Berkeley-based designer turns Petaluma yard into colorful sanctuary

It was a lavish “Panoramic Haven” in the Oakland Hills with 270 degree views of the San Francisco Bay and beyond that won Nina Mullen the title of Landscape Designer of the Year.

The Professional Landscape Designers, a national association, singled out the Berkeley-based designer for a Gold Medal and the top award. But some of the same principles that Mullen applied to that large and breathtaking project can be applied to a small yard as well, as evidenced by a Petaluma project she completed last year.

With the East Bay estate, Mullen’s challenge, as she puts it, was to “invigorate a moribund lawn,” into a design with a sense of “social focus” that was also easy to maintain and low on water use.

She did the same, but on a much more modest scale, for Petalumans Debra Lamfers and Don Scott Macdonald. The couple had let the lawn in front of their mid-century era house die.

“It was too expensive to water. And we didn’t feel right watering it,” Lamfers said. “But we didn’t know where to go with it. That’s why we left it for a couple of summers.”

Beyond the lawn, there weren’t many redeeming features. There were some high maintenance and ailing birch trees, some roses, a few low olives that made up a hedge, a Japanese maple. But nothing quite fit together.

“You have this composed garden. It’s a lawn and usually foundation shrubs. But when you take it out, how then do you use that space? How do you break it up in a way that makes sense and has structure? It’s challenging,” Mullen said. “That’s when it becomes important to work with the designer, because they understand how to bring that structure in - both visual structure and functional structure.”

That’s where Mullen could help. She played with the puzzle pieces, figuring out what to keep and what to rip out and what to plant in its place. The result is a front yard with year-round color and texture that is infinitely more interesting visually than a thirsty lawn.

One of the first to go were the birch trees. Planted more than 30 years ago, they weren’t thriving.

“Birch trees are not the best choice for California In terms of water-wise plants,” Mullen said. “They need a lot of water plus they have surface roots that can mess with pavement and sewer lines.” Lanfers said they also required a special treatment every year to protect them from birch borers.

Mullen spared a couple but removed three that were dying. Mullen kept the olive trees, that were serving as hedge in a line. Mullen removed two, kept two and added a new one, creating a more pleasing balance.

“When I as a designer get a blank space it’s easy I can do whatever. But we had to work with existing plant material and then choose to match it, bringing in some new plants that would look good with what we had,” Mullen said.

The house, built in 1950, had jasmine all around it. But it was so foundational to the yard, it wasn’t easily replaceable.

“I try to be judicious when I’m working with a space, whether to keep things, whether it’s hardscape or softscape. The minute you take something out you’re having to replace it,” Mullen said. “Can you replace it with something better or is what you have basically working and can you pull it in? I felt like we could make the jasmine work. It’s a backdrop.”

It also served to cover some brickwork that bordered the now-absent lawn. Before it had been more tight like a hedge. Mullen kept it, but let it softly creep over the older hardscape, saving on the cost of removing it while creating a more natural and flowing effect.

Mullen gave the couple a list of potential plants that would work well in the space but that also were low maintenance and water-wise. They went to a wholesale nursery to look in person and see what appealed to them.

They wanted some touches of lavender. But one of the more striking plants in the landscape is a mass of striking Berberis ‘Rose Glow.’ Also known as Japanese Barberry, this plant offers a lot of bang for the buck, with year-round color that turns an intense pinkish rose in fall. It contrasts well with the Sesleria ‘Campo Azul’ or Blue Moor Grass, with upright gray green pale clumps up to two-feet tall and wide gray-green leaf blades in the middle.

“It’s a great grass because when it gets to be fall in California and everything is getting golden brown and tawny brown, it has similar color to the hills we have here,” Mullen said.

She applied this same approach to her gold award-winning garden in the Oakland hills.

“We had a major hillside and we needed a garden that matched with the natural look, as opposed to something bright green, when everything around is golden brown, because that is visually disconnected,” Mullen said. “I’m always looking for coherence in gardens - coherence in structure but also with the colors and the architectural of the house.”

Along a wall is a species coleonma, which produces pink flowers. But Lanfers and Macdonald were mainly looking for a toned down palette, and there are other ways to bring color into a landscape that don’t involve bright annuals and fancy blooms.

“The garden Debra and Don really talked about wanting is one with subtle colors and textural change. Not so much plants with really architectural structure or a lot of flowers. Flowers are secondary.” But things like the lavender and purple Russian Sage serve as color notes.

Lanfers said she loves her new yard so much more. Now, she said, when she looks out her front window, the view is captivating, no matter what the season.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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