeds, which you hardly ever see anymore. It was obvious that the goal wasn’t to make a low-maintenance garden. It has to be taken care of.”

Here’s a question: How do these snippets of wisdom about the garden at Castro Adobe relate back to your postage stamp of a garden?

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Anna - March 4, 2015

You said dialectic! I’m in.

Jan Johnsen - March 6, 2015

Great article! I am installing a small landscape outside a mid-century home right now (fashion designer owner). Contact me if you are interested in photos…

Diane J - March 19, 2015

I find the story of Laura Livingston tracking down Church’s original plantings list fascinating. I can’t imagine how difficult it may have been yet probably is very rewarding.

    Sarah Ristorcelli - March 19, 2015

    She was dedicated! In the end, there were some plants she couldn’t find but those were substituted with lookalikes so the garden would be as close as possible to the original.

    Pam-Anela Messenger - May 20, 2015

    I am compelled to clarify some things here. I was commissioned by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks to prepare the documents for the restoration of the Potter garden at the Castro Adobe in 2011. Through researching documents given to me by FSCSP, including Elizabeth Potter’s detailed garden notes and photographs from the Potter family and Edna Kimbro, who lived in the house after the Potters, I developed the restoration plan. MOST of the plants were originally selected by Mrs. Potter, NOT by Church. She chose and ordered the Irises, roses and almost all the other shrubs and perennials. Tommy recommended the Cork Oaks, Citrus, some Marguerites, Choisya, and Raphiolepis. It was typical of Church to specify structural planting along with hardscape elements and leave the filling in of decorative plants to the client. That’s exactly what he did for the Potters. Mrs. Potter’s garden notebook had shopping lists for specific perennials, roses, irises and flowering shrubs. Church was consulted about locations for fruit trees. My 91-page report covers all this in detail. I have been researching Church’s work since I met him in 1971 and have restored many of his gardens. Tommy did not have favorite irises. He was partial to geraniums!

      Sarah Ristorcelli - July 5, 2015

      Thank you for your clarifications Pam-Anela. I’ve updated the post to reflect what you’ve shared here.

        Pam-Anela Messenger - July 7, 2015

        The garden at the Castro Adobe was officially dedicated on June 28th at a very nice Stewardship Dinner. I posted a few images on my Facebook page and on LinkedIn.

Sandra Watts - April 2, 2015

I would love to get some landscaping done around my home. We have a large yard but so much of it is grown over. I think it will take a lot of work to get it looking nice again.

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