The Square Patio


For at least a year after moving into this house in June 2001, the steep lower hillside which forms most of the property lay completely inaccessible, buried in an impenetrable jungle of blackberry vines, French broom and ivy. Finally fed up with that state of affairs one day, I dressed in protective clothing and, armed with clippers and shears, cut a tunnel all the way to the bottom. That led to a months-long project of gradually clearing the hillside myself, though at the end I hired a small team of workers to cart out the piles of dead vegetation and carry them away through the neighbor’s yard at the bottom of the hill. The picture reproduced at the top of this post, taken just yesterday, is of a patio I built toward the center of what had once been that impassable thicket. 

About half a century ago, one elderly neighbor tells me, someone had constructed a children’s playhouse on stilts which over time deteriorated and was abandoned. Another neighbor, directly below, described sitting at his desk and looking out the window to watch squirrels and families of raccoons leaping in and out through the playhouse windows. I had always in mind to replace the children’s structure with another, and in fact had even found just the right thing: an elaborate octagonal wooden gazebo with glazed windows and peaked roof which its builder was willing to come and install. But then I thought better of it, and decided that a sunny open patio with room for plants and people alike would be luxury enough on that steep pathless hill, where before one only ventured at the risk of slipping and sliding one’s way to the bottom. You can’t tell in the photo, but the left edge of the patio had to be built up eight feet from the level below. It’s been there nearly a decade now and, unlike some other garden features I’ve built, has shifted hardly at all. I built it to withstand the weight of the fantasized gazebo, which I’d planned to use as a teahouse.

At the center of the photo, at the top of the steps, are three 20 ft. high Leucodendron argenteums, South African natives which arrived here as babies in 1 gallon pots. Blue Pickle (Blue Chalk Stick), or Senecio mandralis, is planted at their feet. The red trumpet flowers hang from a 10 ft. high Cantua buxifolia, the sacred Inca tree native to Bolivia and Peru, and which was adopted as a very unprepossessing 2 ft. stick stuck into a plastic pot at a nursery in Berkeley. The porcelain pots contain various sedums, more cantuas are just visible to the left, and rhododendrons guard either side of the central steps: the one to the left is named ‘Sunup-Sundown’, and appears to have been grafted, since the lower half produces pinkish-red flowers and the upper half yellow. A Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ rises above the high wooden planter to the right (see photo at bottom of this post), and some Helleborus ‘Onyx Odyssey’, which produce purple flowers so dark they are almost black, live at the base of a somewhat rusty piece of garden art to the right, gift of a relative now deceased.  A variegated-leafed rhododendron from Sonoma Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol, where you can bring your picnic lunch and enjoy it under a vast canopy of native oaks in a forest of flowering trees, is in the corner at bottom left. Meanwhile, I’m glad I took the photo yesterday. Today I’m back to dense San Francisco fog and all manner of tasks and projects waiting at my desk. 


                            Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, a South African native.